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The Innocents Abroad

Ten tips for avoiding (or managing) an emergency when your students travel to study at colleges and universities throughout the globe.
University Business, May 2007

FOREIGN TRAVEL AND individual exchange programs have long been accepted as a great way to make the world a smaller place by fostering relationships and cultural understanding on a personal level. But protecting students when they are on the other side of the world isn't always easy to do.

"You can't place your students where they will be free from harm," points out Katharine Krebs, director of international education at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system. However, a little planning can reduce the risks. Here are some safety pointers that administrators and faculty can share with students as well as some actions their institutions can take to help make sure that advice gets followed.

"We won't knowingly send a student into harm's way," says Joe Tullbane, associate dean of international studies at St. Norbert College (Wis.). Checking the travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State is a start; experts say these warnings are mandatory reading for international studies offices. Reports from the Overseas Security Advisory Council-a committee chartered to promote security cooperation between American business and private sector interests worldwide and the U.S. Department of State-and discussions with on-site staff and partner institutions help round out the picture. Many institutions won't run programs in countries under a State Department warning, but others believe in providing participants with as much information as possible and allowing them to make the decision.

Take Israel as a study abroad destination, for instance. The country has been on the State Department's list for 15 years, but St. Norbert's program is in an unaffected area, so Tullbane says he feels comfortable sending students there. Students from Binghamton University can travel to Israel through the program at another SUNY institution, The University at Albany, which has been kept running to accommodate parents' requests.

Parents can have a big influence on a student's country choice. Just as parent requests have kept Albany's Israel program running, they have put a damper on St. Norbert's program at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Tullbane says the campus is very secure, but parents perceive it as a dangerous place, so they won't let their children attend. Although no students have participated recently, there is still a robust faculty exchange.

Lesa Griffiths, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Delaware, says difficulties can arise when parents of study abroad students don't know the geography of an area. They will hear of an incident and worry about their child, who might be miles away. Now when there is an incident anywhere in a country with a UD program, the overseas staff checks in with Griffiths so she has appropriate information in case parents call.

Institutions may even change program locations to prevent participation problems due to parental worries. In 2004, Pitzer College (Calif.) moved a program from Nepal to India because administrators didn't want political tensions decreasing student participation. Managing perceptions is an important part of keeping programs running and keeping people calm in an emergency, say study abroad experts.

Sometimes perception management has to happen on an individual basis, when there isn't an emergency. Penny Schouten, marketing coordinator for study abroad at SUNY, New Paltz, received a call from a mother upset that her son was homeless and sleeping on a beach in Australia. Knowing that the program provides housing, Schouten checked the student's Facebook page and discovered he had left orientation and was traveling solo. She followed up with the on-site coordinator to confirm that the student would receive housing, despite his ditching orientation. She left a message for the mom explaining what she had found out, but the call was never returned.

Orientation is an important part of any program, both before the students leave and after they arrive. "Nineteen- and 20- year-olds think they are immortal," so they don't always listen, notes Carol Brandt, vice president for international programs at Pitzer. Students participating in Pitzer's Costa Rica program in Platanillo used to have the option of wearing snake gaiters to protect them from the terciopela, a large venomous snake that lives on the property at the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology. Now the gear is mandatory.

Binghamton's Krebs says students are more willing to listen to the warnings after they arrive in a foreign country and "start feeling the strangeness." For instance, students traveling in Britain realize it really is hard to remember to look to the right first before crossing the street-despite what they might have thought at first about Krebs' acting like a doting mother.

Orientation programs tend to cover everything from dealing with culture shock and homesickness to study skills and what to pack. It's often helpful to have previous participants discuss their experiences, study abroad coordinators agree. New Paltz maintains a Facebook group online for students to continue discussions.

One concept students find hard to grasp is that blending in-not looking or acting too "American"-can be a good safety measure. They may not want to give up their designer threads, for instance. Schouten has had lively discussions with students about not wearing branded clothing, sometimes even after they are already home. A discussion of anti-American sentiment abroad is often included during study abroad orientations. Krebs points out that people will distinguish between an American person and the American government, so she reminds students they should act like guests.

Modern technology is often a double-edged sword-it's easier to locate people in an emergency, but it's also easier for students to contact home and panic their parents.

Brandt from Pitzer notes that arranging for students to stay with host families while abroad is a good safety strategy; often the family will keep an eye on the student. This type of arrangement is "one of the best ways of immersing deeply in the culture," she adds. Language skills, even just the ability to say please and thank you, are also viewed as a layer of protection.

UD claims the first study abroad program ever, when in 1923 a young professor took seven male students to France. Faculty members have been leading short programs ever since. It's an increased safety measure, says Griffiths, because faculty members can monitor and guide student conduct. There's also the added bonus of the faculty gaining international experience, but Griffiths admits that UD faculty programs don't have the cultural immersion component of direct-enroll programs. After all, when students enroll directly in a foreign institution, they have to be much more self-sufficient and have more interaction with the locals than those on a chaperoned trip.

Bruce Sillner, dean of international programs at New Paltz, says faculty-led programs tend to attract "less intrepid" students, or those with concerned parents, who don't want to go alone. And besides safety, increased funding may be a benefit. Tullbane says faculty members leading St. Norbert excursions used to design their own programs, but now that his office reviews them it allows him to "open the school checkbook" to the group and provide better support.

Other institutions, such as Arcadia University (Pa.), have opted to hire and train staff to be on location. "We spend a lot of time training and retraining staff," says Vice President David Larsen.

A study abroad host institution is often the first responder in an emergency, so it is important to have a strong relationship with that school's leaders. Contact between St. Norbert and Foundation of Ortega and Gezet in Toledo, Spain, became especially important in March 2004, when terrorist bombings that killed 191 train passengers occurred in Madrid. Tullbane called within an hour of the bombings, and staff at the host school, who were expecting his call, had already accounted for all but two of the 12 students. The remaining two answered their cell phones within the next hour.

Another time, a female student studying at MacQuary University in Sidney, Australia, was in a serious car accident while traveling to Brisbane. MacQuary staff informed Tullbane so quickly he knew about the accident before the parents did. The staff also arranged for the other four St. Norbert students to be excused from class so they could visit the victim in the hospital; they even flew her mother out from the United States. After she was released from the hospital, the student finished the semester. "There is a real advantage to working institution to institution," Tullbane says, because schools treat your students like their own.

One concept students find hard to grasp is that blending in-not looking or acting too "American"-can be a good safety measure.

People outside the academic world can also render assistance. Students from Arcadia were studying in Equatorial Guinea, in western Africa, when a coup plot was uncovered. "It was fairly chaotic for a few days," Larsen remembers. The nearest American embassy is in Cameroon, so the university relied on guidance from friends at a local oil company. They ended up busing the students up the coast. Working around situations like this is "about relationships and having reliable people," Larsen explains.

The International Studies office at Goucher College (Md.) follows its international partner institutions' procedures, such as when to evacuate in an emergency. But Goucher also maintains its own guidelines for communicating with parents and the media, explains Associate Dean Eric Singer. Having a well-defined chain of communication is key to staying on top of a situation, and many schools provide travelers with laminated wallet cards listing emergency contact numbers.

Krebs points out, "The reality is, partners and staff need to be given latitude to secure students first, then report [to Binghamton]." Modern technology is often a double- edged sword-it's easier to locate people in an emergency, but it's also easier for students to contact home and panic their parents. And sometimes students just don't let go of home enough to truly be immersed in their new experience.

Not that students calling home is always bad. Griffiths relates that UD had a summer session in London during the July 2005 suicide bombings that killed 52 people. She couldn't contact a certain faculty member because he was rounding up students, but a parent was able to tell Griffiths that the faculty member was okay. And Schouten's London students sent her instant messages and e-mails regarding their status.

Many overseas incidents are more mundane than terrorist attacks, and health concerns top the list. Some study abroad programs include mandatory health insurance as part of their fees, while others allow students to provide proof of adequate insurance from another source, with a key component being medial evacuation coverage. Tullbane investigated and changed St. Norbert's insurance plan to include this type of coverage after hearing about a student from another school who was injured in Tokyo. Although immediate medical care was covered, the medevac service flight wasn't.

Some schools rely on the coverage provided by the International Student ID Card from STA Travel, a for-profit, student world travel organization. And tips for maintaining good health are often covered during orientation. These can be as simple as explaining how to maintain a proper diet, how to determine whether food was prepared safely, and whether or not to drink the water. UD programs also include advice about elevation sickness, malaria, and frostbite.

Of course, some health emergencies can't be predicted. Pitzer students were in China studying traditional medicine during the initial SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003. Developing a proper response was difficult because China wasn't releasing information and the World Health Organization was developing reports as the situation progressed. Initially surgical masks were distributed to the students. Eventually the decision was made to bring them home mid-semester, Brandt says. "The airports were doing health checks. If you even had a stuffy nose you could be sent to a hospital with real SARS patients." Independent studies were arranged so they could complete their course work in the United States.

Any travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State are mandatory reading for international studies offices.

Individual health emergencies can require just as much action. In January, a Binghamton student traveling in Salamanca, Spain, was diagnosed with acute bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. "I was on the next plane," Krebs says. Although the host school was handling the situation, they were happy for the extra help Krebs provided. The student's roommate had to be hospitalized for observation, and the host family and all students who had come in contact with the ill student had to be screened. The student is improving, but how she contracted the illness is still unknown.

Despite the unpredictable nature of world travel, Krebs says in the 18 years she's been in the business that is the worst incident she's dealt with. "The wonderful thing about modern travel and modern medicine is students with health conditions can travel," she notes.

Knowing what steps to take can help people respond to an emergency more efficiently. In addition to establishing calling trees, many schools create crisis response teams on the home campus to assess the situation and develop a response. "We have a philosophy of imagining the worst and arranging plans," Brandt says.

When the political situation in Nepal began deteriorating in 2004, Brandt started scouting alternate sites for Pitzer's study abroad program. Although the violence wasn't targeted at foreigners, if the situation changed suddenly there was a plan in place to evacuate the students. "We even had cash on hand in case the banks closed," she says. "We took these steps when no one else was thinking about it."

IHE leaders do their best to make sure program locations are safe and academically sound, but sometimes students develop their own ideas or can't be dissuaded from traveling to a potentially dangerous location. In those situations, Tullbane has students disenroll from the college for the semester. "I don't think you are ever free from liability," he says, but it's a layer of protection. Such students risk losing scholarships, and their course work may not be accepted. Brandt does her best to find a Pitzer program that will satisfy a student's underlying motivation for going to a specific location.

Sometimes, however, locations are just no longer acceptable. In 2004, Griffiths discontinued a UD program in Costa Rica because of a consistent elevation in petty crime and the use of weapons, although UD still offers programs in other parts of Costa Rica. The world has changed considerably over the years, but the nature of the dangers people encounter hasn't-instead of IRA bombings, now it's Al Qaeda threats.

"I'm not sure [the world] is any more dangerous than it was," Tullbane says. "It's just more complex." Still, with a little planning, it can be possible to help students stay out of harm's way.

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