Egypt, Haiti, New Zealand, Japan, Libya. Within the past two years, political and natural disasters around the world have caused us concern and pain. For those families who may have students studying or traveling abroad in an area struck by an unforeseen event, the pain and worry become enormous. Does that mean that you should hold your student close and not let her travel or study abroad? For some families, the answer may be yes. But many families realize the importance and benefits of studying abroad and want their student to be able to stay safe, but still have an international experience.
If your student wants to study abroad, you will naturally worry. But accidents, disasters, and unforeseen events can occur anywhere at any time, even at home. Understanding the situation and the program, taking some time to prepare, and discussing a plan with your student may help ease your mind somewhat. We’d like to suggest a few things to think about, and to discuss with your student, as you consider the study abroad experience. We’ve written several earlier articles about helping your student consider study abroad, preparing to study abroad, and supporting your student studying abroad. Here, we’d like to consider specifically thinking about safety while studying abroad.
Colleges and study abroad programs understand the importance of safety
One of the first things to remember is that no college or study abroad program wants to take any risks with your college student. One of their primary concerns is for students’ safety while away. In some cases, this may incur significant costs to the college as they attempt to reach and evacuate students in a crisis. Some colleges may need to consider carefully whether they can afford the costs of such a program and may limit the places that they allow students to study.
Some colleges may restrict travel to certain countries and others may be more flexible. Recently, more students are requesting to travel to more non-traditional, non-European destinations. Some countries may be included on the U.S. State Department travel warnings, a list that currently includes 35 countries. According to the U.S. State Department, a country may be included on this list if, ”long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country,” or ”when the U.S. Government’s ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff.”
Not every student should study abroad, and not every country is a good destination. Many colleges have a committee that will look carefully at Study Abroad programs and consider carefully whether individual students may participate. Committees such as the International Travel Oversight Committee at Duke University or the International Travel Advisory and Response Team at Cornell are specific examples.
How to help your student prepare
There are many things that your student needs to do to prepare to study abroad. Specifically, however, there are things that you and your student can do to increase his safety.
- Look carefully at the program that your student is considering. Many colleges use outside programs to sponsor study abroad students. Is the program run by a different institution, an independent program, or a company under contract? What preparation, experience, or training do the program sponsors have?
- Are there clearly articulated policies and procedures for emergencies?
- If an emergency should occur, who will be in control? Whose protocols will be followed?
- What resources will be available to respond to unexpected situations?
- Consider carefully whether you believe that your student is ready for the experience of living and studying abroad. Many students benefit tremendously from the experience, but some students may not be ready. If you believe that this may not be the time for your student, discuss alternatives and/or whether this is academically necessary.
- Suggest that your student visit the U.S. State Department’s website dedicated to student travelers. They offer many helpful suggestions, cautions, and advice.
- Have your student enroll in the State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) prior to leaving. This will allow her to receive updates and facilitate contact in an emergency.
- Talk to your student before he embarks about following advice and leaving the country during an emergency. In the recent crisis in Egypt, many students did not want to leave. Remind your student that he may not be in the best position to determine whether he should stay or go. Insist that he agree to follow the directions of the authorities in an emergency.
If a crisis happens
Most students who study abroad encounter many adventures and unexpected events, but no natural or political disasters. They return home safely — and wiser. As parents, we breathe a sigh of relief.
However, if a crisis should occur, parents will obviously be desperate for information. First of all, remember the conversations you had with your student and trust that she is prepared and will do all that she can to remain safe. Remember that she is not alone and that others are watching out for her safety.
In case of emergency, the U.S. State Department website will be the primary tool for disseminating information. They may also use their Facebook page and Twitter to provide updated information. The State Department will also use registered e-mail addresses provided through the STEP program to contact family members.
Another source of communication is the American Red Cross Safe and Well program. In case of an emergency, students can leave a ”safe and well” message for family members if they have access either to internet, phone or to a Red Cross volunteer.
There are commercial services available for which families can register. Organizations such as International SOS or On Call International, provide services in case of emergency. They also provide dedicated websites for updates. If your student’s study abroad program provides these services, this may be redundant, but families may want to investigate these.
If a crisis happens while your student is abroad, you will, of course, worry. No amount of planning and preparation will reassure you while you wait to hear that your student is safe. Take advantage of communication services provided by the student’s program, the Red Cross, and/or the U.S. State Department, and even, perhaps, from your student. Even the U.S. government understands that students do not always remember that although they are safe, we, as parents need to hear from them. On the State Department’s website for students, their final piece of advice in an emergency is, ”Of course, if you’re OK, you might want to call your folks to let them know.”