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SAFETI Online Newsletter

Volume 3, Number 1, 2005 Edition

Last Call for U.S. Students Studying Abroad? Continuing Concerns About Alcohol Use and Abuse During Study Abroad

Joel Epstein

Back in 2000, the SAFETI newsletter considered the issue of college student drinking in the study abroad context. In A Discussion About Alcohol and Student Exchange and Study Abroad Programs: No Respite From the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act, I explored the legal and policy implications of underage students hitting the pubs and otherwise drinking from the fruit of the vine with their host university colleagues. Both articles explored the important risk management concerns that study abroad operators and host universities face when underage students from the U.S. let lose on campuses outside of the United States. Lower legal drinking ages in countries in which U.S. students study abroad have long caused concerned program operators headaches as they face the challenge of informing their charges that as U.S. students they should not be drinking if they are underage.

In some ways my earlier pieces reflected cautious and wishful thinking at a time when there seemed to be a crusade on for greater controls on the then out-of-control drinking rampant on U.S. campuses. In 2000 such behavior was causing serious injury to hundreds if not thousands of college students annually. Even today with awareness of the problem of out-of-control drinking well publicized and widely acknowledged underage and legal-age students continue to die or become seriously injured through their widely practiced dangerous drinking. The wishful part of my thinking in 2000 was if we can not control it here in the U.S. then at least perhaps we can control it in the study abroad context.

Back in 2000 some model study abroad program operators, the Center for Global Education, the Interorganizational Task Force on Safety and Responsibility in Study Abroad, NAFSA, and others were raising the bar by creating study abroad alcohol and risk management policies and programs suitable for widespread adoption by the field. At conference and through resources on the web like the SAFETI newsletter, study abroad administrators began hearing the mantra of ‘risk management’ and ‘this tragedy need not happen to you.’ And then came 911, which not only put a flag and yellow ribbon on the tail of every gas guzzling SUV, but also caused many study abroad operators to stop putting off any longer a formal or informal risk management audit of their operations. Since 911, even many of the mom and pop programs have created or adopted risk management policies, student/program contracts, and added legal release, insurance, codes of conduct, and other forms to their application process aimed at limiting their liability for student injury.

So where does this leave study abroad programs when it comes to controlling underage student drinking? First, study abroad administrators need to acknowledge the prevention messages U.S. students have been receiving ad nauseam since their freshman year of college. Indeed for most U.S. students the messaging started earlier still when they were in high school, if not middle school. Instead of pushing a “just say no” message which not even kindergarteners buy into, study abroad programs need to talk with students candidly as the adults that they are. Programs should focus their resources on where the problems exist rather than on the boogeyman that the neoprohibitionists are losing sleep over. Independent casual pub visits and limited wine tasting are not harming most students. Self destructive students hell bent on drinking themselves sick are the ones hurting themselves and others and these problem students do not deserve to stay in the program studying abroad.

Energy and effort needs to be directed to candidate screening and better orientation of selected students. Some students should not be invited to study abroad in the first place because they have not indicated the requisite maturity to act responsibly while out of the country. One of the best way to screen out problem students is to have all students be reviewed for conduct problems involving alcohol or drugs. Regrettably, the quest for increased numbers to balance budgets sometimes stands in the way of not accepting candidates who do not really belong. Others are ready to go abroad but need to learn more about custom and ritual in the country they will be living and studying in. Just as we would want a foreign student studying at a big ten school to understand the the social realities at a U.S. college or university, students going abroad need to know something about the way university students and the public in the country being visited socialize and interact on an informal basis (make friends, etc.). Study abroad is a privilege not a right.

Since policing underage students is often simply not feasible where the local law permits drinking by U.S. students (even if they weren't of drinking age when they were in the U.S.). Study abroad programs should focus their limited resources on limiting drinking in places where they can and should exercise control: in residence halls or other housing arranged by the program, during program excursions, and during all events and meals that are paid for through program fees. In the activities like these where they exercise control, program staff should make clear that they will not tolerate students endangering themselves, others, or the reputation of the program. Taking its cue from the widespread concern for the safety of U.S. citizens at home and abroad following 911, Washington University in St. Louis is representative of U.S. institutions that have thought through the obligations of students in its programs. In its Memorandum on Crisis Response for Study Abroad Participants ( the University explains:

“Every applicant to a WU sponsored or approved program acknowledges personal responsibility and assumes the inherent risks associated with study abroad at the time of application... The same information is contained within the Overseas Programs Handbook for Study Abroad, available at A printed copy of the handbook is provided to each participant upon departure from WU, and copies are mailed to parents. Similar information is included in the WU program agreement, signed by each participant prior to departure, and copies are mailed to parents.

‘Individual responsibility’ and similar terms are often bandied about in documents of this sort. Universities should know however that they are not, in and of themselves, insurance policies against students and parents convinced that the study abroad program has failed to adequately provide for the safety of the student. What was true in 2000, that the risk of liability stems from parental expectations of a high level of student supervision while abroad remains the case today. As I wrote then, “The risk of ‘buying a lawsuit’ should give administrators pause when they become aware of U.S. students engaging in high-risk drinking activities while abroad.”

So what can study abroad administrators do to help students recognize and avoid the risks associated with drinking to excess while studying abroad? For the student bent on self destruction, is it simply not enough to share with him or her the health risks associated with high-risk drinking and that medical care available to students studying abroad may not be of the highest quality. Indeed, given the increase in health care management by the U.S. health care industry and improved health care around the world, injured students may in fact fare better abroad than at home. Similarly, what does the self-destructive student care about the public relations negatives both for the University and for the U.S. of his or her out-of-control drinking? These sorts of problem students underscore the need for better candidate screening, supervisory staff training to recognize the signs of trouble before it happens, and protocols authorizing program directors to immediately expel and send home students who demonstrate they are not in fact suited to the study abroad experience.

Taking reasonable steps to keep students safe while abroad also requires buy in and a commitment from the host university or program. With new programs and partnerships developing daily, U.S. universities should do a thorough due diligence on potential partners as well as carefully scrutinize their existing relationships for problem areas or partners ill- suited to share in the responsibility of running the study abroad program.

The lessons offered in A Discussion About Alcohol and Student Exchange and Study Abroad Programs: No Respite From the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act are as important today as they were in 2000. Reviewing them with an eye to how your program handles student drinking should help you conduct that overdue risk management audit you have been meaning to do.

Joel Epstein, a Los Angeles attorney and policy consultant to universities and foundations is the author of A Parents Guide to Sex, Drugs and Flunking Out: Answers to the Questions Your College Student Doesn’t Want You to Ask and a visiting scholar at UCLA. Joel can be reached at (310) 472-1103 or online at