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Studying Abroad Securely

​THE ARAB SPRING and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami were among the dramatic events of 2011 that highlighted the vulnerability of students caught far from home in study-abroad programs when crises occur. Schools with such programs had to be sure that they were doing everything possible to keep students and faculty safe. In some cases, that meant arranging emergency evacuations.

Some schools are now creating positions to address this issue. For example, Julie Ann Friend recently was hired to fill the newly created position of associate director for international safety and security at Northwestern University’s Study Abroad Office. As chair of the health and safety subcommittee for the Association of International Educators, which goes by the acronym NAFSA, Friend knows of at least 16 similar full-time positions at colleges and universities.

“I think more and more universities are seeing the need for this position,” says Ines DeRomana, who works in health, safety, and emergency response for the University of California’s Education Abroad Program. DeRomana was one of the first people to hold one of these study-abroad posts. “In the past decade or so, or maybe more, we are providing more guidance, more resources, and more training to professionals regarding health, safety, and security of our students and faculty that we send abroad.”

DeRomana points out that one of the reasons for these specific positions is that universities recognize how it may be difficult for campus-wide risk managers to focus adequately on study-abroad programs as well as on campus issues. The positions are often in the study-abroad offices, though not always. The people who do the jobs come from a variety of backgrounds, says Friend. “That’s what’s really exciting about the field,” she says, noting that some of the people in the positions are lawyers, counselors, risk managers, and security professionals. The key is for that person to have substantial international experience and to have lived and traveled overseas, particularly in diverse environments where safety and security was a challenge.

Even before the Arab Spring, many schools were already looking into creating dedicated study-abroad safety and security positions, but that series of events helped the schools make the case for funding. “I do believe that the Arab Spring...helped individuals who are trying to get this position going get the attention that they needed from their higher administration to perhaps pony up the funding or the space,” says Friend. Friend says that she saw many of these positions come into being at universities in the summer of 2011, right after those uprisings.

It’s not just the headline-making events that these officers have to deal with, however; they also have to contend with car accidents, student diseases, and other concerns on a daily basis.

The age of the students plays a role in the need for oversight in these programs. “I have young students—people who are relatively inexperienced in assessing risk, and then are not experienced in responding to an emergency if and when it might occur to them,” says Friend. She adds that, often, the student’s first instinct is to call home and seek help from his or her parents, but the parents might not have access to the proper resources to help the students. “Also, because they’re emotionally engaged, there’s a level of panic there that makes somebody somewhat inefficient,” says Friend. Friend says her office works closely with insurance providers to get the students appropriate care.

In addition to formulating emergency plans for various types of natural and manmade events and providing predeparture education programs, Friend says her job includes keeping abreast of travel policies and warnings and determining whether students should be permitted to visit high-risk areas.

She stresses that assessments have to be made on a city-by-city basis. Friend points to Israel as an example; she says that the risks in Gaza are different than those in Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem.

One of the challenges of the position is raising risk awareness in the students themselves, says DeRomana. Students have to accept part of the responsibility for creating a safe environment while studying abroad, she says.

DeRomana is also a member of the NAFSA health and safety subcommittee, and she says that the committee members try to create opportunities for other professionals to receive guidance, particularly where universities do not have dedicated positions focused on student health and safety abroad. She says the Overseas Security Advisory Council also holds seminars where knowledge and protocols can be exchanged.