A Student and Faculty Guide to Risk Management While Studying Abroad

As the current COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe, thousands of students and faculty have been forced to rapidly abandon their study abroad programs to return to the safety of home. The threat of coronavirus has placed the world in an unprecedented situation and the U.S. Department of State has even gone as far as to issue a level four warning for citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impacts of the virus.


When it comes to the safety and health of faculty and students overseas, there’s never been a greater priority for Study Abroad Association. After all, it is the goal of all participants that international education experiences will lead to meaningful memories, learned knowledge and new skills. In order to achieve this goal, nothing is as important as investing proper time in risk management before and during study abroad programs. 


While the COVID-19 pandemic may be causing impacts far outside the norm, it serves as a siren for all of us to revisit the topic of study abroad risk management. 


“At a fundamentally broad level, risk management involves a form of strategic planning able to forecast the types of risks associated with an activity or event by bringing in professionals with varied skillsets to outline the risks and provide answers and action if something happens,” explained Jeffrey Foot, Executive Director of LewerMark, a company that provides group and individual health insurance for international and study abroad students.


“Initially, it is a collaborative activity to pull together the appropriate parties in order to develop methods to identify, understand, manage, and optimistically, reduce the impact, damage, or loss that may occur,” he added. 


Read on as Study Abroad Association walks you through how to access risk factors of study abroad, pre-departure risk management advice for students and faculty and how to deal with an emergency overseas. 


Assessing Risk Factors of Study Abroad


Professionals stress that, when it comes to studying abroad, risk for students and faculty should be acknowledged, but not a deterrent to participating in such an experience. Indeed, while there are calculable risks, studies show the benefits of study abroad – from life skills and language development to increased abilities with intercultural communication and independence, are bound to outweigh the risks involved. That being said, both students and faculty alike need to assess the risk factors before embarking on an international adventure. 


“This is not a vacation,” stressed Foot. “You need to manage the risk of choosing a destination and program that meets your educational objectives. You would be wise to choose a study destination based on the needs of the industry or field you wish to be involved in professionally when you graduate and then take a risk to go there.” 


For students, it’s important to choose a program that is educationally robust with academic credit attached to mitigate the risk that the experience will not be meaningful. Likewise, it’s important to evaluate the risks to personal safety involved with a given program’s structure and location. Once overseas, students should take the culture into consideration and act in a way that promotes wellbeing given the circumstances of the local. 


“Look at [risk] as holistically as possible,” added Emily Mosby, a long-time international education professional who currently runs Mosby Global, an organization dedicated to providing accessible and affordable intercultural learning opportunities through customized programs. 


“Students need to always assess risk on both the short and the long term, she added. “For students who have been abroad during this specific crisis returning home was likely the best choice. However, in most situations, your risk isn’t just your bodily self. Students have to evaluate what is the best decision to complete academic credits, afford necessary costs, etc.”


For faculty leading overseas programs, it’s just as important to weigh the safety risks of the desired location. Faculty also need to understand what programs operate best in certain countries and choose a professional provider that is responsive, focuses on the academic outcome and adequately address risk management for their trips.  


“Cultural learning should be weighted as importantly as subject learning,” added Mosby. “The point of going abroad is not just to acquire content information, it’s to do it in an experiential way and be able to have these experiences of being interculturally agile, communicating across cultures while also learning about your subject of choice.”


Pre-Departure Risk Management 


When it comes to mitigating risks, preparation is king. The best time to address risk management is before students embark on an overseas adventure, not after. Study Abroad Association outlines robust risk management and safety protocols for all programs to adopt in their inception. 


In advance of departure, Study Abroad Association protocols outline for a pre-trip orientation in advance of an on-ground briefing where students are provided with city maps, emergency contact information for the in-country group leader and US team as well as phone numbers and addresses for all accommodations. 


Mosby advises that the most important step in pre-departure risk management is often the cultural education that faculty provide students. Students need to learn as much as they can about what’s normal and appropriate in their new host country so they can blend in and be able to notice cues for when something is not right. 


“I always encourage that pre-departure programs have an emphasis on cultural learning aspects so that students’ risk preparation can be about perception skills,” she said. “Faculty need to do the work to make sure that they have a strong foundation of cultural understanding. Being able to predict situations of cultural differences can be so helpful.” 


“If you are conducting risk management procedures and policies and procedures without fully examining the cultural element, then I think you are doing your program and students a disservice because there’s a lot more risk when it comes to daily interactions, the value of the program for the student and their health and wellbeing that are affected by cultural nuances and values that students aren’t always aware that they need to prepare for and be looking out for,” Mosby added. 


Arming students with ample cultural knowledge so they can address situations as they arise appropriately is some of the best support faculty can provide their students.


“No one can plan for every emergency,” added Mosby. “It’s more about how can you think on your feet and tune in and learn quickly on the ground so if there’s – like this – a pandemic, you have a base knowledge of how to find out more information, use your resources and communicate.”


Risk Management in Country 


To be prepared for an emergency while studying abroad, participants should: 

  • Carry health and accident insurance 
  • Inform participants of emergency procedures including a phone chain for emergency communication 
  • Possess an emergency contact list to understand their responsibilities to the program and the university know the rights of US citizens abroad 
  • Have the participants complete and sign: an emergency contact form, including insurance provider and policy number, a release of information or authorization to communicate with the emergency contact, a release from liability form, a student behavior agreement (code of conduct), an authorization for the program to use photos or quotes 
  • Locate contact information for the hospitals, ambulances, police departments in the sites to be visited. 
  • Know the access codes for the US from the country or countries you are visiting. 
  • Register participants with the U.S. Embassy in the country or countries on your itinerary 
  • Know the contact information for the closest US Embassy or Consulate 

Once in the country, cultural learning should continue to be a priority to help students mitigate risks. Mosby advises that students look for a local cultural mentor – a friend, professor or other trustworthy local who students can turn to in emergencies. 


“Understand you are living independently in another country,” said Foot. “This involves an active measure of maturity to understand when you can and cannot engage in risky behavior. This is not an American beach community in spring so you need to act in mature ways. For example, modesty and understanding local perspectives will serve you well in a Swedish biker bar where they may not believe the USA is #1 even though they look the part. Or that, while safe to walk in most of Asia late at night, it is still good practice to not leave behind your buddy support structure and walk alone,” he concluded. 


Mosby also recommends faculty give students time to address the emotional elements involved in a crisis when bodily harm is not at stake. 


“The emotional impact of being abroad can heighten everything else,” she said. “So for risk management, in general, it’s important to give students time to process the emotion of the situation and if possible then make the decision once that has calmed down, as long as it seems they are stable enough to do so.” 


Rules for Handling Emergencies Overseas 


Likewise, Study Abroad Association has outlined emergency response guidelines for faculty overseas.  The three rules for handling an emergency abroad are;

  1. Take control of the situation 
  2. Get to the scene as soon as possible 
  3. Document the events, details, and actions taken 

When a serious incident occurs (illness, injury, sexual assault, death, political unrest, natural disaster, etc.) contact the College Outreach/International Programs Director coordinating your program abroad and the Risk Management Office. If you call after hours, contact the campus police to relay your message. Do not call the family of the victim. 

Dial the access code for the US from your site, then the country code (1), then the number below. Be sure you know the access code for the US from the countries you will visit. 

If you call the campus Police Department, you may call collect stating that you are the faculty leader of a study abroad program. A list of program leaders and students for each program should have been previously provided to the campus Police so the dispatcher will know to accept a collect call. Be sure to emphasize that the situation is urgent
or an emergency. Note the conversation in your log of the incident. (See the incident report form at the end of this document.) 


Provide the following details when you call: 

  • Your name and the program you are directing 
  • Your location and immediate contact number and how long it will be valid 
  • Participant’s name, individuals involved 
  • The nature of the emergency 
  • When you will call back or when the college administrator may call you 
  • Your longer-term contact number 
  • Whether the participant’s families are aware of the situation 


Mitigating Risk with Health Insurance

A final important aspect of risk management to consider is medical coverage during the travel period. Both students and faculty traveling overseas should make sure they have health insurance that will offer coverage overseas. 


“Study abroad health insurance is a financial tool you need to leverage to your advantage,” added Foot. “In its least used form, insurance provides peace of mind that if something does go sideways, you will be protected financially. Functionally, if something does happen to you or you get sick requiring hospitalization, you are protected against health care costs and you will have the full suite of tools you or your family, professor or host schools need to assist you.”


LewerMark offers plans that don’t have a deductible and a solid network of hospitals and doctors abroad who will direct bill the company for services. Should a disaster strike, their plans have emergency resources that are vital in times of need including medical evacuation, repatriation, and compassionate visits? Furthermore, the company offers Morneau Shepell to students which give access to licensed counselors familiar with cultural adaption. As homesickness kicks in as it is bound to for most students, this is a more than a welcome resource.