Legislation makes study abroad programs more transparent

VCU students study abroad in Ireland during summer 2014. Photo courtesy of Shannon Riley
VCU students study abroad in Ireland during summer 2014. Photo courtesy of Shannon Riley
VCU students study abroad in Ireland during summer 2014. Photo courtesy of Shannon Riley

A new piece of legislation that requires increased availability of safety records has passed the House and Senate. The bill – SB338 – was proposed by Sen. Kenneth Alexander.

Virginia is the second state to pass a transparency law for study abroad programs. Minnesota was the first state to pass the law in 2014.

The popularly supported bill is the result of much lobbying. One group that took part in the process was Clear Cause, a Minnesotan organization that promotes increased safety and education for study abroad programs.

Another adamant lobbyer was Richell Dabney, a mother and a constituent in Alexander’s district. A year and a half ago Dabney’s son,  Damion Wikins, a junior biology major at Old Dominion University, died of a heart attack while studying abroad in Peru.

Wikins told the Virginia Pilot that there had been not been enough transparency with the study abroad program about the death and the medical treatment of the heart attack.

“I’m not saying anything was done wrong,” Dabney said. “But the program should have been more transparent. We don’t know what happened. All I know was he had a heart attack. We can’t get any more medical information.”

In 2012, USA TODAY reported the death of Casey Schulman, a U.Va student who was killed by a small boat in the last few days of her semester at sea. According to USA TODAY, at the time it was difficult to get exact numbers of deaths and incidents on study abroad programs simply because no one kept track of them.

Since then, the Forum of Education Abroad has been assembling a database of incidents which occur over seas.

Sheryl Hill is an executive director of clear cause, an organization that started the Safe Journey academy in honor of her son, Tyler, who died at 16 in Japan during a 2007 student ambassador trip.

“We know the best how wonderfully exciting, romantic and impactful international studies can be, but we also know the worst of them,” Hill said. “My passion is to make sure we all depart smart, but it came from my passion for youth exchange.”

According to Hill, there has been a lack of transparency with study abroad programs.

“You’ll never hear of any program site what happens to the thousands of students that study abroad. so when they are not wonderful we get phone calls,” Hill said.

Currently, Safe Journey is raising money before it can commence operations. By going to their website you can donate, or take a preparedness quiz to access your study abroad safety.

“It is my opinion and the opinion of many mothers whose children died preventable deaths abroad, there should be some duty to inform when schools are escorting students to countries where the united states have a active travel warning, or when the peace corps have withdrawn,” Hill said.

This summer, VCU will send 450 students abroad to locations such as Greece, Spain, Czech Republic, Germany, Morocco, China, Italy, Mexico, Austria, Barbados, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador,  England, Ireland, Scotland, Jamaica, Japan, Peru, Portugal, South Africa and more.

Stephanie Tignor, director of Education Abroad says that some of these locations include nations where travel warnings exist.

“Yes, occasionally we do allow students to study in countries where the State Department has issued a travel warning,” Tignor said.  “When programs are proposed to the Global Education Office, we look closely at the language used by the State Department to determine whether to offer a program in a country with a travel warning.”

Tignor said VCU analyzes security concerns for every study abroad location and that safety is a top concern for VCU for all students going abroad, not just those going to travel warning countries.

“So before students depart we make sure that they are registered with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program,” Tignor said. “And they attend pre-departure orientation at which we address safety, health and other pre-trip essential information.”

VCU students are advised to visit student health, and read state department literature prior to departing.

“We also provide insurance for all study abroad students,” Tignor said. “VCU has invested in a blanket insurance policy that covers emergency medical evacuation for all university students and employees through AIG Travel Assist.”

Print News Editor, Andrew Crider

Andrew Crider, photo by Brooke MarshAndrew is a junior economics major who has written for student newspapers since he was in high school. Andrew is interested in political history, aviation, photography and running. He has a tendency to refer to his peers, coworkers and bosses as “ma’am” or “sir,” but is getting better about referring to his friends at the CT by their first names instead. // Facebook

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