American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation

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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

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Safety and security issues and their impact on the study abroad field by Nancy Stubbs
Associate Director of Study Abroad, University of Colorado - Boulder

For the past several years safety, health, and security have been hot topics in our field. One is tempted to think that the emphasis on having safe, secure programs is relatively new. One would be wrong; concern about the health and safety of students has been present throughout the history of U.S. study abroad.

While study abroad programming for U.S. students goes back more than 60 years, the period of great growth encompasses the last 30 years, from the late 1960's. A quick and hardly thorough search of publications and documents shows that, while health and safety were not prominent issues until the 1990's, there was always some focus on these topics, especially safe travel, health insurance and health care, the responsibility of students while abroad, and crisis management. For example:

The SECUSSA Sourcebook, published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators in 1975, is an early version of NAFSA's Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators. Required immunizations, the location of on-site medical services, preventative health measures, health insurance, foreign laws, and cautions about the use of illegal drugs are all recommended orientation topics (42-43). The book also suggests a program evaluation process that includes questions about adequate health insurance, on-site medical facilities, and the use of charter flights that adhere to Civil Aeronautics Board rules (70). Finally, it includes a model "Release and Assumption of Risk" form (79).

A 1979 publication, Study Abroad Programs: An Evaluation Guide, illustrates the extent to which the profession was concerned about health and safety issues without labeling them as such. A good study abroad program had the following characteristics:

Admitted students should be emotionally mature (2);
Orientations provide reading lists, information on living in the host country, group discussions with alumni, faculty, etc. (4);
Resident directors and other on-site staff are chosen based on knowledge of the host country/language, experience counseling and working with students, etc. (5-6);
Relations with the partner institution offer good lines of communication and clear delineation of responsibilities for the care of students (7);
Arrangements are made with local health clinics, hospitals, psychiatric clinics, etc. to have adequate care available and, whenever possible, English-speaking physicians or nurses (7).
There is no specific mention of liability, risk or crisis management, the responsibilities of students or administrators, or of the potential for health or safety problems. Yet, the prevailing themes of good planning, knowledge of the host country, careful selection of students and staff, and good communication among all parties are the cornerstones of what we today consider reasonable planning for safe, healthy, low-risk programs.

The profession acknowledges health and safety issues in its professional standards. NAFSA's 1995 Statement of Professional Competencies for education abroad professionals includes:

knowledge of how to provide comprehensive student and academic services to students participating in education abroad programs, including pre- and post-departure orientation, crisis management, and re-entry services;
knowledge of how to access information on travel documentation, travel conditions, and health information which may impact overseas travel and study.
In 1989 collaborations between NAFSA and the American College Health Association (ACHA) led to a joint statement called "AIDS and International Education Issues" that includes a section on students planning to study abroad. The Council on International Educational Exchange (Council) began publishing two brochures titled "Health Check for Study, Work, and Travel Abroad" and "Travel Safe" since the early 1980's. An AIFS brochure called "Staying Healthy While Studying Abroad" has also been available for the past ten years.

In 1997 the Interorganizational Task Force on Safety and Responsibility in Study Abroad was formed by Council, Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), and NAFSA. The group developed a set of guidelines for responsible administration and participation in study abroad. This is the first effort by our profession to develop specific standards in this area. It was done with the knowledge "that many of the guidelines define practices that are in place at a significant majority of institutions. Others may not yet be implemented in some schoolsit is our hope that study abroad administrators will give serious consideration to implementation of these guidelines in the near future." (2)

Other recent initiatives include the development of world wide web resources like the SAFETI Clearinghouse maintained by the University of Southern California's Center for Global Education and the U.S. State Department's new Tips For Students web page. SECUSSA, NAFSA's Section on U.S. Students Abroad, is developing a professional training workshop on health and safety. New efforts at collaboration are being explored with the State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), with NASPA, and the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA).

Given this recent activity, is there a difference in how we would define a "safe, secure" program today? Certainly, knowledge of details is much more important. Identifying potential health or safety risks is a standard part of program development today. It is expected that students will be informed of possible hazards, different standards of hygiene, different cultural assumptions, and the like before leaving for the program site. Crisis management plans tailored to specific program sites are being developed by responsible program administrators.

NAFSA's Guide to Education Abroad clearly defines what is expected from a study abroad program today. "Your responsibility to your students is to ensure that they receive all the information and assistance they need and that they understand their own responsibility for maintaining their health and well-being. Your responsibility to your institution is to see that your program complies with relevant statutes and regulations and that institutional liability is minimized through careful planning." (217)

Why are these issues hot topics right now? There are several reasons. First, more American students are studying abroad, so the likelihood that bad things will happen has increased. There are also more study abroad programs, including many in non-traditional sites. And, there is an increase in programs that no longer fit the "junior year abroad" model with its high levels of structure and supervision.

Please do not assume that sending students to "non-traditional" (i.e., outside Western Europe) countries automatically implies an increase in risk. At the same time, it is true, that sending middle-class U.S. students to places with different sanitary, health, cultural, or road safety standards has potential to result in increased risk to students ­ especially to those who receive inadequate pre-departure information and guidelines. The increase in student numbers also means an increase in participants with physical or psychological disorders that may or may not be disclosed to program administrators. Some of the more common problems, such as drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, depression, or asthma and allergies, can be exacerbated by the stress of study abroad.

Second, higher education in the United States is being held to broader standards of accountability. In the 1970's, the old rules of in loco parentis were largely abandoned. The pendulum has swung back, leading to a general consensus that universities bear responsibility for providing a safe learning environment. The U.S. government requires institutions receiving federal funds to divulge the number of crimes that occur on campus and to adhere to restrictions on the serving of alcohol at college functions. Risk management officers weigh in on everything from safety in the dorms to travel policies for staff and students. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act places new responsibilities on higher education. In short, the well-being of students can no longer be left to chance or strictly up to the individual.

The third reason has to do with the U.S. media and with our society's penchant for lawsuits. The media has found that study abroad tragedies can be good for ratings. This has led to increased publicity about bad things that happen with little effort to provide a balanced picture. Bad publicity leads to more lawsuits, or at least the fear of them among college administrators. The result is increased reliance on legal counsel and risk management when setting policy and developing programs. Education abroad can no longer operate off in a corner with little scrutiny. Indeed, one of the more interesting challenges in the past decade has been explaining study abroad to campus officials in order to develop broader support and consensus on policies and practices.

Finally, technology has changed what we know about the world. The advent of the world wide web has created an explosion of easily accessible information. It is possible to find what the U.S. State Department has to say about other countries by checking a web site. Want to know what the Centers for Disease Control recommends when traveling to sub-Saharan Africa? Interested in what Great Britain tells its citizens about dangers in other countries? Look it up on the web.

Ten years ago, researching health care facilities, the potential for political unrest or labor strife, what parts of a city are safe, and so forth could take months. Many study abroad administrators did little or no research, relying on overseas partners to know everything or expecting resident directors to arrive on site early and learn before the students came. It is not possible to find all relevant information by searching the web; indeed, it would be foolish to rely only on that resource. But when it comes to providing information for students and others about countries, university systems, travel opportunities etc., the web is the study abroad administrator's best friend.

What have we learned about health and safety, and what implications does this have for the future of study abroad? Here a few ideas:

  • Encouraging responsible behavior and reducing health and safety risks have been important factors in study abroad administration for many years. The recent focus on creating guidelines and best practices will lead to better models, more publications, and other initiatives.
  • We do not have to begin from scratch or work in a vacuum. There are numerous examples of best practices among study abroad programs being offered today. We must also connect with student personnel administrators on our campuses. They have tackled many of the issues we are debating now and have expertise in things like safe housing, medical care, dealing with irresponsible student behavior, managing crises, etc. It would be foolish to ignore these experts.
  • Study abroad can no longer operate off in a corner of our universities. There are too many potential implications for the entire institution. Education abroad administrators must recognize this and work with campus administrators to develop appropriate cooperation and oversight before a crisis prompts others to take the initiative.
  • As usual, we have begun the debate by focusing on the U.S. side of the issue. We talk about legality and risk management from an American point of view. We discuss what must be done to prepare our students, ensure that our overseas sites are adequate, and create crisis management teams on our campuses. The debate must be broadened to fully include our partners outside the U.S. What concerns do they have about American students? What about their students coming to the United States? What have they observed that will help create more responsible behaviors among participants? How can their knowledge about their own countries and cultures help us create safer and healthier programs?
  • Can we develop a system of reliable communication that is resistant to media hysteria/hyperbole or governmental overreaction?

Finally, allow me to offer some observations based on my work on the Interorganizational Task Force and the SECUSSA Task Force on Health and Safety. They strike me as interesting thoughts that could be helpful as our profession tackles other issues.

Study abroad competitors can collaborate on an issue and contribute greatly to the overall good of the profession. The more points of view involved, the better.

  • It's OK to expect students and parents to share the responsibility.
  • Potentially scary issues like lawsuits can serve as catalysts to forge relationships on our campuses that help us gain legitimacy and recognition as important and responsible members of the academic community.
  • We can use these issues to gain control over out-of-control practices, like programs run out of the hip pockets of individual faculty.
  • We can make our programs safer and inform our students better without hiring more staff if we ask student affairs administrators on our campuses to contribute their expertise. I wonder what else they know?
  • National dialog on big issues works. International dialog is even better.

Thomas A. Butcher, University Counsel at Grand Valley State University, states that the number one rule for safe healthy programs is: do the right thing. When all is said and done, that is the best possible advice for all of us as we enter a new century of education abroad.


AACRAO/NAFSA Task Force on Study Abroad. 1979. Study Abroad Programs: An Evaluation Guide. Washington, D.C.: NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

ACHA/NAFSA Joint Committee on International Student Health Care. 1989. AIDS and International Education Issues.

AIFS. 1989. Staying Healthy While Studying Abroad. Greenwich, CT: American Institute of Foreign Study.

Center for Global Education. 1999. Safety Abroad First Educational Travel Information (SAFETI) Clearninghouse. University of Southern California.

Council and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1995. Health Check for Study, Work, and Travel Abroad. New York. Council on International Educational Exchange.

Council on International Educational Exchange. 1984. Travel Safe. New York. Council on International Educational Exchange [Out of Print].

Frank,Judy, ed. 1975. SECUSSA Sourcebook: A Guide for Advisors of U.S. Students Planning an Overseas Experience. Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Hoffa, William, and John Pearson, eds. 1997. NAFSA's Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators. Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1995. Statement of Professional Competencies for International Educators.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1998. Promoting Health and Safety in Study Abroad: Interorganizational Task Force on Health and Safety in Study Abroad.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1998. Promoting Health and Safety in Study Abroad: Responsible Study Abroad: Health and Safety Guidelines.

U.S. Department of State. 1999. Tips for Students.

Next article: Creative Funding for Study Abroad: A Guide for Advisors by Charles Gliozzo

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