International Programs Update
January 17, 2013
Ensuring Safety Abroad
Around 800 St. Olaf students will be studying off campus for some period during the current school year. Inevitably we run into complications because of unsettled political conditions around the world — this Interim, for example, we cancelled our program to Israel and offered students the opportunity to study in Greece and Turkey instead. As parents, you may be wondering what we do to ensure the safety of our students and how we make decisions about sending students into areas that have a history of unrest.
First of all, health and safety are factors that are taken into consideration when a study-abroad program or off-campus course is added to our approved list. As director of International and Off-Campus Studies, I review these matters carefully before bringing a new proposal to the college’s Curriculum Committee for consideration.
During the time we have students studying abroad, I start each day by monitoring a number of reports on conditions abroad that come to me from newspapers, the U.S. State Department, and FrontierMEDEX, the college’s travel insurance provider. We try to anticipate problems so that we can take appropriate steps to avoid dangerous areas.
This past year, the Middle East has been the prime hotspot. We had a number of programs scheduled to go to Egypt, where almost daily protests were going on over the transition to a new governmental structure. We have lots of contacts in Cairo that we have worked with for many years (university professors, tour company operators, alumni or personal friends, etc.). We were in close contact with them before and during the time we had students in Egypt so that we got a more adequate reading of local life than we sometimes get from news reports that concentrate on inflammatory situations. They assured us they could provide safe programming for us, so we went ahead with our plans. However, we did make some adjustments to the activities scheduled for these students so that they were kept away from the spots where demonstrations were taking place.
In cases where political unrest develops while we have a program under way, the first thing we do is touch base with the leaders of the program to find out how the student group is reacting to the situation. Quite often they report that the situation is calmer than it appears in U.S. media reports. The U.S. State Department provides good guidance about whether it is appropriate to evacuate American citizens. Once or twice this has happened. For example, two students enrolled at the American University in Cairo were evacuated at the very start of the revolution in Egypt in February 2011. If the situation has not developed to that drastic point, we are more likely to adjust the itinerary, trying as best we can to salvage the program so that students do not lose course credits. In a worst-case scenario, we would try to find a way for students to finish up their courses from a distance if they could not complete the program in-country.
The situation in Israel was somewhat more complicated. Israel and the Palestinian Territories are under a State Department travel warning. We currently have a policy that allows for some programming in travel warning countries if, and only if, we feel assured that we can avoid the hot spots. Before we make a decision to send students to a country under a travel warning, both the director of international studies and the provost of the college need to be in agreement about the feasibility of running our programs there safely.
This year our Term in the Middle East was scheduled to spend a week in Israel at the end of the first semester, and we had a religion Interim program scheduled to go to Israel and the West Bank in January. After the clashes between Israel and the Gaza Strip developed this fall, we reviewed our plans very carefully, checking on our usual sources for safety information and consulting with our local contacts close to the unfolding situation. There were divided opinions among our decision-makers about how much risk our students might face, but in the end the college decided to err on the side of caution. Our programming in Israel was cancelled before it began, and the Interim course was re-routed to Greece and Turkey (where the instructor has led programs on a similar topic in previous years).
We live in an unpredictable world, and safety decisions are often complex judgment calls. Parents can be assured that we take this matter seriously and try both to give our students opportunities to explore areas of the world where important developments are taking place and to minimize the risks they face when they study abroad.
Director of International and Off-Campus Studies