The statistics revealed in the Institute of International Education’s latest Open Doors Report says the number of study abroad students more than tripled over the last few decades and one in ten U.S. undergraduates will study abroad before graduating. Whether they’re taking classes or getting hands-on experience outside the classroom, there’s no doubt your students are anticipating the cultural experience of a lifetime. Help ensure their experiences are safe and healthy with these tips from our in-house experts.
Understand the (More Common) Risks: Given recent world events, it’s common to focus our concerns around things like terrorism or civil unrest—but did you know it’s more likely for people to get hurt in a motor vehicle or swimming accident abroad? Make sure to share destination-specific road and swim safety advice as part of your pre-travel communications to your students. This is not a one size fits all approach, as certain destinations pose additional risks such as contaminated water and/or poor road infrastructure. Road travel and swimming can also pose further risks in developing countries where emergency services may not be readily available. In these cases, urge students to seek advice from their onsite staff and faculty leaders.
Keep Security Top of Mind: One thing to always keep in mind is that travel risks are not static; they frequently change depending on season, natural events or political instability. Before students depart, review the State Department’s alerts and warnings, which is a running tab on risks throughout the world. You should also encourage students to enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and download the corresponding app so they can receive up-to-date travel safety information right to their mobile devices. Enrolling in STEP also makes it easier for the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to contact them during an emergency. For additional guidance regarding the security landscape of a particular host country, visit the site’s Country Specific Information pages or consult with your institution’s travel risk management provider.
Encourage Common Sense: Every traveler, regardless of age or experience, can use a reminder (or two!) on staying vigilant, being aware of their surroundings and trusting their gut instincts. If someone feels uncomfortable, chances are they have good reason. However, in most instances, personal safety often comes down to a little pre-planning and some good old common sense. Aside from sharing general safety precautions, reminders regarding safe sex and responsible alcohol consumption can go a long way in helping to protect students’ health, safety and well-being while they’re away. Although your students are adults and are technically free to do as they please when they’re not in class, explain the importance of how “keeping their guards up” and making safe decisions abroad is vital to their health, safety and academic success.
Prevent Mosquito Bites: Diseases spread by mosquitos such as malaria, chikungunya and Zika pose risks to international travelers. Zika is a big concern lately and for good reason—those who are pregnant or trying to conceive are urged to postpone travel plans to any areas affected by Zika since the virus can be transferred from mother to child and is linked to serious birth defects. The paralytic neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome has also been associated with the Zika virus. The advice for preventing all mosquito-borne illnesses includes wearing repellant that contains DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535, covering as much exposed skin possible, using permethrin-treated clothing and sleeping in air-conditioned/ screened-in rooms. If Zika is of particular concern, students should take extra care from dawn until dusk (when the Aedes aegypti mosquito is most active) and consider avoiding outdoor activities altogether during these times.
Understand Cultural and Political Nuances: How do the locals view individuals from the U.S.—and how should this affect student behavior? What are people’s attitudes on race, sexuality, gender relations, etc. and how are they reflected in local laws? Before any student embarks on their journey abroad, these are key topics for discussion. The truth is, although students may be fully comfortable expressing themselves in the United States, some cultures may not be as welcoming. Make sure your students are aware of local laws, customs and any behaviors that won’t be tolerated in their host countries. This can include dress codes, local attitudes toward women and the LGBT community, appropriate hand gestures, limitations of local law enforcement and more. The U.S. State Department’s Country Specific Information pages and your travel risk management provider can also help you assess the political and cultural landscape of a particular destination—and how this could affect student safety.
Demystify Healthcare: Navigating an unfamiliar healthcare landscape is a challenge for anyone, let alone a full-time student. Aside from language barriers and health insurance complications, emotional, sexual and reproductive health concerns can carry an added stigma for those who may feel culturally intimidated. In addition to ensuring your students know what type of health insurance is required, they should understand how and where to access appropriate types and levels of medical services, including English-speaking health staff and/or third-party translation services for emergency response and crisis hotlines. Even if a student is fluent in the local language, translation will increase comfort in stressful, high-stake situations. Additionally, make sure students are briefed on how to place local and international phone calls from their host countries, and encourage them to program all emergency contacts into their phones including their host country’s 911 equivalent (ambulance, fire, police), the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and local English-speaking hospitals.