In 1997, the Council on International Education Exchange, the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), and NAFSA: Association of International Educators joined twenty colleges, universities, and study-abroad sponsors in endorsing a set of guidelines to promote student health and safety while studying abroad. Since then, the guidelines have been approved and offered for other institutions to incorporate into their study-abroad programs. Below is an excerpt of those guidelines that were written specifically for students and parents.
In study abroad, as in other settings, participants can have a major impact on their own health and safety through the decisions they make before and during the program and by their day-to-day choices and behaviors.
In study abroad, as in other settings, parents, guardians, and families can play an important role in the health and safety of participants by helping them make decisions and by influencing their behavior overseas.
When appropriate, parents, guardians, and families should:
by Charlotte Thomas
Look in a drawer of Director of International Education John Perry's desk and you'll find an emergency plan for State University of New York at Brockport's study-abroad students. It's not something he pulls out often. In fact, he hopes he never has to use it, but it's there if he needs it. "Every good study-abroad director has one," says Perry. Yes, there are risks to studying abroad as there are in traveling overseas, but quality programs minimize the possible hazards by having trained professionals at home, resident counselors overseas, and solid emergency plans at the ready.
Keeping safe while abroad is one of those topics that people don't like to talk about much, but it's always in the back of their minds--if not in students' minds, then their parents. With instant news about trouble spots flaring up around the globe, people are acutely aware that dangerous situations can happen anywhere, anytime. Yet, in some ways the subject of safety abroad presents a paradox.
On the one hand, Perry points out that the world is viewed as being more secure now than it was before the end of the Cold War when America was "the great enemy in the global geopolitical conflict." As more students want to study abroad and as travel gets cheaper, the world is perceived as a safer place to get an education.
On the other hand, William Gertz, Senior Vice President at the American Institute For Foreign Study, says he's getting more questions about safety than ever before. As far as he's concerned, that's just fine. Increased awareness about health and safety issues is positive, though he says the calls are usually from parents who tend to be more concerned than students about health and safety.
"Given the world situation today, there's no place that can be considered immune to danger," reflects Moshe Margolin, Director of the Office of Academic Affairs at Tel Aviv University and one of five directors of the Israel University Consortium (IUC), an organization that encourages study in Israel. He and other study-abroad sponsors note that foreign students coming to the States often regard America to be a dangerous place.
Although there are no hard and fast statistics that determine attitudes about studying abroad, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) states that most professionals in the field believe that study in a foreign country is no more dangerous than in the United States. "Most study-abroad providers are behaving responsibly," says William Cressey, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer of the CIEE, referring to the measures almost all programs take to enhance safety and to prepare students to deal with problematic situations should they arise.
Cressey was one of the movers behind an Inter-Organization Task Force on Safety and Responsibility in Study Abroad that was formed in May 1997 by the CIEE, the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Their intent was to consolidate efforts by their organizations as well as other study-abroad providers to set guidelines that would make study abroad as risk-free as possible. The guidelines were finalized and made available for study-abroad providers across the U.S. in July 1998.
Not only are study-abroad directors intensely aware of safety issues, the overseas institutions that they partner with make every effort to watch out for American students while abroad. Students don't just show up to be left on their own without assistance, says Dimitri Lazo, Chairperson of the Committee on International Study and Student Exchange at Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In most cases the receiving institution has an orientation program for incoming students, and it provides students with ongoing support.
In countries such as Russia and other locations where monitoring the local environment is more critical, both university and non-university sponsored-programs have American staff overseas that are not dependent on a host institution, says Carl A. Herrin, Director of Government Relations at the American Councils For International Education. This gives programs the enhanced capacity to keep track of what's going on from the United States and to advise the overseas students on how to adjust their behavior as needed.
The people directly involved with study-abroad students also feel a personal responsibility for the safety of participants. Lazo echoes the feelings of other directors who deal with students and parents on a daily basis. "I want to be able to look a mother or father in the eye and say that the study-abroad program their son or daughter is going with is as safe as it can be," he reveals. Margolin, too, feels it's critical for parents and students to be able to put their trust in the people who sponsor overseas study. "I represent the integrity of the program," he states.
But no matter how trustworthy the study-abroad program and no matter how prepared the students, incidents happen. Dangerous situations break out unexpectedly. Communication is the key to dealing with the problems. "The best thing in past years has been the rise of the Internet," says Gertz. It allows directors to maintain constant contact with students and institutions around the world so they can receive information about conditions abroad and to alert students as to how to handle threatening circumstances.
"We keep our ears to the ground," says Lewis Fortner, Associate Dean of Students in the College, University of Chicago. He, like others, constantly checks the State Department advisories that are regularly updated regarding safety and health. The information is so specific that even a rash of robberies hitting people in taxis in a particular location is noted by study-abroad personnel and immediately passed on to students.
"It's part of our standard procedure," says Lazo. In many cases, parents learn of a breaking situation before hearing about it on the news because students are warned and are told to call home immediately to alleviate any fears their families might have. There are few places where Americans are warned not to go, and even then there may be study-abroad programs located there. Consequently, it's up to students and parents to assess the risk and get the most timely information about safety and health by asking precise questions of study-abroad sponsors.
Students abroad also bear a major portion of the responsibility for their safety and health by thinking about the daily choices they make. "The reality is that sometimes people will do things overseas they would never think of doing at home," Lazo observes. Students can't have the attitude "I'm a student. Time out. No need to worry about consequences," and proceed to act in ways that are dangerous, regardless of whether they're in Youngstown, Ohio, or South Yemen, adds Perry. In many cases, it's the students traveling alone and not under the auspices of a study-abroad program who get into trouble or who are victims of injuries or crimes. Lazo gets the impression that some participants look at Europe as a vast theme park, not realizing it has all the problems that America has. Margolin, too, runs into the same carefree mindset from students who take advantage of Israel's public transportation system without checking first to see where it's safe to travel.
In addition to making wise choices, there are abundant resources students can read before going abroad. Study-abroad offices hand out reams of materials and bibliographies. The State Department posts current travel advisories on the Internet as does the Center for Disease Control. Individual countries and embassies have Web sites and brochures. Tourist boards and study-abroad associations offer a wealth of information about conditions overseas. Study-abroad sponsors also utilize the experiences of returning students who talk to students going abroad so they can glean all those important up-to-the-minute details.
The more sophisticated a student is about the local culture and the more fluent in the language, the more he or she can act responsibly, notes Herrin. Thus they can intuit what's happening and are better able to look after themselves. In the final analysis, the most powerful safety net for students going abroad is their own common sense and cultural sensitivity. Says Margolin, "If they use the same kind of appreciation of the environment that a professional traveler uses, they'll be able to take advantage of what the world has to offer. Learning about new people and cultures far outweighs whatever risk is involved."