Life Is Risky, and So Is Studying Abroad

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

April 06, 2011

Sending students to study overseas is an inherently risky proposition. Bad things can and do happen. Students break limbs, get robbed, and sometimes die in auto accidents. One of our undergraduates now in Ecuador temporarily blinded herself while cooking. Another flew home to France, traumatized by a stalker in Boston.

The university where I work, the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, better known as Sciences Po, and other universities that seek to provide students with an international experience have tried and tested procedures to deal with those sorts of emergencies. Unpleasant and regrettable as they are, they're simply a fact of life, and study-abroad offices are set up to deal with them.

Yet no amount of everyday experience has been sufficient preparation for the momentous events that have literally shaken the world in the past few months: the "Arab Spring" with its uprisings in several Middle Eastern countries, and Japan's disastrous earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis.

At a time of growing student mobility worldwide, those events are higher education's version of the "black swans" described by the author Nassim N. Taleb, extreme incidents or developments for which nobody is adequately prepared. They highlight an uncomfortable truth: students can suddenly be confronted by dangers that are far greater and far less predictable than the ones universities are used to tackling. Talking to counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, it's clear that even the most risk-aware colleges with the best-oiled procedures have been sorely tested by this year's events.

A thick fog of confusion is part of the problem. Both the Japan crisis and the Middle Eastern uprisings have necessitated that snap decisions be made at a time when reliable information on which to base those decisions has been scant. That in turn is prompting us in Paris and many of our partners around the world to take a much closer look at how we manage risk.

But that's not enough. Given the scale of the developments and the extreme dangers that they have highlighted, it's time to ask some fundamental moral and legal questions about the nature of the relationship between a university and its students. Where ultimately does one draw the line between individual judgment and institutional responsibility? What level of risk is acceptable? Should the criteria for tolerating and managing that risk be any different just because the students are overseas? Who gets to decide? And how?

As I sift through the arguments, three issues stand out.

Judging when danger is truly dangerous. The Middle Eastern uprisings have highlighted just how difficult it is to find reliable objective information on which to base contingency plans. At Sciences Po, we have relied on the official guidance of the French government, just as many American universities take their cue from the U.S. State Department. If the French government says it's not safe to stay somewhere, we'll pull our students out. But that system has its limits, as we discovered this year in the Middle East.

In Tunisia, absent official advice to the contrary, our students stayed put. As a result, they experienced some of the most exciting moments of that country's recent history, in safety, and will no doubt be profoundly marked by having done so. Egypt was different. There we also looked to the French embassy for guidance, but again officials made no specific recommendation for a withdrawal. Initially, we left it up to the students to decide whether they wanted to stay. After some intense internal debate, we decided to pull our students out. Why? Many other countries including the United States and Turkey were urging their nationals to leave, but the turning point came when French-speaking Egyptian police visited some of our students at their residence. Our Middle East experts, on the faculty and involved in study abroad, pulled the alarm cord, and the students flew back.

It was a judgment call, based on a perception that our students suddenly faced a grave threat. But it's hard to draw the line. There were armed clashes taking place in the streets of Cairo at the time, which could be reason enough to pull students out, or not send them in at all. Yet something similar was happening in Tunisia and has since taken place in Syria, and we kept the students in place there. Consult a map of the world, and the proportion of countries plagued by political instability, terrorism, or intense street violence far outweighs the number of peaceful, stable democracies. Insist too hard on the imperative of safety, and huge swaths of the globe will suddenly be off limits, including most of Africa, Mexico, and Russia. Ultimately, the decision comes to this: if students are facing direct, immediate, and serious danger, they should be pulled out. If not, let them be.

The real meaning of "alma mater." Universities traditionally see themselves as the nourishing, fostering mother, the home away from home, but there's a big difference among institutions as to what alma mater actually means in practice. From a European point of view, some American universities seem to exaggerate the handholding. No doubt we Europeans, in turn, are criticized for being not sufficiently nurturing. Whatever your view, two truisms have been brought into sharp relief by the recent crises. The first is that, however much a university tries, it cannot guarantee safety 100 percent. You can mitigate risk, but you can't eliminate it. The second is that students are legally adults, and that necessarily restricts how much a university can actually do to help them out of danger.

For one thing, they have genuine rights to privacy. Should we require them to inform us when they go away for the weekend or on vacation? In Paris, they don't tell us when they go to Marseille, so why should they tell us if they're leaving Tokyo for Kyoto? And if they are panicked by local TV reports about radiation spreading across the Pacific, can we and should we stop them from flying home from Los Angeles?

Of course it's possible to limit legal liability. Judging by the heavy disclaimers that I've seen some American universities insist upon before sending their students abroad, it's evident that fear of being sued is a powerful factor. Yet it takes more than a piece of paper to limit moral responsibility, since we're the ones who packed them off or encouraged them to go in the first place.

It's hard to reconcile those sorts of contradictions. We, like many of our counterparts in the United States, insist as much as we can on the personal responsibility and the individual rights of students, and deal with them directly rather than with their parents. When that student of ours in Ecuador landed in the hospital after the cooking accident, I resisted the temptation to call her mother before talking to her first. The "mater" of alma mater needs to be heavily nuanced.

The point of study abroad. Ultimately, that is the decisive issue. We send students abroad because we want them to be enriched by the discovery of the unfamiliar. We want them to immerse themselves in other cultures, to confront other ways of being and doing. We know from experience that they will return home wiser and more mature.

There is a price to pay for that. The students we send to Russia have twice been uncomfortably close to deadly bombings in Moscow. A few years ago, two were drugged with a laced drink in a taxi and went missing for 24 hours. (Fortunately, they suffered no lasting harm.) Those sorts of incidents are nerve-racking but ultimately don't prevent us from sending students back to Russia every year. Students caught up in such potentially traumatic incidents are fully capable of making difficult decisions of their own. Of the students we recently pulled out of Japan, for example, two have already decided to return there. Most of the students we repatriated from Cairo have since gone back.

Of course, students need to go into those sorts of adventures with their eyes open, and for the most part they do. That's as it should be. For one of the most valuable lessons that studying abroad can teach our students is that risk exists, that it needs to be taken into account and, when possible, calculated. But they also need to know that sometimes risk can defy prediction and calculation and management. It's a lesson we could all learn again.

Peter Gumbel is director of the Centre for the Americas at Sciences Po, in Paris. The views expressed in this commentary are his personal ones.


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