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

October 4, 2000

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs regarding the safety of study abroad programs. I thank the Committee for having the wisdom to decide to look into this important question.

The Department of State takes very seriously its responsibility to inform U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad of potential hazards to their safety. The safety and security of our citizens is our top priority. In my testimony today, I will discuss some of our efforts to assess the difficulties confronting American students studying or traveling abroad, and to tailor our Consular Information Program to the real needs of our young people.

On April 19, 2000, a White House Memorandum was issued to all Executive Departments declaring it the policy of the Federal government to support international education, including promoting study abroad by U.S. students. We work closely with the Department of Education, other U.S. Government agencies and State Department offices to increase awareness about travel safety and international education.

Our Consular Information Program has long served as the Department of Stateís primary means of alerting the public to potential problems they may encounter in different countries. The cornerstone of the program is the Consular Information Sheet, which is prepared for every country in the world. Travel Warnings are issued to recommend that Americans avoid travel to certain countries when circumstances or conditions there present danger to the American traveler. Such situations include, but are not restricted to, civil strife or major natural disasters. Public Announcements are made any time there is a perceived threat or other relatively short-term condition posing significant risk to the security of American travelers. In addition to these key materials, our home page,, also includes pamphlets and other detailed information on a wide variety of topics. Our home page averages more than 250,000 hits a day, or 7.5 million or more hits a month. In addition, our materials are available by fax-on-demand and by mail. Finally, our office phone number may be found on pages 2 and 5 of every passport.

Problems confronting students traveling abroad, for study, work or pleasure, are a matter of particular concern to the Department of State. We have a variety of specialized materials designed for students. In September 2000 we issued a new pamphlet, "Travel Tips for Students" to provide important reminders about safety, copies of which we are making available to the Committee. Our home page includes a feature called "Tips for Students," which contains other useful information. In addition, in February 2000 we issued our annual "Travel Safety Information for Students" in advance of Spring Break. This was accompanied by a letter from Secretary Albright to the editors of college and university newspapers across the country, underscoring the importance the Department attaches to making American students' experience in other countries safe and enjoyable. We also are working on a Public Service Announcement to be run on college radio stations aimed at people who might unwittingly be used to carry drugs abroad.

Our embassies and consulates are also keenly aware of the importance of the safety of American students abroad. U.S. Foreign Service posts are encouraged to engage in annual meetings with study abroad program participants, update embassy home page materials regularly to include issues affecting students and to take other measures to reach out to the American student population abroad.

We also raise student awareness about travel safety through our outreach program, including speakers, media interviews and publications. In the past two years, we have made a concerted effort to reach out to key stakeholders in the field of international education. Our outreach includes public speaking and mailings from our Assistant Secretary to a variety of student-related organizations including NAFSA - Association of International Educators, the Center for Global Education, the American Council for International Education, and Smithsonian Study Tours. As limited resources permit, we are also making outreach visits to cities across the country, during which we explain the Consular Information Program to a wide range of community groups and organizations. For example, during an outreach visit to your home state of Michigan earlier this year, Mr. Chairman, we met with student advisers and students at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is partnered with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) program. That council formed the University Working Group in June of this year. The working group, consisting of representatives from large, medium and small universities and NAFSA - Association of International Educators, will develop safety programs and establish "best practices" guidelines to increase security awareness for students and faculty traveling and studying abroad. The University Working Group will share their results with colleges and universities throughout the country. One of the first to respond to Secretary Albright's invitation to participate was Michigan State University.

Mr. Chairman, the dangers that crime, security threats and terrorism pose for U.S. citizens abroad are of great concern to the Department of State. We have also made an effort to be responsive to the concerns of study abroad programs and individual parents of American students to improve our information and services. I would like to highlight two examples of some innovations the Bureau of Consular Affairs has developed on the subject of crime and road safety.

This June, we established a new program in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, pursuant to an interagency agreement with the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime. Our new program is designed to ensure that U.S. citizen victims of crime abroad and their families receive better services while still in the foreign country, and upon return to the United States. In addition, we are exploring ways to modify our automated case tracking systems to capture better information on the nature and location of crimes being committed against Americans. Since crime can affect any U.S. citizen traveling or residing abroad, this data, when available, will be reflected in the crime segments of our Consular Information Sheets where appropriate.

American students, and other citizens, traveling abroad are also victims of injury and fatality as a result of road and traffic safety conditions abroad. On September 1st, we inaugurated our new road safety home page feature, and we are now expanding the road safety information in our Consular Information Sheets. On May 3, we participated in the Association for Safe International Road Travelís (ASIRT) "Day on the Hill" to focus on the tragic consequences of road safety problems, meeting with parents whose children were seriously injured or killed in road accidents while studying abroad. Moreover, recognizing the importance of this topic, we now include road safety, as well as other security issues, as a focal point in our outreach efforts to stakeholder groups involved in travel, tourism, and study abroad. We initiated this practice during our August 2000 appearance at a conference of the Association of International Educators (NAFSA). Road safety was also addressed in our presentation at the September 2000 national conference of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

Approximately 3.2 million Americans reside abroad and Americans make more than 54 million trips outside the U.S. each year. Most Americans have positive, memorable experiences. While unforeseen events can occur anywhere, we believe that safe, informed travel is best achieved by learning everything possible about conditions in the country you are visiting. We encourage travel agents, foreign study programs, and all tourist and travel-related industries to inform their customers of the U.S. Department of Stateís Consular Information Program on travel abroad and direct them to our web site, where they can find more information and sources of help.

All U.S. citizen students studying or traveling abroad, and their families should review carefully the Consular Information Sheet, and applicable Travel Warnings and Public Announcements before they make a decision to go to a particular country or region. It is also important to review our general safety and security publications, and to register with the U.S. embassy or consulate. We encourage all travelers to obtain travel insurance, including medical insurance that covers medical evacuation.

In countries for which Travel Warnings or security-related Public Announcements are in place, the consular sections of our embassies and consulates are pleased to brief American students on evolving local conditions. Moreover, our Bureau of Diplomatic Security can work with campus security planners at American universities abroad through the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) program for security professionals, and where appropriate, also participate in briefings for students.

In an effort to reach the broadest possible audience of Americans studying abroad, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has entered into a partnership with the Department of State's Office of Overseas Schools to ensure that our travel information is brought to the attention of the Overseas Schools Advisory Council. Our travel safety information is also linked to the Department of State's Digital Diplomacy for Students project, which provides a forum on travel abroad and international affairs for grades K-12.

The flagship international education exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government, widely known as the Fulbright Program, is designed to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries...." From this starting point, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 250,000 participants Ė chosen for their leadership potential - with the opportunity to observe each otherís political, economic and cultural institutions, exchange ideas and engage in special projects.

The Fulbright Program sends some 900 U.S. graduate students and graduated university students overseas annually to do research across a wide spectrum of disciplines. These participants must pass a rigorous competition to be selected for the fellowship awards that lead to placement for an academic year with educational, cultural and government institutions in some 140 countries outside the United States.

While the vast majority of U.S. students sponsored under the Fulbright Program do their research in societies with rates of crime, violence and political instability no greater than that of the United States, some participants do go to countries where there is potential for civil disturbances and/or violence against persons. In the latter context, the Department of State ensures that each Fulbright grantee is fully aware of the security situation in each country in question before the grant is made and the participant leaves the United States. This is to say that any Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcements, Travel Warnings or special reports by the Department of State on the country are provided to the grantee, and a program officer is available to answer any specific questions that the grantee might have. The information is given in a manner commensurate with the Departmentís "no double standard" policy, i.e., no information is given to Fulbright grantees or U.S. Government employees that is not given to private American citizens when it applies to both.

Once overseas, Fulbright students are under the general care and supervision of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. embassy, or the Fulbright Commission (in 51 countries) for the duration of their stay in the country. These offices maintain ongoing contact with the students, immediately provide guidance regarding changing security conditions, and facilitate evacuation or early departures of participants when the situation requires it. In emergency situations, the same offices inform families of the students of their status.

In the event of an emergency confronting American students abroad or their families, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at (202) 647-5225. Our embassies and consulates abroad are also available at any time through our duty officer program. This is the phone number I earlier mentioned that is on pages 2 and 5 of every U.S. passport.

In summary, I believe we are doing a good job, but recognize the ever-increasing need to do an even better job in raising security awareness among students and study abroad programs, and in working with them to prepare our young people for safe, informed travel. If even one U.S. citizen is injured or killed while studying or traveling abroad, that is not acceptable. We cannot always control events, but we must do everything possible to prevent new tragedies from happening. As we encourage Americaís students to explore foreign cultures, we must also do whatever we can to ensure that they are well-informed and know where to go for help and guidance should an emergency occur.

We believe the Departmentís efforts to protect Americans traveling abroad have been facilitated by our ongoing dialogue with interested Members of Congress such as yourself, and many others, and look forward to working with you to seek opportunities for improvements in international travel information and services.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Subcommittee today. I will be happy to answer questions that Members may have.