By Joel Berg
As civil unrest swept Egypt in early 2011, officials at the University of Minnesota believed they had plucked all their students from the country -- until a call came in to Stacey Tsantir, the university's director of international health, safety and compliance.
A colleague told her about an article in The New York Times that quoted a University of Minnesota student who was stuck in Cairo's airport, Tsantir said. "We said, 'Surely, he's not our student.'"
As it turns out, the student was from the school -- and enrolled in 17 credits of independent study. But unlike the three students who were evacuated under established policies and procedures, there was no record he had even left campus, Tsantir said, noting that the university urges faculty members to report student travel. After contacting the student, Tsantir called his mother.
"The first words out of her mouth were, 'I didn't think anyone cared about my son,' " said Tsantir. "If that's not close to my worst nightmare, I don't know what is."
The student eventually made it home, Tsantir said. But the incident underscores one of the reasons officials in higher education across the U.S. have been strengthening their oversight of international travel -- especially of students and professors traveling in small numbers outside of traditional study abroad programs.
Recent crises -- from political turmoil in the Middle East to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan -- have driven home the risks, according to college officials. But officials also know that anything can happen anywhere -- horror stories abound -- and they never know when or why they might need to contact students or professors overseas.
"If someone's injured or hurt, the question is always going to be asked of the university,'Shouldn't you have known?' " said Bill Powell, an area executive vice president for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. who specializes in higher education.
Some colleges are moving to mandate reporting of overseas travel that they support or sponsor, or that is otherwise being undertaken in their names. But given the decentralized nature of universities, where professors are used to acting independently, schools typically rely on voluntary compliance, Powell said.
"They have the technology to do it," he said. "It's just, is it going to be the provost? Is it going to be the president? Who's going to tell them they have to do it?"
Not every school is even using the technology, added Leta Finch, higher education practice leader for Aon Risk Solutions. While many colleges ask students and professors to register with online databases, some still track trips manually.
"It keeps them awake at night, I can tell you that," Finch said.
There's certainly more to track. The number of students studying overseas has more than doubled since the late 1990s, according to the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit. During the 2010-2011 academic year, nearly 274,000 students left the U.S., up from about 130,000 in 1998-1999.
Students also are traveling to more countries, according to insurance brokers and college officials. The top 15 destinations in 2010-2011 include England and France. But the list also includes Brazil, India and Mexico. South Korea, recently threatened by its nuclear-armed neighbor to the north, was No. 23, attracting nearly 2,500 U.S. students.
In addition to taking classes, students may be conducting research, pursuing internships and volunteering for service work, often outside the academic year. Nearly 45 percent of students in 2010-2011 took trips during the summer or in January, up from less than 41 percent in 2000-2001, according to the Institute of International Education. The trips are often referred to as "education abroad," to distinguish them from "study abroad."
"If you think of study abroad as adding breadth to the undergraduate experience, a summer internship or a summer research project adds depth," said Joseph Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
At the University of Minnesota, reporting falls on faculty advisers, not students, said Tsantir. The university's policy, in place since 2004, asks faculty to ensure students obtain international health insurance, develop an emergency communication plan and take other steps before leaving the country. Trips to riskier countries require preapproval.
About 99 percent of undergraduates and their advisers adhere to the policy, Tsantir said. Among graduate students, the number is probably closer to 75 percent. Tsantir said she spends much of her time educating faculty on the policies, though some professors come to her.
"I did get phone calls from people hearing what happened in Egypt and wanting to follow the rules," she said. Due to its large size, Minnesota prefers to rely on voluntary compliance, she added. The university has about 65,000 students spread across five campuses. Roughly 5,000 are abroad in any given year.
Information is especially critical when it concerns individuals and small groups traveling outside the academic year, said Brockington, the administrator at Kalamazoo College, which has about 1,400 students. This spring, the college began requiring undergraduates to register online before they travel.
Administrators generally knew how to reach students in conventional study abroad programs, Brockington said. But he said, "Our term ends in mid-June. From mid-June to early September, we have 20 to 30 students all over the world doing internships, research, service-learning projects, and I had no idea where they were."
At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., administrators introduced a centralized online registry this year, said Craig McAllister, the school's risk management and insurance director. The school has about 20,000 students.
In the past, students registered with their departments, McAllister said. Now, the information is kept in one place. "It's not foolproof," he added. "But it's better than it was."
Another change at Cornell affects the need for preapproval of trips. Cornell used to require approval for any trips to countries for which the U.S. State Department had issued travel warnings. Now, the university uses a private vendor that categorizes risks based on a broader set of data, McAllister said.
At Murray State University in western Kentucky, the push for centralizing information accelerated after terrorist bombings in London in July 2005, according to Melanie McCallon, the university's associate director for education abroad. She also is co-author of a book,"Faculty-led 360," a guide to planning and leading overseas programs.
McCallon said she was on maternity leave at the time, and university officials scrambled to determine whether any Murray State students were in the city. Overall, Murray State has nearly 11,000 students.
"We had some procedures in place, but we learned, as many institutions do, how well our process worked and where the holes were," she said. "We used those holes as a learning experience and strengthened our process."
A crisis management team, comprised of administrators, the university's general counsel, and faculty members who had led trips abroad, hashed out responses to a range of scenarios, McCallon said.
Murray State also has a centralized approach to approving trips abroad, McCallon said. Before taking students out of the country, professors must seek approval from a committee made up of McCallon, three faculty members with overseas experience and the director of the university's Institute for International Studies.
Trips may be approved, rejected or granted conditional admission, which gives professors an opportunity to sharpen their applications. McCallon said. The applications cover a trip's itinerary, coursework and budget, among other details, and they must be submitted even for trips undertaken in previous semesters.
This year, Murray State began requiring faculty to produce risk assessments for the areas where they plan on traveling, whether the destination is Paris or Panama City, McCallon said.
The goal is to ensure professors understand the risks, McCallon said. While professors are experts in their academic fields, they aren't necessarily experts in leading students in other countries. Although they may not always make the best decisions in the field, she added, professors want to do what's best for their students.
"That's why we really try to hammer into them the resources that are available," McCallon said, "and to really think seriously about all of these sorts of scenarios before they go."
JOEL BERG is a freelance journalist and college professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 1, 2013
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