April 2, 2007

Students Face Risks Overseas

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Only one percent of students enrolled in higher-education programs choose to study abroad. At Cornell, the number is significantly higher — nearly one in five students choose to spend time studying outside of Ithaca. With twenty percent of Cornellians traveling to programs in nations from Japan to Ecuador, safety for students abroad has become a major issue.

According to Kristen Grace, associate director of the Cornell Abroad office, the study abroad field has seen huge growth in recent decades.

“Study abroad as we know it really came into being after World War Two,” Grace said. “There was a realization that we really need to build international understanding.”

This growth has led to an increased demand for comprehensive safety for students abroad.

Students who choose to study abroad are required to attend a pre-departure meeting conducted by the Cornell Abroad office.

“[The meeting] covers basic security and safety information, such as information the State Department puts out for travelers, good street-smarts and safety-awareness issues,” Grace said.

Each student is also given a copy of the Student Abroad Safety Handbook, which touts itself as “the essential guide for Cornell University students going abroad.” In addition to the general pre-departure meeting, the office also offers a series of recommended meetings that deal with areas from women’s safety to issues specific to certain geographical regions.

Cornell Abroad works closely with the University to ensure safety for students studying abroad. Allen Bova, who works in the Risk Management department, says that “[the Risk Management department, says that “[the Risk Management office] plays a role relative to any emergencies abroad … We’re also involved if there should be any emergency abroad relative to whatever response the University can make from Ithaca.”

While the University requires all students — whether they are studying abroad or not — to have health insurance, students who choose to go abroad are provided additional insurance through International SOS, a company that provides medical assistance and international healthcare for students abroad.

“We had a situation with an automobile accident that happened in Africa, we’ve had a situation with a serious medical incident in Europe. We had a student who had their passport and all of their money stolen — we’ve had some serious incidents where we’ve had to rely on International SOS,” Bova said.

When a student contacts International SOS while abroad, the company verifies the student’s identity through the Risk Management office. Then, if necessary, it provides medical evacuation services for the student.

“One of the things that a lot of folks don’t understand is that when we say medical evacuation, the goal is really to get you to a hospital that can provide you appropriate care. That may be going to a local hospital that can stabilize you before you’re moved back to the States,” Bova said.

International SOS maintains a list of appropriate clinics and runs clinics to provide those enrolled with what Bova described as “western-style medicine anywhere in the world.”

Upon arriving at a foreign university, students attend an orientation that deals with safety issues. Said Grace, “issues [for students abroad] are similar to issues [for students in Ithaca], where big problems for students are automobile and alcohol-related.”

The pre-departure meeting conducted by Cornell Abroad deals with these issues, and such issues are reiterated at each specific orientation. Since the majority of Cornell students study abroad through programs that are not directly run by the University, programs run either by other universities or by third-party study-abroad organizations, Cornell cannot provide safety personnel at every location. But at Cornell-run programs, including the popular Cornell in Rome program and the lesser-known Cornell Nepal Study Program, staff is available to deal with safety concerns.

According to Grace, the last major medical emergency abroad happened before Cornell began using International SOS. Medical evacuation services have been used to evacuate Cornell students in Nepal during the Nepalese civil war, for a student in Africa with a broken leg and over the past summer, when a student studying in Lebanon was evacuated during the conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. The student had purchased the medical evacuation independently, since Cornell does not run study-abroad programs over the summer.

In some cases, the potential safety risk of a country rules it out as a possible location for Cornell students to study abroad.

“Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea [come immediately to mind],” said Bova, but the safety of each country in question is examined before students are allowed to participate in programs there.

“There is a list of countries that are on the State Department’s Travel Advisory list,” he said. “When we have students or faculty — we don’t look at things differently for faculty — we look very carefully at the specifics, what the programs are all about, and safety issues.”

The most important part of safety for students abroad, said Grace, is maintaining a multi-faceted approach.

“You can’t run a program in a country like Nepal unless you have a strong safety fabric locally and strong connections here.”

To that end, a committee comprised of Bova, the vice provost for international relations, general counsel for the university, the dean of students and the head of the study abroad office reviews study abroad programs in State Department travel advisory countries.

“We’re very accustomed to working together,” said Grace.

Grace said that she advises students to become involved in their study abroad program as a way to both increase learning and safety.

“The more that students do to be part of the local culture, the more that helps them,” she said. “The more integrated you are into the local culture, the more awareness you’re going to have of what’s safe and what’s not safe, and the more likely you are to have people looking out for you.”