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

Safety in Study Abroad Programs

Testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
By Statement of Peter McPherson
President, Michigan State University
Washington, D.C.
October 4, 2000

Mr. Chairman:

Thank you and the Subcommittee for the invitation to speak. I am happy to do so on behalf of both Michigan State University and myself. It is good to be here to talk about something of immense personal interest and national importance.

Michigan State University (MSU) has a long and deep involvement in international teaching, research, outreach, and development. The MSU community believes strongly that such international activity is essential for a modern university wishing to serve well its students, faculty and the American public.

I also bring a personal and professional background and commitment to the importance of international activity. I grew up in the Midwest heartland--in west Michigan. When I attended Michigan State as an undergraduate in the early 1960s, I was introduced to the much larger world, because even then MSU was a university of exceptional international activity, both on and off campus.

As a new MSU graduate, I joined the Peace Corps and served in South America. To say that this was a life awakening experience is an understatement. Among other revelations, I came to appreciate the importance of cross-cultural knowledge and experience to my own future as well as to that of the nation’s. Subsequent experience as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of the Treasury, and Group Executive Vice President of the Bank of America confirmed and broadened my conviction on this point.

When I became President of Michigan State University seven years ago, I came home to an already international university, and one that I wanted to continue to advance in its international leadership role. Study abroad at MSU is a cornerstone in our campus-wide internationalization efforts.

As I will describe in greater detail momentarily, study abroad presents some unique challenges for our students’ safety. Institutions must attend to these challenges, and we believe that they can and most are. First, however, I think it is important to point out why we have made a commitment to expanding study abroad opportunities for our students.

The Importance of Study Abroad

Globalization challenges higher education to strengthen the international dimensions of its teaching, research, and outreach. We must provide students, faculty, staff, and other clientele with the means to acquire knowledge of and experiences in world areas and global systems that will allow them to succeed in this new century. Increasingly, employers of college graduates expect them to have cross cultural understanding and experience, language skills and the ability to work in culturally diverse settings throughout the world. There is only so much that can be learned in East Lansing or on any other American campus about cultures and societies outside our borders. Direct exposure and experience onsite in another country and culture provide the essential opportunities for learning at greater speed and depth. We need to provide opportunities in all of the world’s major regions—Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, as well as in developed and developing countries.

The study abroad initiative at Michigan State University offers a model for promoting universal access to high-quality educational programs abroad through cost containment, expanded and enhanced program choices, and integration and collaboration across the curriculum. We seek to democratize the opportunity for study abroad, transforming it into an affordable, normal and valued element of student life, and integrating it fully into the undergraduate educational experience.

Study abroad can be the catalyst for a much broader vision of internationalization. Students who return from study abroad help to further internationalize the campus environment by sharing their experiences with others. Faculty who lead study abroad programs themselves become more internationalized, and they, too, carry their new knowledge into the on-campus environment and into the classroom.

We at MSU believe that study abroad is a critical component of students' learning and one that will help them thrive as citizens in a global environment. We believe that our study abroad initiative is important in further internationalizing our on-campus environment. We also believe that benefits should be shared with Michigan communities to support citizens, schools and the state economy.

MSU is committed to providing every undergraduate MSU student with the reasonable opportunity to study in another country. MSU envisions that by the year 2006, 40 percent--or about 2,800--of MSU's annual graduating seniors will have had a study abroad experience of some type. We are over halfway to that goal having sent 1,510 of our undergraduate students abroad this past year. Affordability is essential to reaching our goal; approximately 60% of our study abroad programs have tuition, room and board and other living expenses (exclusive of airfare) below on-campus costs for equivalent academic credit.

MSU is committed to integrating the study abroad experience into the undergraduate curriculum, and designing programs that do the best job possible to provide a safe learning environment for our students.

Challenges to Student Safety and Security Abroad

In order to maximize the value of study abroad, students need to engage directly with the host country's society and culture and with its intellectual and professional environments. To accommodate diverse student interests, educational needs and priorities, we offer an array of program options in all of the world’s major regions. This year MSU will offer 152 programs in 52 countries.

It is not possible to isolate our students from all threats to their safety and security, regardless of where they are--- whether on campus, off campus, abroad or at home. And nothing will fully protect those who ignore good advice or do not exercise good judgment. However, we work to prepare our students to live and learn in another culture, to design programs that minimize risk, and to inform students of behaviors and places to avoid.

Study abroad presents some unique challenges for our students’ safety. Sending students to different cultures with unfamiliar laws, language and customs requires us to prepare them so that they do not inadvertently offend their hosts or get themselves into trouble. Some countries to which we send our students have limited health care systems which requires us to take special measures to prevent illness and deal with health problems should they arise.

Susceptibility to crime is an issue we must examine, whether here or abroad. Different patterns of criminal behavior in locations abroad require us to be vigilant about conditions in countries where we place our students and to have sufficient prior knowledge of locations or situations that should be avoided. Conditions of political and social stability, as well as environmental circumstances, vary widely throughout the world; constant monitoring of conditions not only at the national level, but at the sub-national level is essential. Obtaining timely, detailed, and high quality information regarding all issues related to U.S. safety and security abroad (health, crime, political, and other threats) is essential.

MSU’s Approach to Dealing with Challenges to Safety and Security of Students Abroad

At Michigan State, we take these challenges very seriously. As I will lay out, we have comprehensive policies, procedures and action plans in effect to deal with each of the major concerns.

First, however, I must emphasize that we are fortunate as an institution to have over 600 faculty who regularly travel and work abroad and who keep in contact with colleagues and government officials in countries where we send our students. These faculty are regularly consulted by our Office of Study Abroad for firsthand knowledge about local conditions.

While the majority of our programs are accompanied by MSU faculty leaders, all of our programs are overseen by faculty who know the country to which our students are going. In instances where MSU faculty do not accompany a program, the University engages a local professional who is responsible for orienting students on-site, pointing out dangers to avoid, and serving as a point of contact in cases of emergency. We believe that campus-based expert knowledge and experience are essential to designing and supervising safe and secure programs.

We have taken a number of important steps at MSU to assure to the greatest degree possible the safety and security of students in our programs:

The MSU Office of Study Abroad daily monitors State Department reports and regularly reviews safety issues in countries and locations for all our programs. Experienced faculty provide firsthand and up-to-date information about local conditions abroad as needed.

Several years ago MSU established a committee, independent from the programs and the Office of Study Abroad, to review the safety of study abroad programs and sites. This committee is chaired by a University Vice President. The Committee has ultimate authority for approving programs and sites with regard to safety issues, including canceling programs or ordering revisions to them to protect safety and security.

There is multi-layered review of all our study abroad programs at departmental, college, and university levels, each of which includes consideration of safety and security, as well as academic and overall quality.

All MSU students who study abroad are required to have health insurance--which MSU contracts to lower the cost to students. Medical emergency, as well as general emergency evacuation, procedures are in place.

MSU has developed comprehensive procedures for handling emergencies abroad, which have served as a model for other institutions.

All study abroad students are required to go through a general orientation that stresses safety issues and the importance of understanding cultural differences. In addition, our study abroad programs provide country-specific orientations for students where safety precautions also are emphasized.

Over the last five years, MSU has sent over 7,800 students abroad on MSU programs. There have been no deaths and no serious injuries or accidents except one involving a student fall that resulted in a fractured foot. Each year there are a few reports of thefts (e.g., purse snatches, picking of pockets and loss of possessions from dorm rooms), but we have no reason to believe the number of such incidences are out of the ordinary.

MSU is by no means alone in its efforts to protect the safety and security of its students abroad. Based on frequent discussions with colleagues at other institutions, we believe that the vast majority of our institutions in this country take such concerns seriously, and have similar policies and procedures in place. There also are national-level efforts. A few years ago the Association of International Educational Administrators, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and NAFSA: The Association of International Educators developed and issued a comprehensive set of Health and Safety Guidelines for Study Abroad. These have been widely disseminated in print and electronic format and can be found on the NAFSA website. These and other national and regional organizations regularly provide educational programming for study abroad professionals and higher education administrators on program design, quality and safety and security. Having said this, we recognize that not all study abroad providers may be equally cognizant of best practices, nor uniform in their attention to issues of safety and security. This coming Fall 2001, MSU plans to sponsor a national conference on study abroad safety, security, quality and related issues.

In closing, permit me to return to the opening theme of my remarks. MSU’s challenge – and commitment – is to mainstream international experience and content throughout its curricula so that virtually every student and every faculty member, regardless of major or department, becomes globally experienced and knowledgeable. "Mainstreaming" international competence is an institutional commitment based on a conviction that MSU’s future and the quality of its graduates depend on our becoming a global university of distinction where students gain foreign language competence, international understanding, and the experience needed to live and work in a diverse environment, both at home and abroad. We believe that study abroad, integrated into the undergraduate curriculum, is an essential ingredient in this effort, and that quality and safety in our programming are prerequisites for our efforts to be successful.