Ripped From the Headlines

At community college law conference, session on study abroad in tempestuous circumstances has eerie overtones of Cairo.
February 4, 2011

ORLANDO -- A community college professor takes a group of 15 students in his international finance course on a three-week trip to Greece, where he studied as a graduate student and has many contacts. The day after the students arrive in Athens after their long journey, worker protests break out in opposition to austerity measures imposed on the Greek government by its European partners. The students, given lots of independence, have front-row seats to the excitement.

Several days later, as the protests intensify, one of the students gets caught in a melee and ends up hospitalized with a head injury. The next day, with the country virtually shut down by a general strike and violent protests flaring throughout the city, the Greek government contemplates a state of emergency and U.S. embassy officials debate whether to go beyond their recommendation that Americans avoid going anywhere near the demonstration, to recommend that they leave the country. The fast-changing developments pose constant challenges and dilemmas for the instructor, who has limited to no experience in taking students abroad.

That scenario served as the centerpiece of a session held this week at the Community College Conference on Legal Issues here. The presenters, Ann Franke of Wise Results and two leaders of the higher education practice at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., an insurance brokerage and risk management firm, have no special powers to see the future. But the long-planned session at this conference, which is put on by Valencia Community College, took on added urgency given how closely the case study at its core resembled the events unfolding half a world away.

The eerie parallels to the violent protests and evacuations of American students and others from Cairo seemed to drive home for many of the campus lawyers and student affairs officials in the audience just how vulnerable their colleges can be when students who are under the institutions' aegis venture into unpredictable parts of the world. (Then again, one might ask what parts of the world are wholly predictable these days.)

"If you just say 'Egypt' instead of 'Greece,' this all sounds very familiar, doesn't it?" asked John McLaughlin, managing director for higher education at Arthur J. Gallagher.
"If we were in Cairo right now, we would be in a situation not knowing which way to turn," added John E. Watson, executive director of the Arthur J. Gallagher higher ed practice.

The purpose of the session was to walk participants through a hypothetical scenario of reality-based facts to help them think through the issues raised by a situation -- rife with potential pitfalls -- that could unfold at any of their campuses. But the resonance with current events seemed to raise the stakes of virtually every decision made before and during the hypothetical faculty-led trip.

The trip is approved with just a single campus official, the professor/leader, accompanying the 15 students. What happens, McLaughlin wondered, if a student misbehaves or, as happens in the hypothetical case, gets seriously injured? Does the sole professor or administrator go with the injured student, or stay with the larger group?

And what happens, an audience member asked, "if the faculty member gets sick or something happens to them?" Franke acknowledged that it may be "unrealistic" for community colleges and other financially strapped institutions to send two administrators on a single study abroad trip. Some colleges have dealt with that problem, she said, by having "someone on the campus with a passport who is able to go at the drop of a hat as a backup" if a study abroad leader gets sick or otherwise sidelined.

Other warning signs emerged as the audience discussed the scenario. At no point does it appear that the community college in question, or the faculty member leading the trip, alerted the U.S. embassy in Greece or the State Department that the group of Americans would be in the country. That can cause problems when a situation blows up as it did in the Greece scenario -- and as it is now in Cairo, said Franke.

The hypothetical case is further complicated, McLaughlin noted, by the fact that one of the students on the trip is not an American. Many campuses, he said, are unlikely to have thought through how they would handle international students if a U.S. embassy urges all Americans to leave a country.

And that idea -- that institutions have to try to expect the unpredictable, and to do everything possible to ensure that the people they entrust to guide their students into uncertain lands are adequately prepared -- was the fundamental point of the session here, said Franke.

"We appreciate that there may not be right answers," she told the group. "But if you think through the questions raised by this scenario and others," she said, institutions are more likely to be ready when situations like the one in Cairo erupt.


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