Center for Global Education Logo
The Center for Global Education promotes international education to foster cross-cultural awareness, cooperation and understanding. Living and working effectively in a global society requires learning with an international perspective.

We promote this type of learning by collaborating with colleges, universities and other organizations around the world.
SAFETI Clearinghouse
SAFETI Online Newsletter

Special: Congressional "Hearing on Safety in Study Abroad Programs"

Hearing of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce
Safety in Study Abroad Programs
October 4, 2000
Washington, DC
Opening Statement of Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI)

Good morning. I want to thank everyone for being here today. We are here to learn about the safety standards and practices of study abroad programs.

My attention was first drawn to this issue by a recent series of articles that ran inThe Detroit News. It was headlined by a tragedy that occurred in March in which a pair of 19-year old American women was shot to death outside a village in Costa Rica. Their bodies were left in a jungle ditch.

One of these young women was participating at the time in an overseas program sponsored by Antioch college. She was on an unstructured program called a "creative co-op" in which she was to photograph Costa Rican culture. She was given no formal orientation, no local contacts and no assistance in locating housing. She had no in-country supervision and her only regular communication with the college was a weekly e-mail.

The behavior of the school in this instance, "borders on the criminal" according to one study abroad professional quoted by theDetroit News.

Nor is this the only study abroad tragedy to occur in recent years. In 1998, two pickup trucks carrying bandits intercepted a group of students and teachers from St. Mary’s college in Maryland. Five female students were raped. This is in an area where there had been numerous reports of highway banditry.

Another tragedy we will hear about today occurred back in 1996, when four American students were killed when the bus they were riding in drove off of the grand trunk road in India. One of the students was the daughter of Mr. John Amato, who has traveled here to testify today.

The students on that fateful bus ride were participating in the University of Pittsburgh’s semester at sea study abroad program. The bus trip was not a part of the pre-printed itinerary, which called for a plane flight. But the plane ride fell through due to poor planning. Choosing from several possible options, group leaders elected to put the students on a six-hour night-time bus ride on a road deemed, "one of the most perilous in the world" by an experienced travel writer.

Such tragedies are far from the norm in study abroad, but they force us to focus our attention on a rapidly growing and unstructured field that lacks uniform standards for safety. More than one hundred thousand American students study abroad each year, and the total is increasing by about ten percent annually.

While Western Europe is still the leading destination for study abroad students, the proportion is shifting: for instance, since the 1985-86 academic year, the share of Americans studying in Europe has fallen by fifteen percent, while the proportion going to Latin America has more than doubled.

A presidential memorandum issued in march requires the secretaries of state and education to help increase the number of students who study and intern abroad, encouraging students to choose nontraditional study abroad locations. And in June, education secretary Richard Riley endorsed the goal of doubling student exchanges in the next ten years.

What concerns me is that there may be a sizable gap between the best and worst run study abroad programs. That gap is likely to increase if there is a headlong rush to expand study abroad activities by institutions that are not prepared to do so. I fear that they may be tempted to cut corners or to send students to potentially dangerous areas without taking the necessary precautions.

We will hear today from Peter McPherson, the President of Michigan State University, which sends more students abroad to study than any other University in America. The Michigan state program is called, "one of the safest and best run overseas programs" byThe Detroit News, since it includes a number of safeguards, such as contracting with local experts in each country to hold orientation sessions with arriving students.

But the field lacks overarching safety standards. When study abroad professionals in 1998 drew up a set of common sense guidelines for ensuring student safety, only a handful of colleges and universities would sign onto them. So while it is relatively easy to learn about the safeguards used by the most responsible study abroad programs, it is difficult to know what the lowest common denominator is, especially for newer, less established overseas programs.

We do know that students are sent into dangerous situations.The Detroit Newsreports that, between 1996 and 1998, American colleges sent students to sixteen countries that the state department had warned Americans to avoid and students were sent to eleven nations where the peace corps had withdrawn for safety reasons.

There were 221 American students in Colombia for instance, between 1996 and 1998. During that two-year period, the state department issued five travel warnings advising Americans to avoid the country due to rampant kidnapping of Americans, and violence by drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

Although there are no comprehensive statistics on study abroad fatalities and injuries, its clear that the vast majority of students who study abroad return home not only safe and healthy, but with a broader perspective on the world. Many students describe their overseas study as the most rewarding aspect of their entire college experience. I think the university officials we hear from today will testify to the tremendous educational value of studying in a foreign land.

As a parent, I am thankful that my children will have the opportunity to study overseas. Yet as a parent, I am also concerned about their safety, and I know that the parents of the more than one hundred thousand students studying abroad this academic year are concerned as well.

So if this hearing draws greater attention to the importance of safeguarding the lives and well being of those American students who elect to study overseas, I will consider it to be a success.

With that, I will conclude my opening statement.