Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume
1 - Table of Contents
Safety and security issues and their impact on the study
abroad field by Nancy Stubbs
Associate Director of Study Abroad, University of Colorado
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
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,
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
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
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
- 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
- We can use these issues to gain control over out-of-control
practices, like programs run out of the hip pockets of individual
- 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
- National dialog on big issues works. International dialog is
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. http://www.nafsa.org/publications/stand_pol/aids.3.html.
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
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. http://www.nafsa.org/et/competnt.html.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1998. Promoting
Health and Safety in Study Abroad: Interorganizational Task Force
on Health and Safety in Study Abroad. http://www.nafsa.org/safetyabroad/.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 1998. Promoting
Health and Safety in Study Abroad: Responsible Study Abroad: Health
and Safety Guidelines. http://www.nafsa.org/safetyabroad/guidelines1298.html.
U.S. Department of State. 1999. Tips for Students. http://www.usc.edu/dept/education/globaled/safeti/.
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