UF students robbed at gunpoint during South Africa trip

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A group of University of Florida students, who were robbed at gunpoint during a trip to South Africa, say they are thankful to be alive.

UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said 21 students, a professor, and a staff member traveled abroad to Pretoria, South Africa last week as part of the Lombardi and Stamps scholarship program.

Monday, they boarded a bus to visit a school in a township. As their bus went through a security gate, another car with six gunmen inside followed them through. When they got off the bus, the armed men followed them into a school and ambushed them, robbing them of their belongings in a classroom full of children, Orlando said.

“My first thought was a bit of disbelief, honestly, that it was happening,” said Todd Leedy, the professor overseeing the students on the trip.

None of them were hurt, but the violence wasn’t over.

“The gunmen left, and as they were leaving, some of the local residents went to help our students and, in the process, the gunmen turned and fired some shots at the local residents,” said Orlando.

The two South African good Samaritans are recovering from their injuries, Orlando said.

Student Maya Barrett of Tampa posted on Facebook about the robbery, sharing how the community comforted them. Her post read, in part, “We had people hugging us, feeding us, and apologizing even though they had no fault.”

Barrett said in her post that their professor and advisor were brave, adding, “They made me feel safe, even in a time of danger. I’m humbled to have them as our leaders.”

The university said the students and staff were all trained on safety and risks before the three-week trip.

“This was a very unusual event. In fact, in the 10 years that this trip has been happening, this is the first time that anything even remotely like this has ever occurred, so it was quite a surprise,” said Orlando.

Leedy does not want their experience to scare students away from traveling.

“This can happen in many places, but that shouldn't prevent students from wanting to experience other parts of the world,” said Leedy.

Three students decided to come home early, and UF administrators said they are working with the local authorities in South Africa to make that happen.

The rest of the group will finish out their trip and return to Florida at the end of the month.