Safety First! Ensuring Student Well-being Abroad

Two higher ed institutions with thriving study-abroad programs emphasize planning and communication to ensure student safety.

5 minutes
By: Joshua Aelick
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Three years after the worldwide onset of COVID in March 2020, study abroad programs have more than just recovered. In fact, they’re growing, leading academic institutions to take a harder look at what can be done to support student safety while abroad, particularly in destinations with immediate safety concerns, such as protests or political unrest.

Elon University, which ranked third in U.S. News and World Report’s 2022-2023 list of top universities for study abroad, saw 1,200 applications for its winter 2022 study abroad programs. According to Nick Gozik, dean of global education at Elon, the institution expected only 700 to 800 applicants.

As early as summer 2021, students showed an eagerness to return to the world, with 58% of all study abroad in the 2020/2021 academic year taking place that summer, indicating recovery to come, according to Open Doors Data

Precautionary Measures

Elon did not discontinue study abroad programming during the pandemic. Instead, the university managed to keep programs running by monitoring the situation as it evolved and complying with governmental policies, such as the Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, which restricted but did not halt international travel. 

Elon was fortunate to have a global health and safety officer at its study abroad office, a position in which Gozik suggests any able university should invest. Global health and safety officers are responsible for assessing and creating strategies for promoting student safety abroad, according to a job listing at Michigan State University, which ranked ninth in the U.S. News and World Report listicle.

To protect student well-being effectively, these officers must monitor worldwide news coverage, train program leaders and organizers to manage student groups, and partner with other on-campus resources–such as the clinic–to ensure a network of health providers is involved in discussions of risk mitigation abroad. 

“It is important to have staff who are charged with clear tasks, ensuring that there are not any gaps,” he said. However, not all institutions have the resources to hire for such a specific position, Gozik acknowledged. “Many offices are only comprised of one or two people, and thus each staff member needs to be an expert in multiple areas.”

When hiring a global health and safety officer isn’t possible, communication between students, on-campus resources and off-campus partners becomes all the more important, according to Margaret Wiedenhoeft, executive director at Kalamazoo College’s Center for International Programs. Kalamazoo ranked sixth in the U.S. News and World Report’s list of top universities for study abroad.

I think we have seen robust student interest return, and some offices are able to hire staff to accommodate this interest,” Wiedenhoeft said in an email. “I don’t believe student safety has directly been impacted by staff cuts in international education offices, but I do think there has been more collaboration among offices both on-campus and with partners overseas. Everyone contributes to the safety of students whether on- or off-campus.”

Over 400 significant antigovernment protests have erupted worldwide.

Staff going abroad at Elon also receive specialized orientations and handbooks designed to equip them with information about evacuation insurance and emergency contact procedures. Elon’s online handbook for staff going abroad includes thorough breakdowns of necessary travel skills, such as how to properly handle money in unfamiliar places. Along with more general advice, such as carrying limited cash whenever possible, the handbook also suggests separating large and small bills to avoid accidentally flashing large amounts of money when making a transaction in public. 

Many schools also offer student-centered training designed to equip students with their own kit of safety skills, according to Wiedenhoeft. Like Elon’s staff-focused handbook, Kalamazoo’s study away handbook for students begins with surface-level information–such as eligibility, a breakdown of the university’s various program types, and an overview of the application process–before delving into more specific information. A dedicated section of the handbook walks students through the symptoms of dehydration, which may be unfamiliar to those who do not travel long days by foot. 

“We cover health and safety in pre-departure meetings and through materials, including handbooks,” Gozik said. “Once students arrive in country, onsite staff provide details related to the surrounding location. Additional information is shared with students in the event of an emergency.”

 

Reactionary Measures

“It is rare that we have been required to remove students due to protests alone,” said Gozik. “Protests are typically a function of democratic activity, with the exercise of free speech. They can provide valuable lessons for students learning about the functioning of other political systems and societies. The problem is when protests turn violent. Regardless of the country or situation, we encourage students to avoid protests of any kind, typically out of an abundance of caution.”

More than132 countries have experienced significant protests.

At Elon and Kalamazoo, risk mitigation begins with monitoring government resources like the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories and the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), as well as non-government resources such as colleagues from other institutions with students in the same parts of the world, local news and communication with overseas institutions. 

“This sort of in-depth research is important because it permits us to understand a full picture of when, where, and what is taking place in a given part of a country where our students are studying,” said Gozik. 

The U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories rank from one to four, with four being the highest. They move up and down in severity in response to changing factors such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. Travelers can also enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service enabling U.S. nationals to register their trip with local U.S. embassies and consulates. Enrollees receive immediate notifications about shifting travel conditions, and can quickly establish contact with an embassy in the event of an emergency. 

Meanwhile, OSAC, which operates under the U.S. Department of State, connects private security professionals in U.S. organizations operating abroad with the Diplomatic Security Service, itself responsible for providing U.S. nationals abroad with crisis support. OSAC has over 5,400 organization members, in addition to over 18,000 individual members, and has chapters in over 150 countries. 

Pulling students out of a country entirely is always an option in more extreme situations. Kalamazoo College’s policy is to evacuate students in cases where an interruption in academic activity in the target country is likely to be sustained, or when a situation escalates to the point that students are hindered in their movement around a city or country, according to Wiedenhoeft. Additionally, if the U.S. Department of State implements a Travel Advisory suggesting U.S. nationals depart, Kalamazoo follows suit.

23% of significant protests have lasted than more than three months.

“We do everything possible to vet program locations and make any programmatic changes prior to students going abroad,” said Gozik. “When incidents arise unexpectedly in a country while students are abroad, in very rare circumstances we have been forced to bring students home or move them to a different location.” 

Elon would also consider calling students home if a country were to consider imminent closure of its borders, which could potentially prevent a student from returning home, Gozik said. 

Takeaways 

Safety happens as much in the preparation for the study abroad experience as in the trip itself. This also goes for short-term programs, where students should have ample access to updates about local events or unrest, and be prepared to respond appropriately. 

Students should also be notified where to find relevant information before and during the study abroad experience. Elon and Kalamazoo’s study abroad centers have thorough web pages detailing how students can mitigate risk while studying abroad, with a heavy emphasis on the pre-departure phrase. 

135 significant economic antigovernment protests have occurred since 2017.

Elon’s Isabella Cannon Global Education Center health and safety page, for example, outlines how students can create a portable first aid kit and walkthroughs pre-departure precautions students can take, including enrolling in STEP and locating the embassy closest to their destination of study. 

Kalamazoo, meanwhile, walks students through the process of ensuring they will continue to have access to necessary medications while abroad and provides options for connecting with therapists before departure, so that students will already be in contact with a mental healthcare provider in the event of a need.  

Having a pre-prepared plan will continue to be a cornerstone of student safety abroad.

“Have a health and safety plan and be prepared to use it, know how to use it, and make sure communication plans are robust and in place,” said Wiedenhoeft.

Joshua Aelick

Joshua Aelick

Reporter

Joshua Aelick is a graduate student in the MFA in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University, where they studied German and creative writing as an undergraduate. Joshua has previously reported on the air cargo industry at Air Cargo Next and Cargo Facts and has poetry forthcoming in Sinking City.


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