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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.

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Volume 3, Number 1, 2005 Edition

Universities without Borders: Lessons Learned from the December 2004 Tsunami Crisis

by Laura Angelone

As the waters receded and the devastation visited upon several nations by the tsunami that struck Asia in December of 2004 became clear, many American colleges and universities struggled to determine whether any of their students had been lost. Administrators grappled with one of the most frustrating aspects of a disaster—the inability to get accurate information quickly. On campuses throughout the nation, faculty members spent days trying to determine whether students were missing, and the challenge of accounting for students was made more difficult by the fact that most schools were on break for the holidays.

While the magnitude of the disaster inflicted by the tsunami was unparalleled in recent memory, the reality is that even lesser crises, whether induced by natural disasters, political upheaval, or other unforeseen actions or events, can be catastrophic to the unprepared. In virtually every scenario imaginable, reliable information is critical to effective management of the situation. The value of information was made most clear by the experiences of International SOS as we worked with clients in the aftermath of the tsunami.

International SOS was among the first international organizations to respond to the crisis created by the tsunami. We were organizing our response in the hours following the initial reports of the disaster, and were onsite the day following. Over the next several weeks we assisted several hundred victims of the disaster. We airlifted victims from Krabi, Surat Thani, Phuket and Colombo to medical centers in Bangkok and Singapore. We worked closely with foreign embassies to assist with hospitalization and travel needs of others visiting the area. Through our Singapore Alarm Center, SOS teams coordinated vaccinations for foreign aid workers, victims and others traveling to the region to participate in search, rescue and relief efforts.

International SOS headed up a dedicated Missing Persons Team to centrally manage all requests and data received, working closely with local authorities that were performing search, rescue and recovery operations. SOS used its Personal Travel Record Service to locate SOS clients who self reported their travel data prior to the disaster. Sadly, we also helped coordinate repatriation of mortal remains.

Many responding organizations reported being besieged with requests for information. Anticipating this demand, International SOS created a Tsunami Update section on the home page of its website. Launched within 24 hours of the disaster, the website provided details on the affected countries including information on the management of missing persons, the deceased, DNA testing for identification purposes, national hotlines for assistance and advice, medical and security updates and advice on travel to the region. The site proved to be a tremendous value for our clients, and was used by nearly 5,000 people daily over the first ten days following the tsunami.

In the near term, the tsunami, juxtaposed against other events in the world, will cause many to question the safety and efficacy of sending American students and faculty to other countries. While the value of study abroad programs is apparent, it is imperative that universities with study abroad programs adapt to changing realities and anticipate the dangers that can arise. In the aftermath of 911, terrorism is a threat that must be considered, but it is joined by many other concerns. Natural disasters like the tsunami, and pandemic diseases, from SARS to Avian Flu to Mad Cow disease, together with a host of problems that can face individuals in an unfamiliar culture, highlight the need for U.S. universities to be prepared to respond to emergencies and potentially catastrophic events anywhere at anytime.

The increased risk inherent in foreign travel is further complicated by a geographic shift that is now underway. With many more destination choices for study abroad than ever before, countries long thought to be traditional “safe locations” (such as the U.K., Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia and France), particularly in comparison to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, are becoming less popular as foreign study sites.

In its most recently released Open Doors publication, the Institute of International Education (IIE) notes that in 1985, 90% of U.S. study abroad students participated in programs in the U.K., Italy, Spain or Western Europe. However, since that time, the number of U.S. students participating in study abroad programs in Asia has increased by 18%; programs in Africa have increased by 40% and the number in Latin America has doubled.

How can universities support study abroad programs while ensuring the health and safety of their faculty, staff and students? How can they prepare for and respond to increases in disease, political tension and the real possibility of terrorism, even in traditionally safe locations?

First, universities should invest in a good travel security preparation program. Information is key and knowledge is power. All overseas travelers should embark with a basic understanding of security awareness. Universities should encourage their travelers to read current news information on the country and region to which they will be traveling -- the U.S. Department of State travel site is one of the best resources available -- travel warnings.

Security is enhanced through planning and preparation. According to Dr. Gary Rhodes of the Center for Global Education, “International study and travel provides health and safety challenges which require institutions and their faculty, staff, and students to avoid high risk activities and adequately prepare for any emergency that could take place around the world. Having around the clock assistance available for students, faculty and staff as well as appropriate crisis management support is critical for colleges and universities, like Harvard, planning to expand international activities.”

Academic institutions should institute a Comprehensive Overseas Emergency Response Plan, created and tested by the campus emergency response team with input from various departments on campus, to adequately prepare for crises. Even if plans are already in existence, they must be continually updated and refined.

Planning and preparation should address the range of threats students abroad may face. As we have just witnessed, the havoc wreaked on a country by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or major hurricane can lead to instability in developing countries. The Overseas Emergency Response Plan should address all contingencies, from natural disasters to coup d’etats, civil unrest, acts of terrorism, and any other possible outcomes.

Recognize that while global terrorism dominates the headlines, U.S. students overseas are still much more likely to be the target of crime than the victim of a terrorist. Review the laws of the country which will be visited -- some countries have a “zero tolerance” policy regarding drugs and alcohol. According to the U.S. Department of State, there are on average 6,000 Americans arrested in over 90 countries each year and approximately 1,500 Americans are currently serving time in a foreign jail. The majority of these cases, about 70%, are drug related. Students should know that Mexico and Jamaica are responsible for filing 72% of all drug charges against Americans traveling abroad.

Auto accidents also can lead to Americans spending time in a foreign jail. In Mexico, for example, foreigners will be assumed guilty until proven innocent. Any foreigner driving in Mexico who is hit by another driver will likely go to jail until it is determined who was at fault. A good practice in Mexico would be to hire a driver.

Medical risks need to be taken into account with equal attention to traveler preparation as security risks. Illnesses have a global impact and SARS reinforced that communicable disease is no longer just a developing world problem. Last year, the Canadian government issued a SARS travel warning for Toronto, proving that no location is immune to disease. Universities reviewing current Overseas Emergency Response Plans should be sure there are action steps for responding to medical risks by region.

Assess and analyze overseas response capabilities. Determine strengths and weaknesses and when prudent hire a service provider who is in place and prepared to assist when emergencies arise which are beyond your institution’s scope of expertise.

As the number of U.S. students studying abroad grows and the locations where study abroad programs occur become more varied and in many cases more remote, one of the greatest challenges for academic institutions may be in understanding and assessing the risks associated with a new program and destination. The more information and knowledge you and your colleagues on campus possess, the better equipped you will be to minimize risks and exposures without minimizing overseas travel.

Study abroad programs must invest equally in preparation to meet their new duties of in caring for the safety and well being of students, faculty and staff. The world is ever changing, and the challenges posed by these changes must be understood and met by the university community.

"The continuing and strong increase in study abroad is especially important against the backdrop of today's headlines. Having our successor generation learn more about other countries and societies -- while serving as cultural ambassadors to their peers -- enables young Americans to contribute directly to creating a more peaceful world," commented IIE President Allan E. Goodman.

For more information on preparing for study abroad, visit the following websites:

International SOS, a resource for crisis planning and 24-hour emergency evacuation:

The Center for Global Education, funded by the U.S. Department of Education to develop and disseminate resources and information to help U.S. colleges and universities improve policies and procedures for study abroad:

The Safety Abroad First – Educational Travel Information (SAFETI) Clearinghouse, a resource from The Center for Global Education:

Laura Angelone is Director of Scholastic Programs for International SOS. In that capacity, she works with university and independent study abroad program directors in the coordination and implementation of their overseas emergency response plan. Laura speaks on overseas safety and travel risk management at workshops and seminars around the country.