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.
1. Stay out of dark allies.
"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.
2. Listen to Mom and Dad.
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. …