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Friday, September 24, 2021

UF provides updates after 21 students were robbed in South Africa

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Although no students were physically harmed while being robbed at gunpoint on a UF-sanctioned trip to South Africa, the university is preparing to provide treatment for emotional damage.

The university is working to provide more counseling resources for the Lombardi & Stamps Scholarship program students upon their return from South Africa, Mark Law, director of the UF Honors Program, wrote in an email.

The University of Pretoria provided immediate counseling services to the students after Monday’s incident in Pretoria, South Africa. UF also reached out to its Counseling and Wellness Center to ensure support to any participants’ needs upon return.

“We’re relieved that they are physically safe, but we want to ensure they have access to counseling if they need it,” Law said.

Three UF students are still in the process of returning to the U.S. after the robbery, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando. The 18 remaining students will continue the program as planned –– staying until May 26.

The students from the incident are in the Lombardi & Stamps Scholarship program, part of the UF Honors Program. They were accompanied by UF faculty member Todd Leedy and Honors Program staff Regan Garner.

Both Leedy and Garner have been communicating updates to the university, Orlando said.

Leedy told Orlando Wednesday that the students in the program went into the school they were visiting to calm the kindergarten children inside immediately after the robbery.

In response to the incident, the university will be evaluating this program and its location. This is the first major issue to occur on the South Africa trip, which has been held every two years since 2009, said Susanne Hill, executive director of the UF International Center.

“This is a very, very unusual incident,” she said.

UF study abroad programs are generally safe, in many cases safer than Gainesville, Hill said. Most of the issues students face involve petty theft, like losing a wallet or cell phone.

To prepare for these situations, UF presents pre-departure orientations for faculty and students going on these programs, she said. For the South Africa program, the faculty orientation occured in April.

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An emergency response handbook is shown at the orientation, and provided online, she said. A phone tree is established, which shows who needs to be called depending on the severity of the situation -- this can range from UFIC assistant director to the U.S. Embassy.

In this situation, the U.S. Embassy was immediately contacted.

“Once we hear of an emergency, we establish these phone trees very, very quickly,” Hill said.

They also establish who is going to answer to the media if necessary –– in this case, it is UF spokesperson Steve Orlando.

Parents are also given updates, and for the situation in South Africa, the university is currently sending updates to the parents as it receives information from onsite faculty.

“We try to communicate as best as we can with with everybody involved,” Hill said. “Including parents of course, who are understandably very, very anxious.”

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