As civil unrest swept Egypt in early 2011, officials at the University of Minnesota believed they had plucked all their students from the country -- until a call came in to Stacey Tsantir, the university's director of international health, safety and compliance.
A colleague told her about an article in The New York Times that quoted a University of Minnesota student who was stuck in Cairo's airport, Tsantir said. "We said, 'Surely, he's not our student.'"
As it turns out, the student was from the school -- and enrolled in 17 credits of independent study. But unlike the three students who were evacuated under established policies and procedures, there was no record he had even left campus, Tsantir said, noting that the university urges faculty members to report student travel. After contacting the student, Tsantir called his mother.
"The first words out of her mouth were, 'I didn't think anyone cared about my son,' " said Tsantir. "If that's not close to my worst nightmare, I don't know what is."
The student eventually made it home, Tsantir said. But the incident underscores one of the reasons officials in higher education across the U.S. have been strengthening their oversight of international travel -- especially of students and professors traveling in small numbers outside of traditional study abroad programs.
Recent crises -- from political turmoil in the Middle East to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan -- have driven home the risks, according to college officials. But officials also know that anything can happen anywhere -- horror stories abound -- and they never know when or why they might need to contact students or professors overseas.