Let My Students Go

March 10, 2006

Many colleges have traditionally relied on the U.S. State Department's travel warnings to decide which countries are safe enough for study abroad programs. If a country is on the list, students wanting to study there could forget about help -- including financial aid or credit transfer -- from their home institutions.

In the last year, however, many colleges have started to rethink such an approach. A number have created new ways to allow study abroad in countries on the list. The changes have generally been prompted by students who want to be able to enroll at colleges in Israel, which is on the State Department's list. But the policies being adopted by colleges aren't Israel-specific and could change the way students, their families and their institutions think about which countries to consider for study and how to weigh the risks involved.

"Students as well as colleges and universities all have different thresholds on tolerance of risk," said Stephen DePaul, assistant director of the international office at the University of Texas at Austin, who helped draft a new policy at his institution. While the State Department warnings are a key part of that policy, DePaul said that when people balance out their sense of risk and educational needs, study in some countries on the list may well be appropriate.

Texas, Georgetown University and the University of Connecticut are among institutions that recently have changed policies on study abroad in countries with heightened risks. Generally, their policies require some additional scrutiny before students are cleared -- but the new policies avoid blanket prohibitions. Brown University's board is expected to soon approve a similar change there, following a petition drive that was joined by 2,000 students. At Bucknell University, students are also pushing for a policy shift.

Many study abroad experts welcome the shifts, saying that basing decisions on the State Department alone is too rigid. They also note that numerous studies have urged colleges to not only send more students abroad, but to send more of the students who do go abroad to places other than Western Europe. As students venture beyond countries thought of as "safe" (although terrorist acts in Britain and Spain suggest that safety is not a sure thing anywhere), some risk is going to be part of life.

Other experts, however, worry that the shifts could force colleges to make judgments about countries all over the world -- a task that's not always easy for the State Department, which has the foreign service to count on, and which may be unrealistic for colleges.

These issues are tough ones -- and they sometimes elude consensus on a given campus. David Larsen is director of the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University, in Pennsylvania, and is considered a national leader on issues of safety in study abroad, having led major studies on the issue. He said he worries that the State Department's warnings "close off whole countries to study" in a way that limits students. Larsen advocates a case-by-case approach because "in today's world, nearly anyplace could be regarded as a risk on any given day."

But at Arcadia, the official policy is to set up programs only in countries that aren't on the State Department's list. "Our risk manager is conservative," Larsen said.

At Texas, the policy has never been based entirely on the State Department list, but the university has periodically suspended programs in countries deemed dangerous, generally those on the list. The new policy doesn't revoke those suspensions, but outlines a procedure under which students can receive permission to have their study abroad recognized, even to a suspended country. Students are required to write two essays, one about how they have informed themselves of the risks in the area and how they plan to deal with those safety issues. The other is about why study in that particular country is important to academic goals. Students must also sign a legal waiver.

Then a committee reviews the application for approval. As a result of this new policy, Texas now has "a handful or two" of students in Israel and a faculty member planning a trip with students to Israel and Egypt.

DePaul said that the goal of the essay requirements isn't to make study abroad impossible. "We're not looking to grade these things or turn students down, but we want to see how serious they are," he said. "Is there a seriousness of purpose? Do the students know what they are getting into."

In weighing the student applications, he said, Texas looks at "the totality of information" available, including the State Department warnings. He noted that some warnings encourage American citizens to use extra caution, but don't say that U.S. citizens should immediately leave the country. Students would probably have a tough time winning approval to study in countries in the latter category, he said.

Ross Lewin, director of study abroad at the University of Connecticut, said a new policy -- just instituted there -- is based on the Texas rules, although UConn tends to use the State Department list as a starting point.

"We want to allow students to go, but we want them to have done due diligence," he said. Lewin also said that colleges need to be sure that they aren't setting themselves up for a lawsuit. "You've got to protect the university," he said.

Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on legal risks, agreed that educators needed to be aware of legal issues and said that the State Department list could be good "for colleges that want clear lines."

But she said that she believed there were many instances where flexibility was appropriate. She said she recently heard of a case where an American college student wanted to study in Afghanistan -- a country with a travel warning much more dire than that the State Department has issued for Israel. But the student's mother was in the Afghan government, Franke said, so the idea that this student couldn't know the risks and handle them was silly.

Franke said that generally, it was important to remember that travel warnings and countries are quite different. She said that a country like Israel, which has faced security issues for years, has certain advantages. "Travelers are going to be familiar with and well informed about the risks," she said. "It can be reasonable for travelers to make their own decisions."

Lois DeFleur, president of the State University of New York at Binghamton, also stressed the need for being informed about given countries. Binghamton considers the State Department advisories but also makes its own decisions based on "knowledgeable 'on the ground' contacts," DeFleur said. As a result, Binghamton hasn't restricted study in Israel and currently has students at three universities there. Binghamton has placed a particular emphasis within a large study abroad program on exchanges with Turkey, and DeFleur said that there as well, she thinks the university benefits from having long-term relationships with educators who can provide advice on safety issues.

While DeFleur is an advocate of colleges making their own decisions, she said that after 9/11, the university "took our lead from the State Department" and would do so again in a similar catastrophic event.

Students are a big part of the push for other colleges to be flexible. At Brown, the petition drive led to the policy review, which would require students to sign an extra waiver before going to a country on the travel advisory list. "Brown students tend to be adventurous, which is to their credit, so students want to go to a really diverse range of countries," said Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs. In addition to Israel, Kenya and Lebanon are also countries on the State Department's list that have attracted student interest. Georgetown officials also said that they were hearing of interest in Lebanon and Israel, although the university's policy is so new that it's hard to know how many students will take advantage of the new options.

Aaron Goldberg, acting director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a part of Hillel, said that many students have been frustrated by campus policies that discourage or bar study in Israel. He said that he has been encouraged by the recent trend and hopes more colleges will make their policies open to Israel and other countries on the travel warning list.

As for Israel, he said that there are many reasons students are pushing on this issue. And while some are doing so because of the religious connection they feel, Goldberg stressed the academic reasons for keeping Israel as a study abroad option. "Israel is unique. If you cancel a program in Spain or France, there are 15 other countries where you can study Spanish or French. To study Hebrew, or the birthplace of monotheistic religions, Israel is the place."

Amy Sugin, director of academic affairs for the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that colleges should also consider another factor: Some students will enroll at Israeli universities with or without support from their home institutions. Hebrew University is the most popular Israeli institution for American students, and it routinely enrolled 1,000 Americans a year prior to 2001. That figure dropped to 250 by 2003, but is now up to 800 and growing, even with some colleges still discouraging students.

Sugin said that there is risk in any study abroad. Colleges that "remove themselves from the process are not doing a service to students," she said. "Students are going to go anyway -- with or without the support of their schools. And while we help them manage the risk, the students who come with the support for their schools are better prepared when they get here."

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