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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Travel risk is not school’s responsibility

    Four weeks in Guatemala changed my life. I got bed bugs, slept on a wooden bed, carried out my first independent research project, lived with a Guatemalan family and learned how to be self-sufficient. When I came back, I had a new direction, purpose and understanding of the world. When I think back to the most pivotal moment in my education, I think of a small one-room home on the side of a mountain in San Juan Cotzal, Guatemala.

    My story is not unique. A study from Clark University revealed that in over 90 percent of cases, study-abroad programs helped boost students’ self-confidence, cultural understanding and maturity.

    Dieter and Netzin Steklis, who run the UA Primate Studies Field School in Rwanda, said their program is “uniformly transformational for [their] students.” They said part of the power of the Rwanda trip is that it “takes students outside their normal limits of experiences, which makes it a truly memorable educational experience.”

    The inherent goal of study abroad is to ease participants into a moderated international experience. Participants travel to a new part of the world and are exposed to different foods, modes of transportation, environmental conditions and social norms. But they also undergo orientation and are given multiple points of contact for support. They utilize health services on their campus before they leave to prepare for any health risks in their destination, and they register with the U.S. government in case of a political emergency. They are frequently accompanied by trip leaders who provide a higher level of supervision than the average student receives on their home campus.

    But even within all of this preparation, programs must leave students with substantial freedom so that they can independently learn, adapt, explore and gain the full benefits of a study-abroad experience.

    This freedom comes with a level of responsibility and risk. No program has the ability to isolate its students from all risk, nor would such a program be as beneficial for students in the long term.

    A recent court case threatens this delicate balance, however.

    In 2007, Cara Munn, a student at the Hotchkiss School, became the first U.S. citizen in history to contract tick-borne encephalitis while on a study abroad trip in China. A federal district court in Connecticut granted her $41.75 million for her loss. Her case is currently before a federal appeals court, and 28 education groups signed an amicus brief last month asking that the lower court’s decision be reversed.

    The Hotchkiss School’s loss sets a scary precedent for the future of study abroad. If a program is responsible for every possible accident that every single student has, including completely unprecedented ones, there is little incentive for educators to create challenging study-abroad programs. Instead, universities will feel pressured to move programs to “safer” regions, cutting off huge swaths of the world, including Guatemala and Rwanda.

    “It is impossible to completely protect anyone in any location,” said Christian Sinclair, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. But there is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into creating a program that is as safe as possible. Sinclair said, “While organizers “can mitigate risk, … [they] cannot eliminate it.”

    After all, there are risks associated with walking along the side of the road, swimming in the ocean and taking a hike through the wilderness. There are certainly risks with doing these things in a foreign country.

    The real risk is missing out on the experience of a lifetime for fear of contracting a tick-borne disease on a trip to China when one is far more likely to be struck by lightning.

    We should not be placing unrealistic and counterproductive burdens on those who work to facilitate transformative learning experiences for students.

    I could have been infected with malaria in the jungle or suffered altitude sickness in the highlands, but the direction and maturity I gained in Guatemala far outweighed those risks. Rather than pointing fingers of blame for freak accidents, people should be worried about the language skills, self-awareness and global understanding that would be lost in a generation that never leaves the U.S.


    Julianna Renzi is a sophomore studying environmental science and economics. Follow her on Twitter.

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