Contingency plans for US students abroard


SOON, a staff member of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. will pick up the telephone to hear a breathless voice say that a group of students are in trouble and may have to be evacuated from a campus overseas.  

A few minutes later, a dozen top school administrators will gather in a conference room to decide: What next?  

The simulated crisis, part of Georgetown's new emergency response plan, is designed to help educators react to nightmare scenarios: an earthquake, a flood, an anti-American riot or a terrorist incident endangering some of the school's 900 students studying overseas.  

In the post-Sept 11 world, with the United States possibly on the eve of war with Iraq, educators say such preparedness is essential. But such contingency planning is relatively new in the field of international education, even though study abroad attracts record numbers of American college students. More than 154,000 are receiving credit for studying outside the United States, more than double the number a decade ago, according to the non-profit Institute of International Education.  

Before Sept 11, 2001, about 10% of 140 US universities affiliated with the Institute for the International Education of Students had crisis plans for their students overseas, said Mary Dwyer, president of the institute, which runs study-abroad programmes in 22 cities.  

Other dangers 

It's not just the threat of terrorism that preoccupies administrators. Other dangers have led to tragedies in which US students have been hurt or killed overseas.  

In May, lawyers for St Mary's College of Maryland reached a settlement with three students who were attacked by roadway bandits while on a 1998 school study trip to Guatemala. One victim who was gang-raped during the attack was awarded US$100,000 (RM380,000), then the statutory cap for damages awarded in negligence claims against the state.  

Although a consortium of foreign study groups has published safety guidelines and an industry association is drawing up a set of standards, the field remains largely unregulated.  

The quality of security measures in foreign study programmes varies widely, said Peter Hoekstra, who chaired Congressional hearings on the subject in 2000 and plans a follow-up inquiry this year.  

“There is no doubt that if terrorist groups are out there, they are going to attack Europeans and Americans,'' he said. “Students just need to be aware of the risks ... and know that if there is conflict in the Middle East, those risks will increase.''  

Compounding school officials' concern is the growing number of US students selecting non-traditional destinations for their study. Last year, in addition to 1,200 American students studying in Israel, others went to such hotspots as Indonesia, Pakistan and Yemen, according to the Institute of International Education.  

“In the last four or five years, people who work with international education have become much more aware of the need to be conscious of health and safety,'' said David Larsen, who runs the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University outside Philadelphia. “It used to be all students went to Western Europe. Now they're scattered literally around the globe. And over the course of the past five years, the world has become a more dangerous place for Americans.''  

Complete extraction plan 

Kroll Inc, a global risk management company, has doubled its security consulting business for colleges and universities in the past 18 months, said Jim Francis, senior vice president for security services. Services range from consultations with educators to a “complete extraction plan'' for students or professors taken hostage or otherwise in danger, Francis said.  

Educators routinely counsel American students studying overseas to speak English quietly while in public. Blue jeans, baseball caps and logo-emblazoned sweatshirts are ill-advised. Arcadia long ago took down a large American flag that flew outside its centre in Athens and replaced it with a bland plaque on the front door, Larsen said.  

Georgetown University junior John Gelzer, 21, is preparing to return for a second semester at the American University in Cairo, where he is studying Arabic, economics and politics.  

“Basically I decided to go because people told me not to,'' Gelzer said. That includes his worried parents, Joyce and Frank Gelzer of Atlanta.  

He said he wears long pants in deference to the Muslim culture but has never felt discriminated against. During Ramadan, he said, several Egyptians invited him to break their fasts with them.  

“If war starts, my decision is to stay in Egypt,'' Gelzer said. “I think there has been a lot of miscommunication between the Arab world and the US. There need to be more people who are informed about the Middle East instead of (those) making judgments without knowing anything about Arab culture.''  

Advisories and warnings 

Lila Grisar, now 25, said she shared a similar idealism when she, too, went against her parents' wishes and borrowed US$1,800 (RM6,850) for the 1998 trip to Guatemala. The trip was a disaster from the beginning, she said.  

The 13 students, 12 female and one male, were given no formal itinerary and landed in Guatemala City without knowing the name of their hotel.  

Near the end of the trip, the students boarded a tourist bus to take them from Guatemala City to the rural village Xojola on the busy Pacific Highway. In daylight, armed bandits forced the bus off the road and into a sugar cane field. The travellers were brutalised and robbed, and five of the women, including Grisar, were raped at gunpoint.  

Grisar and two others sued St Mary's College, alleging that the professors who planned their trip were negligent and should have known of a similar attack on a bus, in which five female tourists were raped, six months before.  

College officials dispute many of the students' allegations, but the college settled the lawsuit with Grisar and the other two students last summer for US$195,000 (RM740,000). 

Grisar says now that she was naive to have had so much faith in St Mary's. She also said she feels the school did not do enough to help the victims.  

“A lot of people ask me why I decided to go through with this lawsuit,'' Grisar said. “My main reason is to raise awareness. Students who don't have a lot of experience travelling rely on professors to make the right decisions ? It's important for institutions to take safety precautions seriously.''  

Research is crucial, Grisar said. Parents and students should read State Department travel advisories and warnings carefully and should consider buying additional evacuation and emergency insurance. The Center for Global Education at the University of Southern California has a website with safety checklists for students planning on going abroad, she noted. – LAT-WP 

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