Study Abroad Programs Must Focus on Student Safety

Colleges and universities are working to better monitor their international programs to avoid student deaths, assaults and health issues.
Published: February 19, 2019

Studying abroad is an amazing opportunity for college students to see the world, experience culture and meet lifelong friends. Sadly, tragic stories are reported every semester about students who experience violence, illness, and death.

Ravi Thackurdeen, a 19-year-old student, was studying abroad in Costa Rica through a program with Duke University when he was swept away by a current and died.

According to his mother, the beach was known for being dangerous and her son was not the first student to drown there.

Damion Dabney, a 19-year-old pre-med student at Old Dominion University (ODU), was studying abroad in Peru for a week.

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His mother got a call from the program’s director, saying her son, who had no prior health issues and had a physical before the trip, unexpectedly collapsed and died.

She questioned the supervision of the students and the school’s involvement. After her son’s death, ODU told her, “The program had nothing to do with our school.”

The school said that although it promoted the program and offered college credit, it had zero responsibility for the program.

As officials become more aware of the dangers that come with international travel, schools across the country are realizing the necessity to improve safety when its students study in other countries.

What Schools Have Done to Improve Study Abroad Safety

Minnesota study abroad programs have felt growing pressure over the years to be more vigilant when it comes to student health and safety, according to Star Tribune.

The University of Minnesota settled a lawsuit with a student who sued them after she was raped while studying abroad in Cuba in 2014. The university agreed to pay her $137,500.

That same year, the state passed a law requiring schools to report hospitalizations and deaths. However, the outcome has been somewhat of a letdown, says Sheryl Hill, who lobbied for the law after her 16-year-old son died of altitude sickness during a high school exchange program in Japan.

Hill feels data should be collected from objective sources like insurance claims, that would report more information.

“Sexual assault is the Number 1 issue I hear about in my advocacy,” Hill said. “Most of the time the woman is blamed and shamed and admonished.”

Other improvements include hiring staff whose jobs are specifically focused on health and study abroad safety and giving safety training to faculty advisers.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system also require travel insurance from a vetted provider, with readily available English-speaking doctors.

At Northwestern University in Evanston Ill., LGBTQ students say they are facing troubles when studying abroad as well.

The private university offers 150 study abroad programs in about 50 different countries, reports The Daily Northwestern. In over 70 countries, however, homosexual activity between consenting adults is illegal, bringing up legal and safety concerns for students.

Broderick Topil, who was a sophomore at NU in 2016, traveled abroad to the Dominican Republic and worked in conservative areas. Broderick, who identifies as gay, chose to hide his sexuality while abroad out of fear.

“I never felt at ease there at all,” he said.

Students are told to research legal, cultural and social environments on gay rights in different countries before choosing a destination.

Francesca Miroballi, an assistant director at the Office of Undergraduate Learning Abroad (ULA), says in order to ensure student safety, they offer resources for LGBTQ students and encourage them to come in for personal appointments with advisors.

Once students arrive abroad, ULA helps them connect with English-speaking therapists and doctors. Students are encouraged to reach out to them for health problems or if they experience any kind of marginalization due to their sexuality.

Tips on Study Abroad Safety

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has online resources and tips, including a Traveler’s Health guide, that gives advice for safe and healthy travel.

Some of those tips include:

  • Learn about health and safety concerns in your host country
  • Make an appointment with a travel medicine specialist prior to your trip
  • Pack a travel health kit
  • Monitor travel warnings and alerts at all destinations
  • Follow security and safety guidelines – follow local laws and social customs
  • Use a reputable travel guide or tour company
  • Avoid traveling alone at night
  • Immediately seek healthcare if you feel sick or get injured

You can see the full page of advice on staying safe abroad from the CDC here.

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