Travel Health, Safety and Security: Professionalizing Study Abroad

Traditionally, the majority of study abroad programs were conducted in High Income Countries (HIC – a World Bank designation) where students visited and viewed various cultural and artistic sites while perhaps trying to develop language skills. A faculty member would invite their students to participate and the trip would be conducted with minimal school oversight or involvement.

While some fraction of international education has always been somewhat more adventurous, there is an increasing trend to travel to “non-traditional” destinations in primarily Low and Middle Income countries (LMIC). Generally, lower income destinations mean greater hazards and fewer mitigating resources owing to lesser-developed infrastructure, torte law, regulations, enforcement and the fact that a high proportion of lower income countries also have greater natural disaster exposures, less political stability and higher incidents of crime.

Additionally, what students do while abroad has been evolving towards increasingly higher levels of engagement with local people, communities and cultures. Home-stays and service projects are not new activities. However, the extent to which students are doing them, along with other more immersive activities, is increasing. Higher levels of engagement may engender greater risks.

As the world has become more interconnected and increasingly professional fields are emphasizing the importance of international competence, there is a push to “internationalize the campus” at universities and at secondary schools. If a school is going to compete for students, part of what they need to offer is excellent opportunities for developing international competency skills. At the university level the number of students going abroad for academic credit is approaching 200,000 annually. Many more travel on noncredit service programs or for internships. While no data is available for secondary schools, it seems likely that the rate of student participation in study abroad is increasing at least as rapidly. The increasing number of U.S. students going abroad has brought with it greater scrutiny of the health, safety and security of study abroad programs.

Negative stories of study abroad have become a media niche market fueled by the disappearance of Natalie Holloway and the trial of Amanda Knox. More and more stories break into the national and international news that would not likely have done so five years ago. There are a number of “gotcha” journalists who have added study abroad to their repertoire. There has grown up a cadre of semi authoritative figures who can be counted on by journalists to provide a hyperbolic quote to fit any overseas mishap.

Expectations for safety have also been raised by the technological innovations of the past decade and more. There is a sense that if something can be known, it should be known. If there is some knowledge, skill or information that could be applied to risk management overseas, then it should be applied. Participants, their parents and, potentially their legal counsels, have extensive resources available to them at the click of a mouse. If they can find important health, safety and security information, that the program is unaware of, it is regarded as a lack of due diligence.

What are schools doing to effectively manage health, safety and security abroad, and at the same time field more ambitious programs? Many are aggressively implementing a number of strategies to ensure that their programs are as safe as they should be.

They are evolving away from a faculty-centered approach for managing all the complexities of international health, safety and security.

In higher education, schools are creating full time positions dedicated to health, safety and security. There were one or two such positions ten years ago. Now there are twenty-five plus whose title reflects their health, safety and security specialization. There are perhaps another seventy-five who have health, safety and security as a primary part of their portfolios.

At the independent secondary school level, study abroad departments and directors of global education positions are being created at a rapid pace. At the recent Global Education Benchmark Group conference this past April, an impromptu poll during one session showed that of about 70 schools represented, close to 40 had a full time director for their study abroad programs. Of those 40, most indicated that their jobs had been created within the last 3 years.

Both higher ed and independent secondary schools have in addition to their large trade associations (NAFSA and NAIS respectively), standards creating bodies.

The Global Education Benchmark Group has been serving independent secondary schools since 2008 with their mission “to collect data to assess outcomes and practices in order to create nationwide standards for global education, both on and off campus.”

The Forum on Education Abroad was founded in 2001 and serves higher education. The Forum is “recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the Standard Development Organization of the field of education abroad.”

They are also doing a better job of information acquisition, knowledge management and communication. They understand what their programs actually do, the nature of where they do it and they know what the likely risks are going to be. They’ve created better manuals and systems in order to better utilize their institutional knowledge. They’ve created more and better communication between their offices and the field so that information and outside expertise might be brought to bear on an issue before it becomes an incident.

In some combination of systems creation, policy development and training, they calibrate their risk management to the specifics of their programs. They have performed due diligence in developing their student screening, vendor vetting, staff training, student preparation, emergency response, program monitoring, home-stay vetting, transportation plans, communication plans, medical strategies, etc. 

They are also utilizing more professional 3rd party providers and other local experts.  They are subscribing to travel assistance providers for security information and medical oversight as well as evacuation and repatriation. They are joining regional consortiums or national groups to share information and support. Some have safety advisory committees made up of peers from other schools or outside expertise.

Different study abroad ventures may require differing levels of expertise as well as different skill-sets. Schools, with a traditional safety approach based on a faculty-centered model, need to recognize that their newer and perhaps higher risk programs are different. Leading an extended program to a low-income country may require a more sophisticated skill set. Some schools are investing in developing their faculty trip leaders in house along with more sophisticated support systems.  Some schools are hiring outside of their institutions to ensure they have the necessary skill-sets in the field.

There is no simple step-by-step program for professionalizing an international education program that will be appropriate for all programs. It starts with understanding your programs and their hazards. From there it is a matter of making choices for the best combination of options to make each of your programs as safe as it should be.

Professionalizing a program doesn’t happen overnight. For most schools with extensive and well-established traditional programs it requires a cultural shift as well as a lot of work. But, conducting programs to develop international competencies implies engaging at a greater level of complexity. It isn’t surprising that fielding such programs engenders greater complexity as well.