Study abroad program administrators should carefully consider health and safety issues when developing a new program. This ranges from specific concerns such as housing, transportation and excursion programming to the effectiveness of all aspects of the study abroad program. NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisors and Administrators, Second Edition outlines some of these areas in the following way:
- Establishing curricular, credit, and grading correspondences between disparate systems
- Entering into contractual arrangements with foreign universities, other institutions, and governments following the correct protocol
- Setting admissions standards and defining the process
- Securing housing, office space, classroom space, study space, library resources, and so forth
- Helping with passport and visa procurement
- Dealing with student health, safety, and social issues
- Setting budgets, handling finances, etc.
- Hiring faculty and staff
In addition, it may also be helpful for administrators to consider the above information from a student’s perspective. To help students gain further insight on aspects of study abroad programs, particularly those aspects associated with health and safety concerns, the Center for Global Education developed an online student study abroad handbook.
AdvisingStudy abroad administrators should attempt to ensure that students are being educated about all issues relevant to their respective programs during advisement in one-to-one visits, general and small group meetings. Students may understand how to support their needs in the United States, but a foreign country typically offers new challenges (health and safety, language, medical support, housing, etc.) According to Foundations of International Education: Education Abroad Advising, NAFSA's Professional Development Program, the study abroad administrator or advisor acting as a guide to students should:
- Be knowledgeable about all programs
- Understand the process of program evaluation
- Assist in both the selection and application process
- Prepare students for the challenge of living abroad and re-entering U.S. society
- Know where to get answers to 3 and 4
As advising can be a team effort, a student's parents can be a terrific asset. Whenever possible, administrators should collaborate with parents in order to help disseminate health and safety information about students looking to study abroad. For more, see the article "Advice for Parents" by William Hoffa of Academic Consultants International.
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OrientationOrientation programs are typically divided into pre-departure and on-site sessions. Both are designed to inform students about the realities of their study abroad program and the country where they will be studying and to help them more quickly adjust to culture abroad. Orientation could include health and safety issues and information about the abilities and limitations of program support (who will pay for medical care? how does insurance work? etc.). NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators (p. 293) suggests that the following areas could be included in an orientation:
- Provide essential practical information
- Motivate students to learn more about the host culture as well as about themselves as Americans, prior to departure. Students could learn what differences and difficulties to expect and discuss ways to deal with them in a positive and constructive manner
- Help students develop cross-cultural sensitivity and become familiar with the process of cross-cultural adaptation
- Help students gain a better comprehension of world issues and examine their roles as global citizens
- Assist students in investigating their academic, personal, and professional objectives abroad and how these goals might fit into their long-term objectives
According to NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, minimally, orientations should include past participants, international students, and other resource people who have spent time in the region, and will include a discussion of health, safety, and security issues, how to handle emergencies, and basic information on academics and appropriate cultural behavior (Campus Advising, Whole-World Study, NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, Third Edition, 239).
While pre-departure and on-site orientations have virtually become standards in the field, re-orientations given to students upon return to the United States are sparse. The process of re-entry and the effects of reverse culture shock must not be ignored. Bruce La Brack offers advice on these issues in his articles entitled: “The Missing Linkage: The Process of Integrating Orientation and Reentry” and “The Evolution Continues: The UOP Cross-Cultural Training Courses”.
Conducting Program Health and Safety AuditThe purpose of the SAFETI Audit Checklist is to provide a list of health and safety and study abroad issues that an administrator can use as a guide to look at the current policies and procedures at their institution. As issues of health and safety have become of greater importance in study abroad, the safety audit has been looked at as one way of reviewing study abroad programs to focus on health and safety issues.
As there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and around the world, there is no one way to effectively support all students on all programs. The SAFETI Audit Checklist is provided to give faculty and administrators a set of issues with which to start. The checklist is linked to the SAFETI Internet Resource Links which provide background information about each item and samples of policies and procedures from another study abroad programs as well as useful World Wide Web Links.
To respond to health and safety issues, some institutions have published their safety audit findings on the World Wide Web.
EvaluationAccording to NAFSA’s Guide to Education, Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, the evaluation of education abroad programs and the assessment of activities and student learning are vital, ongoing tasks for every program sponsor and for every sending institution. Evaluations from faculty, staff, and students should include the following:
- On-site orientation programs (arrival and pre-departure)
- Field trips and excursions
- Extracurricular activities
- Academic programs, internships, grading practices/standards, credit transfer, the effectiveness of instruction
- Academic resources, facilities, library resources
- Health and safety issues
- On-site student program evaluations
HousingThe housing of a student on a study abroad program can sometimes make the student's experience abroad a comfortable and safe one, or an uncomfortable and unsafe one. It is important that student safety is taken into account when choosing the location of student housing as well as the safety of the building and local transportation to the program site from the student housing facility.
Accommodations during program excursions should also be safe. Institutions should take access for students with special needs into account when providing for students housing facilities.
Country-Specific IssuesThere are some policies and procedures that are consistent for all study abroad programs (course syllabi, insurance policies, etc.). However, as each country (and city) around the world is different, it is important to provide background information that brings forward the realities students will face in their particular programs. In terms of health and safety, this may include language, medical facilities, experiences of previous study abroad students, health care, transportation, discrimination, communication, crisis response, support for special needs, accessibility, etc. Program administrators should consider what information to impart and how it is to be imparted to students during the pre-departure and the on-site orientation sessions (NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, Third Edition, p. 261 and p. 479).
A critical step for college, university, and another study abroad advisors are to check with the U.S. Department of State's International Travel Information website. From this site, program administrators will find links to Country Specific Information and Country Background Notes, which provide important country-specific information. For some countries, there may be travel warnings in effect, so administrators must be sure to check the Department of State's current Travel Warnings site. Travel warnings are issued when the Department of State decides, based on all relevant information, to recommend that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. These travel warnings will highlight the potential for student safety problems; therefore, institutions should consider not offering programs in such countries, as this may put students at greater risk and possibly create future institutional liability. It may be important to cross-reference with country-specific travel information from different sources, such as the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office.
Part of a study abroad program administrator's responsibility is to provide student participants extensive information on health and safety issues. The "Web Links" section below includes resources from the U.S. State Department and U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention that can be starting points for research. Other resources include:
- Program staff, faculty, and past participants
- Other university staff, faculty, and students with experience in the program locations
- Another study abroad program administrators
- Health professionals at home and abroad
CommunicationAs study abroad programs can literally take place anywhere in the world, communicating with students abroad can be challenging. However, with the advent of the Internet, faculty, staff, and students are able to communicate by e-mail as well as phone and fax. Administrators must be clear about explaining a student’s access to communication, as well as the cost of communicating from abroad. To ease communication, many administrators choose to go abroad with a cellular phone, or they get one abroad.
In the event of a crisis, effective crisis management necessitates effective communication. It is helpful if students are able to have someone to communicate with 24-hours/day while abroad, just in case of a real or perceived emergency. A 24-hour contact can be the program director, someone at the home campus, or support services provided by many insurance companies for international travel assistance.
Institutions should develop policies to assist students in communicating with parents, guardians, spouses, or significant others prior to the program abroad both on a regular, personal, basis and in case of emergencies.
In addition, the Center for Global Education developed a series of online interactive communication sheets as part of its Study Abroad Student Handbook. Study abroad students can use the communication sheets to help them navigate a non-English speaking culture. These Communication Sheets include: Words to Know, Phrases to Know, and Service Icons a student can print, cut out and carry with them. There is also a helpful Methods of Communication While Abroad section of the Handbook.
Support for Participants with DisabilitiesIt is as important to provide support for students with disabilities who participate in study abroad as it is to provide support for them on their U.S. home campuses. Each student’s situation requires review and an assessment of a program’s ability to provide support.
According to Ganz and Eastman in NAFSA’s Guide to Education, Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, 2nd ed., advisors need “special counsel and experience to advise students with physical disabilities” (p. 188). Administrators should consider consulting professionals with expertise in this area such as Mobility International USA and the University of Minnesota’s Access Abroad. They should be familiar with the legal requirements instituted by the Americans with Disabilities Act and be able to give students a fairly accurate sense of the realities abroad. There are also cross-cultural issues related to disability to consider. According to Building Bridges: A Manual on Including People with Disabilities in International Programs by Mobility International USA, "perceptions about people with disabilities vary from country to country... Each culture has different roles and expectations for people with disabilities as well. In many places, people with disabilities are not seen as vital, important members of society...It may take extra effort and preparation for a participant with a disability to adjust to cultural perceptions in a host country" (p. 37). University of Minnesota’s Access Abroad recommends that administrators attempt to find “persons with similar disabilities in that culture to see how they address physical, informational and attitudinal barriers.”
While some administrators may be used to arranging access abroad for their physically disabled student participants, many neglects to consider those student participants with learning disabilities. Eve Leons of Landmark College wrote an article entitled “Creating a Safe Environment for Students with Learning Disabilities on Study Abroad Programs” that administrators might find helpful.
Privacy RightsStudents have a right to privacy regarding their personal information. As an administrator, it is part of your duty to see that students’ rights are protected. However, there are some areas where institutions may want to implement special policies and procedures specifically for study abroad that deal with access to information in a different way. Such areas where access to student information related to study abroad may vary from the norm, include:
- Having students waive access to student conduct records for student screening
- Having students waive access to information about the student while abroad, so that if something happens, the institution abroad is open to inform the U.S. home campus
- Obtaining clearance to inform parents, guardians, and/or significant others in special cases (accident or illness of the student, conduct or legal violations by the student, need for medical care abroad, etc.)
- Communication with parents, guardians, and/or significant others about a student’s study abroad program, including the risks and realities of a program
- Providing campus health professionals to report on relevant student medical and counseling background information
A student’s right to privacy is a particularly sensitive area with legal ramifications. It is important to include legal counsel and student affairs professionals in developing policy in this area.
Institutions should consider developing clear guidelines on what information should be available to parents of students taking part in study abroad programs. Guidelines may include:
- Financial information
- Contact information abroad
- Ability to contact appropriate parent or guardian in the case of an emergency
- Program dates and address abroad
- Conduct issues with students
- Unapproved absence of a student from the program
- Disseminate information on health and safety risks to parents
- U.S. Center Notification by Foreign Institution
Legal IssuesThere are many legal issues relevant to study abroad program development and administration. The link to the .pdf of a sample legal audit checklist provides a set of issues that can be used in reviewing the study abroad policies and procedures at your institution (Legal Audit Checklist Link). A discussion of some of the issues follows.
Release Forms, for example, present a legal issue.
A release form should be considered as it may serve to assist in releasing an institution from liability. It is important that legal counsel be involved in the development of a study abroad release form, ensuring that it is comprehensive. It is equally important to realize that a release form will not free an institution from having to take responsibility for any negligent actions. In developing an effective release form, administrators must take into account the fact that a student or parent will read the form very carefully before signing. This attention to detail assists in making student participants and parents consider that students are responsible for their own actions.
Another use of the release form is to provide information to students about the risks, realities, and responsibilities associated with participating in study abroad.
Student Agreements and Host Institution Agreements present yet another legal issue.
There may be other written agreements that study abroad program providers may want to create to clarify the relationships between the U.S. study abroad institution and the student and between the U.S. study abroad institution and the host of the study abroad program.
Policy Manuals also can be legal matters.
Institutions can develop policy manuals to clarify the various study abroad policies and procedures to students, staff and faculty in the U.S. and abroad.
- In the Foundations of International Education: Education Abroad Advising, the following questions are presented regarding the importance of institutional liability insurance:
- Have you checked with your institutional attorney or office of risk management to clarify the liability situation for institutional sponsored programs?
- Does your institution have a comprehensive policy?
- Has your university/college attorney’s office reviewed all of your program documents (which are contractual in nature) for validity, duration, enforceability, exemptions, and/or conflicts?
- What exposure to liability extends to program coordinators and faculty leaders?
- Is your application process thorough in investigating the suitability of a student for your program?
- Will you require a release form and waiver form from participants?
- How will you determine any pre-existing conditions?
- Have you considered a health form?
- What are the confidentiality issues for your institution or program?
- Where do you stand on the privacy act?
- Will you require insurance?
- Have you carefully examined your insurance policy?
- If your program has an unusual or high-risk element (skiing, water activities, area of political instability, health and environmental concerns, etc.), how will you inform the participants of any potential risks?
- How will you ensure participants understand these risks?
- Have you considered adding a disclaimer to publicity and promotional materials to ensure the program is accurately represented, as well as to protect you, the sponsor, against unforeseen changes in program arrangements, such as currency fluctuations, cancellations, etc.?
- Do you have a clear refund policy, both for cancellation of the program or withdrawal (voluntary or involuntary) of the student?
- Have the students received information on the potential risks of your program, its location and structure?
- Do the students know what you know about the program?
- Have you developed an emergency contact sheet, which includes on–campus contacts, the press, student relations, and any other necessary bodies like the government?
- Do you require written status or progress reports from your overseas partners or staff?
According to Aalberts & Rhodes, "to protect the institution and its staff, it is vital that campus-based administrators and advisers, as well as those who travel overseas to lead programs to understand what defines appropriate and inappropriate personal and professional behavior’ on campus (often formally stated in handbooks) also applies overseas" (NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, Second Edition, 363-364). It is extremely important that as an advisor or administrator you are aware of the campus process in the event of legal action. Obtaining personal liability is an issue to consider; you may want to discuss this with the university council.