By Sheryl Hill, Dr. Peter Tarlow, and Dr. John Fletemeyer

U.S. Students are vulnerable abroad

U.S. students are a vulnerable population, especially abroad. They are strangers in foreign lands. They may lack cultural competency, have language barriers, and be unfamiliar with laws, customs, and resources to assist them if they find themselves in dangerous situations.

Federal and state policies haven’t kept pace with globalization. There’s no department of the U.S. government that has authority over the health and safety of citizens traveling into foreign countries.

No federal rules govern how higher education study abroad programs operate or how they should prepare students to identify and avoid risks and get help when needed. Nor do federal rules govern when and how to publicly report illness, injury, arrests, missing persons, or deaths when they occur. Students, faculty, and parents need help to make informed decisions.

These are hard facts that Sheryl Hill, founder of Depart Smart™, discovered after her sixteen-year-old son, Tyler, died a preventable death on a student program in Japan. Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, suggested she submit a Freedom for Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. State Department. Sheryl was informed “no department of the United States has accurate statistics on deaths of U.S. citizens abroad.”

The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), is a public private partnership helping secure international safe travels for employees, volunteers and others. University study abroad faculty can become members of OSAC. An OSAC Crime and Safety report should be in the hands of every student and faculty member before they depart for a study abroad program.

The risky business of study abroad should be included in every university’s risk management plan. Study abroad safety and risk management plans are not useful if colleges within a university, or professors within colleges, can offer self-governed programs. Study abroad issues of consequence can negatively affect the financial security and reputation of the entire institute when high-profile wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits are awarded punitive damages. When students die or become irreparably harmed, America loses their contribution to the future. One life is priceless.

In 2017, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled to uphold a $41.5 million verdict for a high school student who was stricken with tick-borne encephalitis during a trip to China on a program led by Hotchkiss School.

Study abroad business is booming

From the launch of the first study abroad program in 1923, people could travel anywhere in the world in approximately a day and youth student travel programs have become a booming industry.

The World Youth and Student Travel Conference (WYSTC) made this appeal to conference attendees in 2014. “If your organization offers products or services to teenagers or travelers in their teens, 20s and early 30s – or if you want to tap into this lucrative market worth U.S. $183 billion per year – then WYSTC is the one event that you can’t afford to miss.” That same year, a WYSTC report stated that youth travel accounted for 20% of the global tourism market and is expected to continue growing.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) compiles an annual report on higher education study abroad statistics at some institutes. It is funded by the U.S. Bureau of Cultural Affairs. In 2017, IIE reported 325,339 U.S. students studied abroad in 2015/2016 and during 2016/2017, 1,078,822 international students studied in the USA.

Study abroad travel issues


Dangers for students abroad

In 2014, the U.S. National Travel and Tourism office reported 30,780,000 U.S. residents went overseas. Of those, 87.8% didn’t receive pre-trip health care (defined in the report as “vaccinations, etc.”) and 71.9% didn’t purchase travel insurance.

In 2016, The Forum on Education Abroad released a study abroad student mortality statistic of 13.5:100,000 for some programs. Compare this statistic to deaths by auto accidents in 2016, a leading cause of death in the U.S., at 11.6:100,000.

Study abroad sexual assault made headlines when the Journal of Psychological Trauma published a study of 218 female students at one institute in 2012. According to an Inside Higher Ed article which reviewed the report, “Sixty of the respondents (27.5%) reported at least one experience of unwanted touching while abroad, 13 (6%) reported an attempted sexual assault (anal, oral, or vaginal), and 10 (4.6%) reported rape.” Two years later, Title IX expanded to include study abroad.

In the USA, students and faculty become accustomed to consumer safety laws, such as fire prevention and building codes. Abroad, those standards may not exist or be enforced. The Jasmine Jahanshahi Fire Safety Foundation was established in honor of four students who lost their lives in a Paris fire.

A grassroots study by Depart Smart found students are seriously injured or perish when they fall from windows and balconies that don’t meet U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. They lean out and they never lean back.

Buildings aren’t the only places students face danger. They are often lulled into a belief that international swimming pool and beach safety adheres to familiar American safety standards. Dr. John Fletemeyer, international aquatic law and water safety specialist, has done research revealing such assumptions can result in serious injury, illness, or death.

Swimming pools, even those operated by U.S. hotels, ​are not built or maintained under the same standards, codes, and regulations. Consequently, water may ​have​ serious contaminants​ and other significant safety standards may be absent. Except for a few countries, beach safety practices are frequently underdeveloped.

“Rip currents are often unmarked, or if they are marked – students are unfamiliar with the warnings. Most people don’t comprehend a flag on a beach is a danger warning,” Dr. Fletemeyer cautions.

Aside from environmental dangers, there’s also normal health concerns — both physical and mental.

The World Health Organization reported, “Mental disorders are not rare among travelers. Overall, mental health issues are among the leading causes of ill health among travelers, and ‘psychiatric emergency’ is one of the most common medical reasons for air evacuation, along with injury and cardiovascular disease.”

A Northwestern junior took her life while studying abroad in London. When a student suffers mental illness, becomes injured, or infected by a foreign disease, medical evacuation may be necessary. The cost for an air ambulance may range from $50K-$300K or more. When a student dies, a study abroad program’s duty of care is a priority until repatriation of remains occurs.

Nicolas Upton, a George Washington University student who was studying abroad, drowned while taking a break from studies. Repatriation is challenging, even with travel insurance. A “Bring Nick Home” GoFundMe page was established to help with travel, rescue, and repatriation costs.

What’s next for students abroad?

Depart Smart developed a grassroots database of student deaths abroad called IIISAD – the Incomplete Illness Injury Student Abroad Death Report. This causation report became the foundation of comprehensive, consumer-driven, travel safety standards to help students and faculty navigate the world safely.

Depart Smart asked hundreds of study abroad survivors what they know now that could have changed the outcome. Their answers became a travel safety savvy quiz on Thousands of people have taken the travel safety savvy quiz. Fewer than 3% have been able to score more than six questions accurately.

Students and faculty are global citizens who need travel safety skills, tools, education, and comprehensive safety plans so they can identify and avoid risks in an ever-changing world. They must know how to seek appropriate intervention and assistance when trouble happens so they can return home safely.

A study abroad program may secure safe travel for a semester or J-term, but teaching students how to be their own heroes with super skills and safety plans helps them become safe global citizens for a lifetime. Could standardized travel safety training be the solution to reducing student mortality during study abroad?

Depart Smart worked with graduate and undergraduate students from St. Cloud State University, the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, the University of St. Thomas, and the Minnesota College of Art and Design to develop Travel HEROES Safety Planning. Dr. Kathryn Johnson, St. Cloud State University – Confucius Institute championed the pilot program. “The pedagogy of Travel HEROES empowers my students to make safety a priority. All of my students will be travel safety certified before studying in Beijing, China,” she said.

The aforementioned issues of circumstance are worthy of scrutiny by academic institute leaders and study abroad program directors. The inclusion of strategies to mediate these issues in risk management programs has the potential to strengthen study abroad programs.

Study abroad issues can be avoided or minimized when institutes include study abroad in risk management plans; when statistically meaningful data is analyzed and used for prevention and continuous quality improvement; and when standardized travel safety training is adhered to, so study abroad participants develop tools, skills, and safety plans to become decision makers in their own health and safety.

Students are America’s future. Studying abroad is an awesome opportunity – until it’s not.