SARASOTA, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2018) – After a memorable visit to the Piazza del Duomo in Florence, a college professor is struck by a car and injured outside her hotel.
Two U.S. students enjoy a ride-share service to the ancient ruins at Uxmal, Mexico, until they realize they’re traveling in the wrong direction and hours from their destination.
A study-abroad group arrives for four weeks at the Paris-Sorbonne University when an explosion rips through a nearby train station.
For university administrators and study abroad organizers, knowing how to address health and safety issues has long been key to any overseas excursion, but how exactly should administrators cope with lost or injured students and what protocols come into play when civil unrest, natural disasters, kidnappings or acts of terrorism are occurring?
To sort through the myriad questions and offer common sense safety tips, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee partnered with the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), an arm of the U.S. State Department, to hold a 1½-day informational seminar. Called the OSAC College & University Health, Safety & Security Seminar, the Dec. 7-8 conference drew about 75 study abroad organizers, university administrators and global security providers from across the country.
“When we send students abroad, we tend to think of the day-to-day issues but we don’t think of major events that can arise,” said Dr. Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor of USF Sarasota-Manatee and one of the conference’s organizers. “The world is changing and we have to be very diligent when it comes to our students and faculty.
“It’s not just the hotels we choose that are important, it’s the kinds of technology we take with us, how we interact with others overseas and how we comport ourselves that matters,” she said. “It’s about being both wary and aware.”
Phillip Van Saun, director of risk, security and resilience at the University of California, urged conference-goers generally to avoid large crowds and stay attuned to their surroundings. When visiting job sites and hotels, he said, he often explores the location’s perimeter to check security and take note of doors and windows. “Know where the exits are,” he said.
He also spoke about the benefits of training and staying level-headed in chaotic situations. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, hundreds Morgan Stanley employees heeded advice from their employer-based emergency training sessions and exited the World Trade Center’s South Tower, despite announcements to stay inside. Doing so turned out to save their lives.
“Twenty floors of people, 2,700 employees survived because of their training,” he said. “Training matters.”
Foreign Service Officer Klaudia Krueger stressed pre-travel planning. She advised travelers to leave copies of itineraries with family, acquire travel insurance and bring photocopies of passports, visas and other documents in case they’re lost or stolen. She also pointed conference-goers to travel.state.gov for safety information and suggested that students enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov/step for embassy alerts overseas.
Knowing how to cope in a crisis is half the battle, the speakers said. Establishing protocols long before any students board a plane – having rendezvous points at a school or hotel – can also make a difference when civil unrest or a natural disaster is unfolding.
In nations plagued by violence, knowing which areas to avoid – “Level 4” areas, as the State Department calls them – is the first step to staying safe. Jeff Dubel, deputy director of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a federal agency that helps families whose loved ones have been kidnapped overseas, cautioned conference-goers about certain areas of Mexico. While much of the country remains generally safe, he said, some regions are vexed by drug violence and kidnappings.
He recommended avoiding those areas and checking travel.state.gov regularly for up-to-date safety information and travel advice. He also urged staying in tourist areas and not posting travel plans on social media, which can tip off criminals. “The world is dangerous and if you go to some of these places not prepared, bad things are going to happen,” he said.
Surprisingly, the Korean Peninsula was not among travel.state.gov’s hot spots to avoid. As expected, the State Department discourages travel to North Korea but does not advise against visits to South Korea, and many travel organizations offer positive assessments about the country despite recently stepped-up drills and military exercises. A Sept. 8 survey indicates that 96 percent of organizations that routinely travel to South Korea will continue doing so.
The security experts nonetheless recommended caution. Global security consultant James Brazelton, associate vice president for Asia programs and strategic initiatives at International Studies Abroad, which facilitates student travel, advised universities to draft plans to evacuate students – by charter plane if necessary – in case fighting erupts. He also suggested universities hold faculty training and appoint a group leader to serve as an emergency contact.
Less-overt threats – “cybercrime” and theft of intellectual capital – can also prove worrisome, and not just to travelers in Asia. Luke Bencie, author of “Among Enemies: Counter-Espionage for the Business Traveler,” spelled out the dangers that smartphones, in particular, pose and the extent to which some nations go to spy on U.S. travelers.
In some countries, he said, security agencies are notified the moment an American passes through customs, and passports and visas are routinely photocopied and the copies turned over to security agents. Business executives and scientists are most often targeted, but even students and tourists can be surveilled.
In particular, he warned against bringing smartphones and laptops. Criminal organizations are savvy about penetrating firewalls and cracking passwords to access banking and other information. If bringing a laptop is a must, he suggested creating a new email account and disabling it after the trip. For calls, it’s best to buy simple, flip-style phones that can be discarded later.
Smartphone theft is rampant in Europe, and criminals routinely track students to pilfer the devices along with cash and credit cards. Academics may be targeted, too, for scientific and other data. “What other countries covet the most is our knowledge,” Bencie said.
Attendees called the conference eye-opening at enumerating the risks and timely given the preparations colleges and universities are making to send students and faculty abroad this summer.
“The information shared was beneficial and relevant to us educators, who facilitate international travel of students and faculty,” Amela Malkic, director of the Global Engagement Office at USFSM, said. “This has been a great event. We’ve had amazing speakers and conversations about current and important issues of health, safety and security abroad.”