A University of Washington summer study abroad program that ended in the medical evacuation of about half of the 17 student participants may point to the potential perils of faculty-led programs, which can fly or flop based on one particular professor’s management ability and expertise. That is especially true in the developing world, where partnerships and relationships can be more complex and sometimes more fraught.
A university spokesman, Norm Arkans, confirmed Monday that this summer's “Sustainable Development & Modes of Empowerment in Northern Ghana”  program is under investigation by an independent fact finder. He added that the institution has not yet responded to formal requests from students to recoup their expenses, but is considering the requests as the review proceeds. (Students paid $2,100 in fees, plus the cost of airfare, books, immunizations and visas for the five-week program on community-based sustainable development projects in rural Africa).
“Our first and primary concern is always student welfare, student safety and student health, and so we have taken these issues that were raised from this very seriously -- not just for the students who were on the trip but for future programs as well. That’s why we initiated the review, and we expect to have the results this quarter. And then we’ll take appropriate action after that,” Arkans said. The faculty leader of the program, Linda Iltis, remains actively employed in the university’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, he said.
Andrew Rakestraw, a senior international studies major, described the general absence of the professor, who did not live with the students in housing provided by a nongovernmental organization in rural Ghana and who came to see them only once every three days or so, he said. The program's academic substance was sub-par, he added. “During this entire trip, we were not brought together once to discuss any of the readings that we had done, any of the lectures that we had seen, any field work that we had experienced. Not once were we brought together. It was hardly an academic experience at all.”
Furthermore, food rations were sparse, because, the students understood, inflation had rendered the money the University of Washington had given the NGO to cover their food costs insufficient. “It got to the point where it didn’t even match half of the necessary caloric intake,” Rakestraw said. “This was something that we had expressed repeatedly to the professor; one of the problems was that she simply wasn't living with us. There was no action on her part in trying to fix this problem.”
Via e-mail late Monday, however, Iltis attributed the failures to the NGO.
"For the 2007 UW Study Abroad Ghana Program, the management of accommodations, food, transport, communication, and lectures was contracted to a local NGO, who upon our arrival in Ghana....demanded huge increases in payments from a fixed budget funded entirely by student fees collected before the program began. After receiving full advance contracted payment for food and accommodations, the NGO director and staff left for the nearest large city to buy three new motorbikes, which were not on the budget and had nothing to do with the UW program -- and then withheld adequate food from our students and endangered their health to extort payment of additional funds. To gain student support, they blamed the food shortage on me, which the students repeated in a phone call to University of Washington administrators, who then ordered a medical evacuation of the students," Iltis said, adding that she couldn't speak further on the subject due to the ongoing university investigation.
Ultimately, about half of the 17 students were medically evacuated, Arkans, the university spokesman, confirmed. With the program cut off one week short, the remaining nine students stayed on to travel independently, Rakestraw said.
A number of other students who participated in the program did not return messages Monday, but in a student newspaper article Friday , others shared similar stories. “The amount of money they had to offer us wasn’t enough to feed us,” one student, who spoke anonymously, told The Daily. “An average breakfast was small, maybe an 11-inch loaf of sugar bread split between 17 people and a small bit of peanut butter.”
Rakestraw, who applied for the Ghana program while studying abroad in the Balkans, said the contrast in faculty leadership between the two programs couldn't have been starker.
In the Balkans, “a student would get an upset stomach and they send them to their room and buy them Sprite and crackers and sit there until you feel better, whereas in the Upper West [of Ghana], the students would get malaria and dengue fever and the professor wouldn’t even contact them to see if they were alright."
This article has been updated from an earlier version.