Study Abroad in a Risky World

April 8, 2011

BOSTON – Back in January, study abroad officials scrambled to get students out of Egypt. Now they’re talking about whether -- or when – students can return. With the spread of unrest across the Middle East and the tsunami and radiation crisis in Japan, the question of where students should or shouldn’t be allowed to study abroad, in which countries and which individual cases, has never seemed more salient.

Salient it is at the annual Forum on Education Abroad conference, where sessions Thursday focused on such topics as whether to allow study abroad in countries impacted by U.S. State Department travel warnings or alerts, and plans for future programs not only in Egypt, but also in countries affected by natural disasters -- Chile, Haiti, Japan and New Zealand. For colleges that have incurred significant costs in evacuating students from Cairo, or from Tokyo, the decision of when to resume programming, and why – what has changed -- is no minor matter.

The barometer colleges most frequently use for making these decisions are the U.S. State Department travel warnings, which currently affect 35 countries, including a number of countries considered significant in the push to get more students to study in nontraditional destinations, outside Europe – these include Egypt, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico and Syria. (There’s also a longstanding warning on Israel, but that’s a different case; more on that below.) Some colleges restrict travel to these countries uniformly, or nearly so, while others are more flexible.

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The questions, said Barbara Stob, assistant general counsel at Goucher College, are these: "What is your university’s appetite for risk and what is your ability to manage that risk? If you’re going to establish a program in a travel warning country, do you have the resources to evacuate those students on short notice if necessary?"

"Not all of us have those resources, and all of us have different philosophies about what is an appropriate risk to take."

Goucher, which requires all of its undergraduates to study abroad, generally prohibits travel to countries with State Department travel warnings or alerts but offers students the chance to petition for an exemption (except in the case of Israel, for which students don’t need to petition, but they do need to sign an additional waiver). Criteria used in determining whether to grant a student’s petition include:

  • The geographic location of the program and its relation to security or health risks.
  • Information about travel warnings or advisories levied by other countries and the approach of peer institutions.
  • The preparation students will receive from their program in regard to health and safety issues, and the local support structure on-site.
  • The academic relevance of the program to the student’s degree.
  • Alternative programs that are available, and why they were not chosen.

Laura M. Monarch, director of overseas studies at Georgetown University, outlined similar criteria in place for students seeking permission to travel to countries with State Department travel warnings. First, the proposed course of study cannot contravene the recommendations of the travel warning. Second, it should be "academically necessary" – does it fit into the student’s major or minor; is there any previous coursework relevant to study of the region? Finally, there is the issue of personal preparedness: Does the student have knowledge of the host country or knowledge of the conditions that led to the travel warning; to what degree does the student evince personal maturity?

Students who seek to travel to countries with State Department travel warnings have to turn in an additional character reference, and fill out a questionnaire in which they detail their own preparedness plan – the purpose, said Monarch, is to encourage students to take responsibility for their decision and its risks from the outset.

Many colleges began to put mechanisms for these types of exemptions in place because so many students wanted to travel to Israel, which has long been on the State Department’s list. There is a prevailing sense in the field that the travel warnings in themselves are useful but blunt instruments – and politicized ones at that.

Eric Mlyn, director of the Duke Center for Civic Engagement and Duke Engage, said that the travel warnings are one of many sources Duke University uses in maintaining its own list of restricted regions. A university-wide International Travel Oversight Committee takes into account such other factors as:

  • Relationships with partner institutions abroad.
  • Warnings issued by other countries.
  • Assessments provided by International SOS, which Duke uses to provide medical and security advice and evacuation services.
  • Consultations with people on the ground, such as alumni, students, and staff and faculty of other programs.
  • Faculty with regional expertise.

Mlyn said that a Duke Exchange program to Haiti last summer happened because they had such confidence in their partner there, Family Health Ministries. And Duke just made the decision to send students to Egypt this summer, for a program focused on teaching literacy skills to refugees and supporting children with physical disabilities. “The State Department warnings are important to us,” Mlyn said, “it just doesn’t determine our decision.”

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