Safety and Risk Management Training for Faculty Leading Study Abroad: Part 2

Recent international crises -- the civil unrest in north Africa, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan -- have prompted evacuations of American and Canadian students studying abroad, and have lent some urgency to reviewing risk management for study abroad programs. One area needing particular attention is the role of faculty who are on the ground leading study abroad programs overseas. Trained in scholarship and pedagogy, these program leaders may be unaware of what additional safety and risk management training they may need in order to lead students overseas -- and many institutions offer little clarity of faculty members' roles while abroad.

In May 2010, following the release of a report on the mishandling of a response to the suicidal behaviors of a Laramie County Community College student during a 2008 class trip to Costa Rica, we ran an article offering practical advice for setting up safety and risk management workshops for study abroad leaders. This week, we turned to Margaret Wiedenhoeft, associate director of the Center for International Programs at Kalamazoo College (who manages study abroad programs in China, France, India, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Thailand), to ask for a checklist of questions faculty leading study abroad need to have answers to, informed by lessons learned from recent overseas crises.

Checklist of Safety Questions

Wiedenhoeft advises that faculty leaders of study abroad programs need to be equipped with ready answers to a series of safety and risk management questions:

  • What is the faculty member's role while overseas, and what specific responsibilities do they have beyond delivery of the academic content of the program? "Make expectations explicit," Wiedenhoeft suggests. "What are faculty responsible for paying for? Are they responsible for making sure students get on buses on time? To make sure students know where they need to go while traveling? To what extent do they need to be available to students who find themselves in need of medical services or students suffering from culture shock or homesickness?"
  • Who is the faculty member's "backup" on campus, who can be contacted at any time for emergency support?
  • How regularly will the faculty leader be expected to communicate with the institution?
  • If a crisis does occur, is there an expectation that faculty will check in at regular intervals?
  • Who is ultimately responsible for making the judgment call on what to do with the program (for example, in the case of an evacuation or cancellation), and do the faculty know who will make that call?
  • What is the protocol for contacting students in the event of an emergency? Are faculty and students required to have cell phones? Will the faculty assign designated checkpoints on the ground ("if anything happens, everyone goes here") as well as a backup in the event that the primary checkpoint is no longer safe?
  • Are faculty familiar with the emergency procedures within the host country (from the local equivalent of 911 to how to get in touch with the US Department of State), and how will students be informed?
  • What happens if a student is hospitalized? Who will remain with the student, and who will continue on with the rest of the group?

"All this should be clarified up front," Wiedenhoeft notes, "long before a crisis actually occurs."

Use an Application Process

A study abroad orientation for faculty or a faculty workshop may go a long way toward covering that checklist and toward preparing faculty proactively for things that may occur while overseas, but to better provide for both student safety and student success, Wiedenhoeft advises having a committee of faculty and administrators review faculty proposals for study abroad trips.

This committee can review:

  • Faculty credentials
  • The itinerary (will students have adequate down time, as well as adequate time for the academic content of the study abroad course?)
  • Plans for travel services (have someone check to ensure that the local bus, tour, and other travel services are properly licensed and certified)
  • Plans for access to remote locations (Wiedenhoeft cites one example of a faculty member who wanted students to take motorcycles up a mountain to see a temple)
  • Ratio of faculty or chaperones to students

The institution also needs to support study abroad leaders with a point person on campus who is empowered to respond speedily to faculty needs as they come up. For example:

  • Be able to connect faculty speedily with the student judicial office, the counseling office, and campus safety
  • Be prepared to offer emergency financial support (for example, suppose that while overseas, a faculty member finds that there has been some glitch with tickets; someone on campus needs to be ready to provide financial support if emergency tickets need to be purchased)

Three Additional Cautions

Wiedenhoeft notes three cautions that study abroad program leaders should be thoughtful of:

  • Historically, institutions have been reticent to take a thorough look at the applications of study abroad participants; high participation is often incentivized, and there may be a feeling among both faculty and administrators that every student "deserves the opportunity." However, "not every student should take study abroad," Wiedenhoeft warns; there may be valid reasons to deny an application, such as a student's judicial record.
  • In an effort to promote interest in a study abroad program, there is a risk of skipping a frank discussion with students about the risks. Students traveling to locations where particular risks are relevant need to have a conversation about malaria, about the difficulties of moving around a region with less infrastructure, and about the realities of traveling in a country with medical facilities that are not similar to what they are accustomed to. "It's important for students to be informed," Wiedenhoeft remarks.
  • Finally, Wiedenhoeft notes that given the crises of the past few years, many institutions have become better prepared for rapid response to major events such as earthquakes. "It's always the 'little' things that are more likely to happen," she warns. "Constantly review policies and procedures for dealing with a student illness, what to do in the event of a disruptive student or a student with a chronic medical issue that resurfaces, or a student struggling with mental health issues. You need clear procedures as to how to respond."