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Is Russia Really Too Risky?

New State Department rating system provides more nuance to colleges in deciding where they will and won't let students travel. Russia may lose students, but Israel and Mexico may see gains.

March 19, 2018
 
Image of the State Departments new Level 1 through 4 travel advisories.

The U.S. Department of State recently unveiled a revamped system of travel advisories, a move that is prompting many colleges to revise their international travel risk assessment policies and that could result in shifts in some of the countries to which colleges commonly send students. Advocates for study abroad in Russia, for example, worry that the comparatively high risk rating for the country under the new system will result in a reduction in student travel there. At the same time, some institutions are loosening restrictions on student travel to other countries, such as Israel and Mexico, which were subject to State Department travel warnings under the old system but are now rated as being relatively less risky overall.

Many colleges used the State Department's old system of travel warnings and alerts as a main metric for determining where they’ll allow university-sanctioned student -- and, in some cases, faculty -- travel, and so changes to the State Department's methodology mean changes to many universities' policies.

The State Department unveiled the new system in January. Unlike the old system of travel alerts and warnings, in which countries were separated into two general categories -- those that were subject to a State Department warning or alert and those that were not -- the new system of advisories assigns a risk rating to all countries. Level 1 means “exercise normal precautions,” while Level 2 means “exercise increased caution: be aware of heightened risks to safety and security.” Level 3 means “reconsider travel: avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security.” Level 4, the highest risk rating, means “do not travel.”

While each country has an overall rating, the State Department also designates higher-risk areas within countries. For example, Mexico has an overall rating of Level 2, but some states within it are rated Level 3 or 4. Similarly, the State Department gives Israel, the West Bank and Gaza an overall rating of Level 2 -- the three areas are combined into a single advisory -- but within that overall rating categorizes the West Bank as Level 3 and Gaza as Level 4.

The advisories specify the types of risks that have led to the various country ratings, related to crime, terrorism, health, civil unrest, natural disaster or a time-limited event (such as a major sporting event).

Many professionals who specialize in health and safety aspects of study abroad say the new ratings are, over all, more nuanced and helpful than the travel warnings that preceded them.

Under the old system, many colleges had restrictions on student travel. In some cases, these were blanket restrictions -- no travel to countries with travel warnings, no exceptions -- but in many other cases the travel warnings functioned as triggers for additional review. That meant if students wanted to travel to a country under a travel warning, or if professors wanted to organize a study abroad program there, they had to petition for special approval and/or sign additional waivers. Universities varied according to how willing they were to grant approval for travel to countries under a travel warning and frequently had (and still have) stricter policies in place for undergraduates than for graduate students or for faculty.

In response to the State Department's change in methodology, some colleges said they are putting in place new policies that require an additional review or approval process for student travel to Level 3 or 4 countries or regions.

“The interim process we have in place is that undergraduates can petition to go to any country with a Level 3 advisory but they can’t go to them without a petition process,” said Jason Hope, the director of international health, safety and security at the University of Kentucky. “We do not allow undergraduates to go to Level 4 countries. Period. There’s no petition process for them in those circumstances. For graduate students we decided we would retain the petition process for Level 4 countries.”

“The tricky part for us is the countries that have regions that are at a higher advisory level. We’re treating the regions the same way,” Hope said. For example, if a student wanted to go to Panama, a Level 1 country, but wanted to travel to the Darién Gap -- a Level 4 location -- they would also have to petition for approval.

“I think you’ll find that most of us feel that this is a good direction of going towards in terms of providing a more nuanced approach rather than a one-sized warning,” said Kalpen Trivedi, the associate provost of international programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “We’re going to be much more nuanced in terms of what we consider to be high-risk destinations and require undergraduates to undergo a waiver process even for a Level 2 country that may have a Level 3 or a Level 4 area or state within it. We want to make sure they understand that while they may be allowed to study abroad in a particular country, parts of those countries are no-go zones.”

Some universities consider the State Department advisories alongside other ratings of health and security risks. Jaime Molyneux, the director of international risk management at the University of Pennsylvania, said that Penn uses both State Department travel warnings and ratings by its international security information provider, International SOS, which rates areas according to five levels of risk, the two highest levels being "high" and "extreme."

"Basically, if Department of State rates it a Level 3 or 4, approval’s required, period," Molyneux said of Penn's new policy on undergraduate travel. "If Department of State labels the country a one or two, then the student needs to look at the ISOS ratings, and only high or extreme areas require approval."

Similarly, the University of Michigan has an International Travel Oversight Committee that uses a variety of information sources -- including faculty and staff with area expertise, travel warnings from peer institutions, and various governmental security reports -- in determining where it will and will not allow travel. Patrick Morgan, the senior adviser for international health, safety and security in the Office of the Provost at Michigan, said the new State Department advisories are more helpful overall than the old travel warning system but that they've resulted in some inconsistencies that the committee might need to consider. One is what to do about Egypt, which Michigan has evacuated students from twice since 2011. Egypt was under a travel warning under the old State Department system but now receives an overall rating of two.

"The question becomes, do we need to lower our ratings because now Egypt is a two overall but we rated it as something that undergraduates cannot not travel to," Morgan said. "To look at it as a two really causes our head to turn, because we’ve looked at Egypt wanting to [loosen some of the restrictions on travel] for the last three years and each year we’ve looked at it and said, 'yeah, things haven’t gotten any better.'"

Julie Anne Friend, the director of the Office of Global Safety and Security at Northwestern University, which doesn't currently send students to Egypt, said there's been lots of conversation in the field about the various country-level risk ratings. "In the very first days, I had people contacting me about Israel or Jordan being a two, and I said, let’s stop asking how did DOS get it wrong. I said, let’s start asking how can we shift our long-standing thinking that some of the locations we perceive as being high risk for our students might not necessarily be so." She added, “My incident data tells me that this new system is on the right track.”

Still, some of the country-by-country ratings are likely to strike some as surprising. Many countries in Western Europe -- by far the most popular region for study abroad students -- are rated as Level 2 destinations, the same overall rating as the one for Egypt, due to the risk of terror attacks. Similarly, a number of countries that were under travel warnings under the old system -- not only Egypt, but also Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Ukraine -- are now rated as Level 2, with Level 3 or Level 4 areas within them. As in the case of the old travel warnings, the advisories can be updated at any time.

On the other side of the spectrum are the Level 3- and 4-rated countries. It's fair to say most colleges aren't likely to want to support undergraduate travel to the Level 4 countries -- places like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- due to ongoing conflict or the risk of detention of U.S. citizens. But some of the Level 3 countries -- notably Cuba, Haiti and Turkey -- are places where some universities will likely want to consider sending students. All three of those countries were subject to a State Department travel warning under the old system. The warning against Cuba, imposed last fall after reported attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel, was controversial, as many in study abroad questioned whether the cited risks were relevant to individual student travelers.

Then there are other countries, notably Guatemala and Russia, which were not previously under travel warnings but are now rated Level 3 under the new travel advisory system. The Russia advisory, for example, recommends that Americans "reconsider travel" due to the risk of terrorism or harassment from law enforcement or other officials.

Advocates for student exchanges in Russia have raised concerns. The president, past president and president-elect of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages recently sent a letter to Ambassador Jennifer Z. Galt, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, expressing concerns that the overall Level 3 rating will "significantly damage" study abroad programs in Russia at a time when the U.S. needs more experts on Russia, not fewer.

In the letter the leaders of the association note that they agree with the State Department's "do not travel" recommendation for Crimea and the north Caucasus and that they also understand that cuts to diplomatic staff forced by the Russian government have left the U.S. Embassy with fewer resources to help Americans in Russia (another factor cited in the travel advisory). "However," they continue, we would like to point out that in Central and Northern Russia as well as in the Urals, Siberia, and Far East, the danger of terrorist attacks or bombings in large cities, let alone smaller places, is grossly overstated. From the perspective of a possible terrorist attack, Moscow or Krasnoyarsk is no more dangerous than London or Paris. While some harassment of U.S. citizens traveling in official and business capacities has taken place, it is certainly not an everyday occurrence and not commonly directed at tourists or exchange students. We know this because we follow events in Russia as professionals. This will not be the case for parents of students who hope to travel to Russia to improve their language skills and expand their cultural horizons."

It is not clear to what degree colleges have canceled or suspended programs in Russia or, for that matter, Guatemala as of now. Hope, of the University of Kentucky, said that two planned faculty-led programs to Guatemala and Russia are still scheduled, but his office will be working much more closely with the faculty directors of those programs, both of whom, he said, have run the programs before, "and also working with the students before they leave and orienting them intensely compared to what we would do for a faculty program going to England or France."

"We don’t feel like the calculus has necessarily changed with regard to those two countries from what it was last summer, and the faculty members who are leading the program are very experienced in both places; if this were a new program, it might be a different situation," Hope said.

Similarly, Bruce Sillner, dean of the Center for International Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said a faculty-led summer program to Guatemala is still scheduled. Sillner cited the expertise and experience of the faculty director -- a native Guatemalan who has led the program multiple times in the past -- as a key factor in the decision.

Stanford University has a recently revised policy that prohibits undergraduates from traveling to Level 3 and 4 countries or regions on Stanford-organized or -sponsored trips. The policy states that, for undergraduates, "no university funds or resources may be used, or university sponsorship provided, in support of travel to these locations." Stanford's policy is stricter than some others in that it does not allow individual undergraduates to petition for an exception to this policy -- which means that undergraduates simply cannot, for example, travel to Russia independently to participate in a Stanford-organized or -funded internship. Similarly, Brendan M. Walsh, the director of Stanford's Office of International Affairs, said that study abroad to Russia through another institution likely wouldn't be approved for credit, because it would not be in accordance with the travel policy.

However, Walsh said, there is a process by which Stanford academic units can appeal for permission to offer organized faculty-led programs in Level 3 and 4 countries and that he is not aware of any Stanford programs that have yet been canceled as a result of the policy. Ramón Saldívar, the Burke Family Director of the Bing Overseas Studies Program at Stanford, said that no decision had been made about a scheduled summer program for undergraduates in Russia. "We have NOT suspended the scheduled three-week summer seminar in St. Petersburg," Saldívar said via email. "We may need to do so, but no suspension has been decided or announced."

A survey conducted last week by the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies that received 34 responses found that the majority of programs in Russia are continuing, according to Lynda Park, the association's executive director. Dan E. Davidson, the president emeritus and a senior academic adviser for the American Councils for International Education, which operates programs in Russia, said the organization has not yet seen an effect on projected summer enrollments. “What we’ve seen so far is that while we are aware of a number of our longtime university partners who are monitoring this very carefully and in some cases have introduced additional steps of review, so far no student has withdrawn their application for the summer," Davidson said.

The ratings also have implications for State Department-funded scholarship programs. The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which provides funds for low-income college students to study abroad, has a general policy prohibiting use of the funds to travel to Level 3 or 4 countries, or to Level 3 or 4 regions within Level 1 or 2 countries. A State Department official said that each program "has its own set of factors and considerations to be weighed when deciding where its program may operate," and that for the Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarships and high school exchange programs operated by State, "country by country decisions are made with each recruitment and placement cycle." In correspondence with advocates for Russian study abroad, Galt, of the Educational and Cultural Affairs bureau, wrote that while the State Department will not operate the Gilman program in Russia, it currently plans to continue operating Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarships and National Security Language Initiative for Youth exchanges there.

While some fear Russia stands to lose U.S. students, other countries stand to potentially gain students, at least as long as their current ratings stand. Jonathan Kaplan, the vice provost of the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said it is too early to see an effect on enrollment, but that he would expect to see an increase in students if American universities stop requiring students to go through special petition or waiver processes in order to travel to Israel, a Level 2-rated country.

"Even though I think all of the Israeli universities would help students who want to submit such a petition, it certainly puts American students off from coming here," Kaplan said. "It's something else they have to do. It means more preparation; it means starting to think about things earlier, and all of that I would say is detrimental in terms of students coming here. Now that I hope universities will no longer have these special requirements -- it’s not obvious that all universities will, there may still be universities that require special procedures -- but if that is ended, then I think it will be much easier to encourage students to come here. It’s also a question of encouraging their parents to a degree. Parents still play an important role in the student’s decision."

Kaplan added that he was particularly excited about the fact that Gilman scholarship funds will be newly available to students going to Israel, which he hopes will help attract a more diverse population of students to the country. "We're working very closely with HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities," Kaplan said. "Those are very often universities that were more hesitant to send more students here. We’re actively trying to help minority students to come here; we think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them, and this I hope will help us, this change in policy."

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