Out of Your Hands and Overseas: Study Abroad Safety Tips

Whether it’s a natural disaster or political unrest, unexpected circumstances can arise while studying abroad. Learn how you can keep you or your student safe.

If you are a parent reading this, you are one of many who worry that her child may face some unexpected circumstances while away from campus and home.

Any professional in the field will honestly tell you that there is little you can do to prevent unexpected circumstances like political unrest or natural disasters. They will also tell you that there are experts in place to handle such eventualities. If, as a parent, you can be sure that the program and provider your child selects are well-equipped to manage these things, then you can rest assured that she is in good hands.

Understanding “Duty of Care”

As you consider the risks of your child being abroad, please remember that unexpected events can happen at home, too. Uncertainty is not about the nationality of the student or the host country, but rather the logistics and reliability of the organization overseeing your child's education.

The overarching principle that education providers consider is "duty of care," or the responsibility of safeguarding participants of a program. When your child goes away to college, the duty of care is with the school, and this responsibility is shared among several teams, including the housing staff, academic advisors, faculty, health services, and campus security. In America's litigious climate, colleges appoint a powerful official known as a Risk Manager who helps the school assess risk and develop plans to handle unfortunate situations or mishaps.

In the U.S., there is no better example of the sort of events colleges sometimes face than Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the lives of tens of thousands of students in New Orleans. It's fair to say each university had a plan, each acted with full duty of care, and each did the best it could to be sure the students were safe and that their education resumed as quickly as possible. Today, lots of parents ask those colleges "What if another Katrina hit?" Universities have answers, and more importantly, plans.

If your child is studying abroad during the academic year, the college that is approving the time abroad will assume the duty of care. For programs that take place over summer and scheduled breaks, there is less of a clear line of responsibility, so be sure to ask program providers about who holds the duty of care.

Most colleges provide study abroad counselors and administrators in order to live up to this responsibility and ensure that there are adequate measures in place to deal with a wide range of unpredictable outcomes. If a university endorses study abroad programs, it is because the provider has undergone scrutiny and demonstrated its ability to deliver the experience all hope for. Even if your college doesn't approve specific programs that interest you, it may recognize or refer organizations that operate successful ones. Ask for and trust these recommendations.

Coping With Difficult Situations

Semester at Sea

Semester at Sea is an example of one well-regarded organization that has mastered the duty of care by incorporating intelligence gathering and risk management into its daily operations. Program participants circle the globe on a ship, making stops in a wide variety of cities. There is a planned itinerary, which they publish, as well as a complex, thought-out set of contingencies based on an array of unknowns.

In one instance, an outbreak of ebola in West Africa was reason to reroute the ship to Spain. As a parent, it’s important to keep in mind that such an experience is a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity, and the professionals who run the program take their "duty of teach" very seriously as well. Diversions are "teachable moments," and there are many accounts of how an unplanned course of events became an opportunity to participate in an epic, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Egypt

In a testimonial from this UC–Berkeley student who studied abroad in Cairo during a period of political unrest, she states that program coordinators kept students briefed about protests that were happening in the city. Classes were occasionally canceled, and when large protests were taking place, students were asked to stay in their apartments. Despite all this, she explained that she felt safe and that the program had been worthwhile.

Asking the Right Questions

We are not saying you should simply accept that anybody in the business of study abroad knows what she is doing and can handle stressful, unforeseen events. You should do your homework and base your decisions on your own personal risk management. Look for providers who are willing to discuss their expertise and capabilities when it comes to coping with unfortunate circumstances.

Ask about individual and group insurance, expatriation coverage (insurance coverage for someone outside of her own country), and program guarantees. Request information about the program’s communications plans and where you would turn if things go wrong. Inquire about the safety officer and incident-reporting system, and how this has been tested both in theory and practice. The organizations that are willing to respond to these questions are the ones you should consider. Be wary of those that say "Don't worry, nothing ever goes wrong on our programs!" A location may shift, a delay may occur, or a suspension may come about — it happens.

There is nothing you can do to prevent a natural disaster or sudden shift in a nation's stability, and these thoughts ought not to keep you up at night. Programs employ experts who constantly monitor and observe a country’s situation so you don’t have to. Moreover, this expertise is part of what you pay for when you pick an organization that operates study abroad experiences. When parents ask why these offerings are often so expensive, the answer can be seen in the overhead necessary to manage curious students in all corners of the world, and maintain local support, central management, and the appropriate contingency plans for unexpected circumstances.

Trusting the Experts

Lastly, let the experts do their job. While it is common for students to talk, text, or connect online with their parents while abroad, the best parenting you can do when things go wrong is to let those who created the plan execute it. In a crisis, there will be protocols for students and parents to follow. Do not undermine the professionals who are responsible for the safety and well-being of your loved one. The last thing you should do is to disrupt their well-considered course of action.

If you trusted the organization in the first place, you should rely on its expertise when the chips are down. This is, in fact, part of the growing experience your child will be undergoing as well — that is, learning to adjust, to become resilient, and to take responsibility. This growth is part of what makes conquering the unknowns such a rewarding experience.

If your child is thinking of leaving her program to come home, learn more the implications of this situation by reading our article: Homesick or Heartbroken: What Happens If You Decide to Leave Study Abroad Early.

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