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

Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 2000 - Summer 2001

Risk Management, Safety Issues and How WPI Responds to the Interorganizational Task Force on Safety and Responsibility in Study Abroad Guidelines

By Natalie A. Mello, Director of Global Operations
Interdisciplinary & Global Studies Division Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has long embraced a project-based curriculum that now extends to the four corners of the globe. With established programs in Europe, the Far East, Latin America, Australia, the US, and new initiatives Hong Kong and Taiwan, WPI provides opportunities for undergraduates to complete meaningful off-campus experiences. WPI offers students the freedom to complete degree requirements away from campus in a professional experience under the direct supervision of WPI faculty, an experience that is unrivaled by traditional international study abroad. The impact of successfully completing professional-level projects at remote locations is that students solve real-world problems while immersed in a different culture. In 1999-2000, more than 400 of WPI's typical graduating class of 650 students completed a project off-campus on externally sponsored topics. We anticipate these numbers increasing as more opportunities for project work abroad are added every year. In the 2000-01 academic year, WPI is sending over 450 students to one of WPI's off-campus residential Project Centers. WPI's program is not a traditional study-abroad program.1, 2Managing risk and overseeing the health and safety issues associated with sending so many students off-campus has become a priority for WPI. This article will provide an understanding of the risk management as implemented by WPI and how the fourteen Task Force Guidelines as adopted by NAFSA3are addressed.

WPI's Global Perspective Program Enrollment

In 1976, the first WPI residential Project Center was established in Washington, DC. The Project Center model involves groups of students working off-campus full-time on degree-required projects for a period of one eight-week term. The students are accompanied by WPI faculty advisors, and develop solutions to problems proposed by agencies and organizations at the site. Since that time, this program has expanded to include operations in London, Venice, Bangkok, Boston, San Juan (Puerto Rico), San José (Costa Rica), Zurich, Melbourne, Limerick, and Copenhagen; current exploratory sites include new programs in Hong Kong and Taipei.

The following chart shows the enormous growth of the Global Perspective Program at WPI in the last five years. The figure for 2001/02* is a projected number given the number of applications received to date.

Chart of Global Perspective Program at WPI in the last five years

As WPI students increasingly take advantage of the opportunities that WPI offers to complete academic work off campus, the likelihood of a serious incident occurring off campus increases as well. One need only read the popular press to become nervous about sending students to all parts of the globe. Current national opinion is that universities owe their students more attention to risk management and care when students travel as part of their academic experience.4With the recent tragedies that have occurred in Costa Rica, India, Guatemala, and Japan involving students on some form of "study abroad", more attention is being paid to how these experiences are managed by institutions.5-9

Roles and Responsibilities of Project Center Personnel

In order to understand WPI's program and how the risk associated with it is managed, it is important to understand its context. WPI has several levels of participation in the project centers that contribute to its success. Each project center has a full time faculty member associated with it referred to as a center director. This center director oversees the pedagogical concerns associated with projects, selects the student participants for their site and works with the local coordinator. The local coordinator is a resident of the site who maintains contact with project sponsors, helps to arrange housing and serves as a resident expert for the students and faculty for the site. There are full-time WPI faculty members who go with the students for the duration of the project experience, and are referred to as the resident advisors. These resident advisors prepare with the students for the term before they depart for the site, live on site with the students, and advise the projects.

In addition to the roles described above, the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division (IGSD) through which these residential project experiences are managed also employs administrators. The leadership team for this Division is comprised of four individuals who separately oversee different components of the off-campus experience and who together decide policy and procedures that affect all participants - students, Resident Faculty Advisors, Center Directors, and Local Coordinators. There are also several support staff members who facilitate all of the details involved in administering such a large program.

Risk Management Team Responsibilities

As the numbers of students going off campus began to increase, it became obvious that the division sponsoring this academic activity could not work in a vacuum to address risk management. It only took one perceived crisis in the making to bring the right players together to form the team that concerns itself with the risk associated with sending students away to complete projects. This team is made of the Director of Global Operations in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, the Associate Treasurer for the university and an insurance and liability consultant hired by the university. It is important for each institution to determine who the appropriate players are on this risk management team. At a larger university, the size of the team may have to be much bigger.

WPI believes that effective risk management is a combination of two methodologies. The philosophical approach aims to identify, analyze, and manage risks, while a practical approach is tailored to each site. The ultimate goal of this combination is to protect the students, the advisors, the program, and the institution.

Part of the process of working towards managing the risks the WPI risk management team saw the institution being exposed to was defining what "risk management" meant to the University. Each school must tackle this as a first step towards managing any risks perceived. The risk management team identified various exposures and measured them against WPI's willingness and ability to withstand potential losses resulting from those exposures. The risk management team then determined how to implement policies to best control these identified risks with appropriate procedures. These site-specific policies and procedures are reviewed each year.

WPI conducts a continuous assessment of conditions for each location where students are sent. The Director of Global Operations, who works closely with the local coordinators and the center directors, initiates this assessment. Center directors have first hand, ongoing, historically based experience at each site. The local coordinators live at the sites and truly provide a continuous expertise that is necessary to manage the risk associated with WPI's Global Perspective Program. This group works to monitor any unusual developments of political unrest, outbreaks of disease, or perceived risks.

Safety issues are reviewed for every site on a regular basis, including transportation at each site, and housing accommodations. The Director of Global Operations and her staff routinely review current information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US State Department, and other SAFETI resources. When needed this group also works closely with the risk management team to determine if policies should be developed regarding certain activities. For instance, this year it was decided that due to the travel warnings issued by the State Department regarding danger to American travelers in the area abutting Thailand, a policy was needed to prohibit travel in Laos.

Risk Management Resources for Students

There are two major resources that have been developed by WPI in the effort to protect our students, the advisors, the program, and the institution. The first is intended for student use, the second was designed for use by the faculty advisors at a site. Both resources have been in existence for about 3 years now, and have grown substantially with time. These resources actually began as a pile of handouts that typically had been given to participants with the directive to share them with their parents. As the piles of information grew and the possibility for overlooking something became evident, the decision was made to bind these handouts together with an explanation of what they were. It also was determined that this would be excellent information to share with participants' families, rather than relying on students to pass on what they thought they understood. Such were the humble beginnings of the "Going Global at WPI Handbook" and the "Going Global at WPI Operational Handbook."

The "Going Global at WPI Handbook," intended for students and their families, includes descriptions of all institutional policies, all paperwork that students are expected to complete, and site specific information from reliable sources. This Handbook is sent to families with a cover letter, and is given to all students at orientation. IGSD professional staff prepares the Handbook with input from center directors and local coordinators for site-specific information. It also includes theNAFSA Safety Guidelines3as it is important for all involved to know what the responsibilities of each are. Resources from governmental agencies that are provided in the Handbook include all updated information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their site and fact sheets from US State Department specific to where the students are going.

Travel information that is provided includes how to get a passport and what needs to be considered regarding visas. Because most of our students have not traveled extensively, we provide information on safety when traveling, how to access and carry money, and how to safeguard important documents. Each Handbook contains contact information for the nearest US embassy or consulate. Important information regarding drugs and the legal system and how it may differ from here in the US is also given.

Medical considerations that we want students to keep in mind include information about how to carry prescription medication and the addresses, phone numbers, and directions to the nearest and best medical, dental, and mental health facilities. With the help of the Local Coordinators the handbook provides local emergency phone numbers with explicit instructions as to what to say in the local language in case of an emergency. In this Handbook local phone numbers for the local coordinator, the faculty advisor in residence, and any other important contact information is provided. Maps of the area are also included in the Handbook.

All students participating in the Global Perspective Program are provided with the International Student Identity Card (ISIC). The benefits of this supplemental insurance are outlined in the handbook. Because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires fulltime undergraduate students to have health insurance, the IGSD does not have to verify this information. On the Updated Health Form students provide insurance carrier names and policy numbers as part of the paperwork required. This form also asks for updated health related information, a list of allergies, prescription medications and emergency contact information. Students retain the responsibility for contacting their insurance company to determine that they are covered while off campus. If the insurance company requires a letter from the school, the IGSD is happy to provide that documentation.

Other mandatory paperwork that students must submit to the IGSD before leaving for their site includes a Travel Form with an itinerary and copy of passport (if an international site). WPI also requires students to sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement Form - which is something of a misnomer, as it is not voluntary that the students sign this form. Rather it acknowledges that the students are participating in the program voluntarily and that they have received written information and an orientation specific to their site. By signing this form students are also acknowledging that all of the support services that are available to them on campus may not be as accessible when off-campus. However, it is important to note that contact information with names, phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses for all of these support offices is provided as part of the handbook, including the Student Development Center, Accounting, Financial Aid, Residential Services, etc.

As explained in the handbook and at the orientation, failure to turn in mandatory paperwork by the deadline specified in the handbook can result in students not participating in the program. As part of a conscientious risk management effort copies of all the paperwork are sent with the faculty advisors to the site and all originals are kept in the IGSD. In the case of a lost or stolen passport, a medical emergency, or a missed connection in transit, the faculty advisors have all of the necessary information with them to facilitate a quick response when needed.

Policies regarding use of WPI-owned equipment, the WPI Code of Conduct and the Hearing Procedure at Off-Campus Residential Program Sites that apply to every participant at every site are supplied in the handbook. Any policies that are site specific are included in the appropriate handbook and reviewed. Examples of these sorts of policies include transportation and car rental by faculty and students, and known high-risk activities such as white water rafting.

Student Preparation

Students who wish to complete a project off campus must complete a rigorous, multi-step application process. Part of the application is a release that every applicant signs allowing access to academic and judicial records. The Director of Academic Advising and the Dean of Students review all transcripts and judicial records. Students must be in good academic and judicial standing at the time of application. This is an important screening that begins early in the process and these records are monitored up until the time the students leave for a site. Students are not allowed to participate if they are not in good academic standing or if they have had documented behavioral problems.

Every student who has been accepted to participate in an off-campus experience is given information regarding accommodations for disability related challenges. It is the student's responsibility to request special accommodations and to provide the necessary documentation needed to fulfill the request. WPI reserves the right to reassign a student with special needs to a project site that will better accommodate their needs. For instance, a student confined to a wheelchair who wants to complete a project in Venice will be redirected to the Project Center in Washington DC or London.

Each student, before they leave campus, is prepared in a variety of ways to deal with the experience ahead of them. Completion of preparation activity specific to each project is required for every student participant. In most cases the equivalent of a course and a half of activity is required before a student team is allowed to proceed with their project off-campus.

Each project, regardless of its area of focus, calls upon students to develop specific skills. As students work with broad problem statements and develop specific goals for their project, they are actively engaged in open-ended problem solving. Typically project topics are outside the scope of the students' areas of study, and therefore the students must develop ways to learn about new subjects. Teamwork skills are honed and practiced throughout the experience as students work together to produce a solution. The formal documentation and presentation skills required to successfully complete an off-campus project ensure that students master how to communicate in a variety of media and for a variety of audiences.

In addition to the academic preparation that students participate in, they are also given orientation and preparation for the cultural, religious, and ethnic differences they may encounter off-campus. This may include specific language training, depending on the site. Faculty members with expertise in the area provide a general history of the site where the students are going. Students are given advice on proper dress, proper etiquette, and how to expect the host country nationals to treat them.

Student Orientation Sessions

Students are also provided with an orientation session run by the professional staff of the IGSD. The "Going Global Handbook" is given to the students at this session and reviewed. All mandatory paperwork is explained and deadlines are emphasized. Students are told that failure to submit any paperwork by the deadline will prohibit their participation in the program.

The professional staff covers in detail issues of health, safety, medical insurance, alcohol and drug use, WPI policies and how they are enforced while off campus, and also policies that are specific to the program that the students are preparing to participate in. To reinforce the seriousness of the issues discussed, WPI students view a video10produced specifically to cover these issues for students participating in study abroad.

While participants are off-campus they still have access through email, telephone, and fax to all support resources on the WPI campus as described previously. Students are also given laminated wallet cards with contact numbers (office, home, and cellular) for the leadership team of the IGSD in case of an emergency. The WPI risk management team is confident that by providing written material to the students and their families along with a review of all the material, policies, and issues that all participants are as prepared as possible before they leave campus.

Risk Management Resources for Resident Advisors

The "Going Global at WPI Operational Handbook" is a resource that is provided to all Resident Faculty Advisors who are on-site with the students. In addition to all of the information described above that is included in the students' handbook, the faculty are provided with more information that they may need while in residence. Included is the Crisis Management Plan that contains a detailed description of what to do and who to contact in the event of an emergency. Emergencies that are anticipated include such events as natural disasters, crimes that may be committed against a student, crimes that may be committed by a student, a student's disappearance, sexual harassment, and violations of the WPI's Code of Conduct. Faculty advisors are provided with an extensive list of names and contact numbers for the WPI Crisis Management Team on campus.

Resident Advisor Training and Preparation

Each year, faculty members are chosen from across the campus to participate as residential project advisors at the sites. These advisors travel with the students and reside on-site during the entire experience. Responsibilities of the advisors include not only the typical academic issues, but also those that arise due to living on-site and off-campus. Because there are special issues that result from being away from campus for all participants - students and faculty alike - training has been developed specifically for advisors at off-campus locations. A conscientious approach to risk management has necessitated preparing advisors for worst-case scenarios, while also providing the less experienced off-campus advisors with an opportunity to learn from their colleagues who have been away often. Areas of concern that are addressed during these training sessions include: sexual harassment, transportation, drugs and alcohol, recognizing and responding to students at risk, health and safety issues, housing concerns, students' behavior, social and personal growth, and helping students get the most out of the cultural experience. All of these areas are deemed to be out of the purview of regular project advising and therefore get special attention. Professionals who offer services addressing these issues on campus help design and facilitate the training sessions to offer expert advice about how to deal with the issues off-campus. This training goes beyond that information provided in the "Going Global at WPI Operational Handbook".


The Global Perspective Program at WPI provides a model for international education that incorporates a meaningful global experience for our students. At WPI careful risk management in conjunction with student selection, preparation, and faculty training support these efforts. Rapid growth of the program provides evidence that WPI students understand the value of this type of international experience. The fact that with this increase of participation there have been no catastrophic incidents speaks to the success of the management of these experiences by those involved at WPI. However, it is important to note that developing all of the aspects of the risk management effort did not just appear suddenly. WPI has managed to get to this stage of risk management by persistent efforts of the administrators and professionals involved with the Global Perspective Program over time. The following matrix illustrates how each of the guidelines developed by NAFSA3 are addressed by the procedures implemented at WPI. Each guideline is addressed in at least two ways by WPI.

NAFSA Guideline cols cols cols cols cols cols cols cols cols

Conduct periodic assessments of health and safety conditions for the program, and develop and maintain emergency preparedness processes and a crisis response plan.

X       X   X    

Provide health and safety information for prospective participants so that they and their parents/guardians/families can make informed decisions concerning preparation, participation and behavior while on the program.

      X   X      

Provide clear information concerning aspects of home campus services and conditions that cannot be replicated at overseas locations.

    X X X X      

Provide orientation to participants prior to the program and as needed on site, which includes information on safety, health, legal, environmental, political, cultural, and religious conditions in the host country, dealing with health and safety issues, potential health and safety risks, and appropriate emergency response measures.

      X X X      

Consider health and safety issues in evaluating the appropriateness of an individual's participation in a study abroad program.

    X         X  

Either provide appropriate health and travel accident (emergency evacuation, repatriation) insurance to participants, or provide information about how to obtain appropriate coverage. Require participants to show evidence of appropriate coverage.

    X         X  

Conduct appropriate inquiry regarding the potential health and safety risks of the local environment of the program, including program-sponsored accommodation, events, excursions and other activities, on an ongoing basis and provide information and assistance to participants and their parents / guardians / families as needed.

X X     X X X   X

Conduct appropriate inquiry regarding available medical and professional services, provide information for participants and their parents / guardians / families , and help participants obtain the services they may need.

X   X X X   X    

Provide appropriate and ongoing health and safety training for program directors and staff, including guidelines with respect to intervention and referral, and working within the limitations of their own compentencies.

X       X   X    

Communicate applicable codes of conduct and the consequences of noncompliance to participants. Take appropriate action when aware that participants are in violation.

  X   X         X

Obtain current and reliable information concerning healt and safety risks, and provide that information to program administrators and participants.

X     X X X X    

In case of serious health problems, injury, or other significant health and safety circumstances, maintain good communication among all program sonsors and others who need to know.

X       X   X    

In the participant screening process, consider factors, such as disciplinary history, that may impact on the safety of the individual or the group.

  X           X X

Provide information for participants and their parents / guardians / families regarding when and where the sponsor's responsibility ends, and the range of aspects of participants' overseas experiences that are beyond the sponsor's control.

  X X X         X

As anyone familiar with an academic environment knows, policy implementation can be a very slow and arduous process. However in the interest of protecting students, faculty, the program and ultimately WPI, the risk management team realizes that conscientious risk management is crucial to the success of any off campus academic experience, be it abroad or here in the United States.


  • Mello, N.A., How Can Universities Provide a Global Perspective for Engineers? One Institution's Solution, ASEE Annual Conference Proceedings, St. Louis, MO, June 2000.
  • Vaz, R., Connected Learning: Interdisciplinary Projects in International Settings. Liberal Education, AAC&U, Vol. 86, No. 1. Winter 2000.
  • NAFSA, Responsible Study Abroad: Health and Safety Guidelines, June 5, 1998
  • Studying the Risks, The Detroit News Cyber Surveys,
  • Rubin, K., Safety in Study Abroad: How much more can programs do to protect students? Promoting Safety in Study Abroad, NAFSA, 1998
  • Kast, R.C., In Loco Parentis and the "Reasonable Person", International Educator, Vol. VII, No. 1. NAFSA, 1997.
  • French, R. Gauging Danger a Difficult Task: Statistics Not Kept; Colleges Have Few Rules, The Detroit News, 8/28/00
  • SAFETI (Safety Abroad First - Educational Travel Information) Clearinghouse Project, On-Line Newsletter, University of Southern California Center for Global Education, 2001.
  • Congressional Hearing Subject: Safety in Study Abroad Programs. Committee: Education and the Workforce. Subcommittee: Oversight and Investigations October 4, 2000.
  • Darrah, M., Safety and Study Abroad, Video Learning Program. Big World Inc., Boulder, CO., 1999.

Natalie A. Mello is the Director of Global Operations in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she oversees and coordinates project centers around the world and designs training programs for faculty advisors. Ms. Mello has organized and hosted health and safety workshops for education professionals in the New England area, served as the Task Leader for the Evaluation and Continuous Improvement of the Product Realization Consortium, and has presented at numerous conferences. She served in the Peace Corps in Belize and lived in Costa Rica from 1984-1987 and has also taught English as a Second Language at Clark University and Anna Maria College. Ms. Mello received her B.A. degree in Studio Art from Connecticut College in 1984, her Graduate Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in 1990, and her Masters of Liberal Arts in 1993 from Clark University.