by Adam Rubin
When I first started in the field of international education many years ago, international educators often lamented the fact that the vast majority of their students limited their study abroad choices to the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, and other traditional destinations. Thanks to the development of new program models and an increased spirit of global adventure, it has now become quite common for students to seek study abroad opportunities in less traditional parts of the world. For some students, these destinations offer a chance to get off the beaten path to explore environmental issues, participate in meaningful service-learning projects, or develop stronger language skills. For others, less traditional locations help a student experience new political perspectives, step outside their comfort zone, and do something “unique” that will help them stand out from the crowd in future job interviews. The rapid expansion of international programs over the past ten years has been truly exciting and wonderful in many ways, and study abroad professionals are now celebrating the fact that nearly 40% of U.S. college students studying abroad in 2014-15 went to non-European destinations.
At the same time, it’s important for educators to understand that non-traditional destinations often require additional planning and special attention to potential risks. While we all acknowledge that there are inherent risks involved with any domestic or international program, institutions and individuals should devote extra time and consideration to the challenges involved with international programs in low and medium income countries, programs operating in remote locations, and programs in politically-unstable regions. Here are just a few key areas and questions that should be considered:
● Emergency Contingency Plans
○ What are your specific triggers for program changes, suspension, cancellation, or evacuation? Do you have proper Political Evacuation and Natural Disaster (PEND) insurance? Do you know how it works?
○ Have you trained your staff to manage emergencies? Have your contingency plans been practiced and reviewed?
○ Does your plan include academic contingencies associated with program disruption or cancellation?
● Health and Mental Health Infrastructure
○ Have you done a proper assessment of local hospitals and clinics? Do you have access to appropriate facilities when your group is traveling outside of the host city?
○ What is the state of mental health care in your host city/country? Are there English-speaking counselors readily available? Are psychotropic medications legal in the host country? How might those medications interact with other necessary medications such as malaria prophylaxis?
○ Are there specific issues, conditions, or challenges that should be given extra consideration when screening students for your program in this location?
● Transportation Providers
○ What are the safest modes of transportation available to your program? Have your local transportation service providers been carefully vetted?
○ Have you carefully prepared a list of vetted and recommended transportation options for students to use during their daily commute and independent travel?
○ How might the local infrastructure impact your program’s overall schedule and content?
● Unstructured/Free Time for Students
○ How can your program monitor independent student travel? Does it make specific recommendations to students regarding transportation, accommodations, and security?
○ What are some of the local high risk activities that might attract students? (bungee jumping, surfing, swimming, sky diving)? How can you manage those risks? Can and should certain activities be prohibited on your program?
○ Does your program conduct a bystander intervention training workshop during orientation?
● Program Leadership
○ Do you have appropriately-trained staff to lead your programs in these locations?
○ Have you vetted the staff used by partner institutions (i.e. host university) or local service providers to help ensure that they are qualified and competent enough to support your program adequately?
○ Who is going to answer the phone at 2:00 a.m.?
● Program Housing
○ How are local homestay families screened and trained? How do cultural issues impact your ability to screen local families?
○ How might concerns about fire safety, security, and local environmental issues impact your selection of program housing (residence halls, homestays, hotels, hostels)?
While these are all important issues and questions that should go into the risk management planning for any domestic or foreign student program, they become increasingly important for programs in low or medium income countries, locations with specific environmental or political challenges, and programs that include significant fieldwork and travel in remote locations. By taking the extra time to plan carefully, you and your team will be better prepared to assess, manage, and mitigate risk. And, you’ll be in a much better position to respond confidently when parents, senior school officials, and institutional risk managers question you about the overall safety of your programs.
 Institute of International Education. (2016). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors
Adam Rubin has worked in the field of international education for over 25 years, including more than 20 years with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). He is the former Executive Director for Program Development and Evaluation at CIEE and also served as Senior Program Director for programs in Africa, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East, Director of Campus Relations, and Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Japan. Adam is a member of the NAFSA Trainer Corps, former member of the NAFSA Health and Safety Subcommittee, and a member of the Forum on Education Abroad Standards Committee. He served for two years as a member of the planning committee for the Forum Standards of Good Practice Institute, “Beyond the Basics of Health, Safety, and Security.” Adam also served as a board member for the World Affairs Council of Maine. He has presented nationally and internationally on a variety of issues and topics, including program development, health, safety, and security issues, community engagement, and developing and managing programs in non-traditional locations. Adam received his MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and a BA in Economics from Whitman College.