Promoting Safety in Study Abroad

Students, parents, and sponsors all have a role to play
By William Hoffa

Parents are understandably concerned about the safety and security of their children, wherever they may be, but the prospect of a daughter or son being thousands of miles away in a foreign land may foster new levels of apprehension, leading to questions such as the following.

  • Is traveling and living in another country inherently more dangerous than staying home?
  • Are some countries safer than others?
  • Within a single country, do study abroad programs differ in terms of safety and security?
  • What can and should parents be able to expect in way of assurances about safety and security?
  • How can parents help to minimize risks and maximize the safety and security of their children?

First, a comparative perspective. The United States is known around the world as a comparatively dangerous country, and our street crime statistics back up this view. No country has as many guns in the hands of private gun-owners, nor as many gun-related injuries and deaths. U.S. rates of drug and alcohol abuse are among the highest in the world. Although tourists and other international visitors (including 450,000 degree-seeking students) come in great numbers to visit the United States, many arrive concerned about what they think they will find.

Yet, the perception that life at home is still safer than life "over there" leads some to conclude that maybe our students should stay home, "where they belong." U.S. media coverage of the rest of the world focuses, often sensationalistically and melodramatically, on overseas political upheavals, violent strife, and natural disasters, rather than on positive political and social developments or on the richness and human warmth of life as it is actually lived. One of the first responses students who study abroad have to their overseas environment is how "normal" life seems and people are, in spite of the cultural differences. That discovery comes when they sweep away stereotypes and misperceptions, seeing things with their own eyes.

A sober and realistic assessment by students and parents of safety risks associated with any region, and the study abroad programs that take place there, is therefore strongly advised. Parents should be duly skeptical if a program or institution suggests that its offerings are completely free of risk, or if its representatives seem unwilling or unable to discuss the risks involved.

Safety Is Everyone's Responsibility

Parents, students, and study abroad programs all have a role to play in minimizing potential dangers.

Among the responsibilities of program providers are to conduct periodic and ongoing assessments of safety conditions at the program site, excursion sites, and at nearby tourist destinations; to provide comprehensive safety information to enable prospective applicants to make informed decisions about participation and about their behavior while on site; to orient participants to help them avoid high-risk situations and deal better with problematic events; to take appropriate action if the local safety environment deteriorates; and to refer participants experiencing difficulties to appropriate medical, psychological, or legal help.

Participants, too, have their responsibilities, among which are to make available to the program any information that will be useful in planning for the their study abroad experience; to read and evaluate all materials issued by the provider that relate to safety, health, legal, environmental, political, cultural, and religious conditions at the site; to conduct their private life in a prudent manner, paying particular attention to local conditions as outlined by the program; to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal decisions and actions; and to purchase and maintain appropriate health insurance and abide by the conditions imposed by the policy.

Parents, too, should obtain and evaluate safety information concerning the study abroad location, be involved in their offspring's decision to participate in a particular program, and engage their children in a thorough discussion of safety and behavior issues linked to the overseas program and related travel and activities.

Study abroad programs cannot guarantee the absolute safety of participants or ensure that risk will not at times be greater than at home. Nor can they monitor the daily personal decisions, choices, and activities of individual participants any more than is the case on the home campus; prevent participants from engaging in illegal or risky activities if they ignore rules and advice; represent the interests of participants accused of illegal activities, beyond insuring that legal representation is available; assume responsibility for acts and events that are beyond their control; or ensure local adherence to U.S. norms of due process, individual rights, political correctness and sensitivity, relationships between the sexes, or relations among racial, cultural, and ethnic groups.

The mutual rights and responsibilities presented in the four foregoing paragraphs are being discussed by representatives of three professional organizations within the field of study abroad (NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Council on International Educational Exchange, and Association of International Education Administrators) in an effort to produce a set of voluntary guidelines for study abroad programs. The guidelines are expected in May 1998.

Reducing the Risk of Crime, Violence, Terrorism, and Accidents

Students living or traveling in countries that are internally unstable or at odds with their neighbors can sometimes be put in harm's way. Carrying a U.S. passport is no guarantee of safety or absolute security. In certain places and at certain times, it is possible to get caught in the midst of forms of political strife that may not be directed at foreigners but nevertheless may be very dangerous. Such risks, however, are usually known well in advance, so precautions can be taken.

With regard to the threat of terrorism, in those few sites where even remote danger might occasionally exist, program directors work with local police, U.S. consular personnel, and local university officials to set practical security measures. In such places, students will be briefed during orientations and subsequently as needed about about security consciousness in their daily activities. Terrorism is a twentieth-century reality. To succumb to the threat by reacting in fear may well be the objective that terrorists seek to achieve.

Simply being a foreigner makes any traveler a more likely victim of crime or accidents. There are certain rather obvious precautions that American students abroad can take to maximize their safety and minimize their risks. Following is a list of do's and don'ts that study abroad programs now urge upon students:

  • Keep a low profile and try not to identify yourself by dress, speech, or behavior as a targetable individual. Do not draw attention to yourself through expensive dress, personal accessories (cameras, radios, sunglasses, etc.) or careless behavior.
  • Avoid crowds, protest groups, or other potentially volatile situations, as well as restaurants and entertainment places where Americans are known to congregate.
  • Keep abreast of local news. Read local newspapers and speak with local officials to learn about any potential civil unrest. In the event of disturbances, do not get involved.
  • Be wary of unexpected packages and stay clear of unattended luggage or parcels in airports, train stations, and other areas of uncontrolled public access.
  • Report to the responsible authorities suspicious persons loitering around residence or instructional facilities, or following you; keep your residence area locked; use common sense in divulging information to strangers about your study program and your fellow students.
  • If you travel to countries beyond your program site and expect to be there for more than a week, register upon arrival at the U.S. consulate or embassy having jurisdiction over the location.
  • Make sure the resident director, host family, or foreign university official who is assigned responsibility for your welfare always knows where and how to contact you in an emergency. When you travel, even if only overnight, leave your itinerary.
  • Know local laws. Laws and systems of justice are not universal. Do not assume that because something is legal in the United States, it is legal abroad.
  • Use banks to exchange money. Do not exchange it on the black market, that is, on the street. Do not carry on your person more money than you need for the day. Carry your credit cards in a very safe place.
  • Do not impair your judgment through excessive consumption of alcohol, and do not fall under the influence of drugs.
  • Female travelers are sometimes more likely to encounter harassment, but uncomfortable situations can often be avoided by taking the following precautions. Dress conservatively. Although short skirts and tank tops may be comfortable, they may also encourage unwanted attention. Avoid walking along late at night or in questionable neighborhoods. Do not agree to meet a person whom you do not know in a secluded place. Be aware that some men from other countries tend to mistake the friendliness of American women for romantic interest.

Students and parents should develop a family communications plan for regular telephone or e-mail contact, with contingencies for emergency situations. With this in place, in times of heightened political tension, natural disasters, or other difficulties, you will be able to communicate with each other directly about safety and well-being.

More Practical Tips for Safe Travel

Parents are naturally concerned about their child1s safety overseas. Make plans to have your daughter or son send a postcard or telephone to confirm safe arrival and to inform you of the local address and telephone number abroad. Contact program sponsors if a private arrival confirmation cannot be made. Do not expect a call immediately upon arrival, however; students are frequently tired and distracted, and you will end up worrying needlessly.

Here are some helpful self-travel tips for students from seasoned travelers:

  • Packing. Don't carry everything in one place! Never pack essential documents, medicine - anything one could not do without - in checked luggage. Put them in the carry-on bag.
  • Cash. Never carry large amounts of cash. Make three lists of traveler's checks. Leave one at home, carry one with the checks, and keep the last in a different place, along with the receipts. For the small amount of cash needed immediately and for the first few days, use a neck pouch or a money belt.
  • Credit cards. Take only the cards that will be used on the trip. Keep a list or a copy of cards, numbers, and emergency replacement procedures.
  • Insurance. It may be necessary to contact insurance agents while abroad, so keep all relevant names, phone numbers, and policy numbers in a safe place.
  • Luggage. Mark all luggage inside and out with name and address. Put a copy of the itinerary inside each bag. Keep a list of what is in each bag and carry the list with other documents. Mark all bags in some distinctive way, so they are easily found. Count pieces of baggage before and after each stage of the journey. Travel light.
  • Medicines. Take everything needed for the trip, along with copies of all prescriptions and the generic names of drugs. Keep medicines in original drugstore containers. Take extra eyeglasses and the lens prescription.
  • Passport. Carry separately from your passport two extra passport pictures, a copy of your passport, and a certified copy (not the original) of your birth certificate or an expired passport. If the passport is lost, report the loss to local police; get written confirmation of the police report, and take the above documents to the nearest U.S. consulate and apply for a new passport.
  • Ticket. Make a photocopy of your ticket or list its number and all flights along with the name and address of the agency that issued it, and keep this information separate from ticket.
  • Jet lag. If you are traveling east or west, try to relax and save energy during the long flight. Jet lag is a physical and psychological phenomenon that affects almost all travelers in some way. Through long years of habit, your body has become accustomed to functioning in accordance with a physiological clock based on a particular daily cycle. For at least a few days after arrival, that clock is going to be out of sync with local cycles.

Safe Road Travel

Driving customs vary a great deal, and pedestrians are frequently not given the right of way. Find out which roads are safest and whether it is safe to travel on overnight trains and buses. Inquire about the safety record of various modes of transportation. Avoid renting a car unless you feel very comfortable with the driving habits of the locals. For more information on international road travel contact the Association for Safe International Road Travel, 5413 West Cedar Lane, Suite 103C, Bethesda, MD 20814, telephone 301.983.5252, fax 301.983.3663,

State Department Advisories

The U.S. government monitors political conditions in every country of the world. Parents with concerns about crime and security threats in a given country are urged to take advantage of State Department Travel Advisories. These come in three forms and are available to the public free of charge:

  • Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department decides, based on all relevant information, to recommend that Americans avoid travel to a certain country.
  • Consular Information Sheets are available for every country of the world. These include information such as location of the U.S. embassy or consulate, unusual immigration practices, health conditions, minor political disturbances, unusual currency and entry regulations, crime and security information, and drug penalties. If an unstable situation exists that is not severe enough to warrant a Travel Warning, this is duly noted.
  • Public Announcements offer information about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term or transnational conditions posing significant risks to the security of American travelers.

For current information, travel advisories, or warnings, parents can contact the State Department in Washington, D.C., 202.647.4000, or get access to the same information via the World Wide Web, at

From The Parent's Guide to Study Abroad
by William Hoffa

Copyright 1998 NAFSA: Association of International Educators. All rights reserved.