Written by Dr. William Hoffa, Academic Consultants International

1.What would a summary of all the reasons for studying abroad look like?

First, study abroad enriches and diversifies undergraduate education by offering courses, programs, and academic learning of a sort not possible on the home campus Second, study abroad provides U.S. students with a global outlook, which emphasizes the contemporary inter-relatedness of nations and cultures, the universality of human values, and the necessity for working together Third, study abroad enhances career preparation by teaching cross-cultural and work-place skills of value to today's employers, often through internships and other hands-on experiences Finally, study abroad deepens intellectual and personal maturity, fosters independent thinking, and builds self-confidence.

2.What are our roles as parents in helping select the right program?

There seem to be hundreds to choose from!
Following are important considerations that must be factored into your daughter's or son's choice of a particular program. In order to be able to provide the requisite confirmation and support, which she or he might need, it is important for you to have a basic grasp of the following:

  • How study abroad resembles and differs from domestic study?
  • How it is structured and its many varieties in duration, location, and program type?
  • How credit is earned and used toward degree studies?
  • What the full costs will be?
  • What financial aid resources are available?
  • How safety can be maximized?
  • How the admissions process works?

3.Are there any program types or locations, which should be avoided or at least looked at extra carefully?

Many people believe that, more critical than the location of the program per se (apart from countries about which the State Department provides absolute prohibitions or unequivocal warnings), is the program itself. Many programs with excellent health and safety records occur in places which some observers would say present more than average risks, because they are well-planned and overseen. Conversely, accidents and injuries can certainly occur in 'safe' countries, if program activities are themselves risky or badly designed and managed. Your questions should, of course, cover where a program takes place, how it is run, and what, if any, potential dangers exist. You should also use extra scrutiny to investigate brand new programs and those run by colleges or agencies without much history of overseas programming. Finally, it is important to note that established on-going programs, a semester or more in duration, with permanent staff "on the ground" might be inherently safer than short-term, one-time, traveling programs led by an accompanying faculty or staff member not thoroughly familiar with the program site(s), especially if there is little or no on-site coordination.

4.How do we know that study abroad will be safe for our child? Recent newspapers and TV accounts suggest that overseas risks may be great. Is this true?

Established overseas study programs fully recognize their responsibility to provide a secure environment in which your daughter or son can live and learn safely. Responsible campuses and programs consult regularly with colleagues around the country who are involved in the administration of study abroad programs, with resident program directors, with responsible officials of foreign host universities, with contacts in the U.S. Department of State, governmental and non-governmental agencies, and with other experts, including faculty who are well-informed on issues and events. It is in no one's interest to risk student safety or well-being. If a program is brand new or seems to be hosted by a campus which has not been involved in study abroad programming in the past, you might want to be cautious and ask the questions that need to be asked.

5.What are the primary causes of health and safety problems that students might face overseas?

Many of the health and safety problems that students find abroad are similar to those that they find on US college and university campuses. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that individual student behavior (sometimes misbehavior) is the cause of most illnesses, injuries, and fatalities. When students don't prepare themselves properly, ignore the advice and counsel of campus and overseas personnel, or act naively or as if they are invulnerable, they can get into a lot of trouble. This is especially true when they travel excessively on their own or engage in dangerous social behavior, such as binge drinking or hanging out in unsavory local nightspots. Your daughter or son is considerably less likely to be the victim of a natural catastrophe, of social violence, of disease, or of program negligence than of being victimized by her or his own poor judgment, exercised in unfamiliar surroundings.

However, there are health and safety problems that are not the direct responsibility of students themselves, but which can victimize them. These involve modes of travel (airplane, bus, van, taxi, car, etc.); criminal behavior directed against them (theft, sexual assault); and permanent or evolving health and safety conditions in the local environment (disease, natural catastrophes, political upheaval). In order to be prepared to meet the challenges specific to particular programs and locations, it is important that you and your daughter or son learn from information provided by the program sponsors, as well as, if possible, from the experiences of students who have participated in all programs being considered. Make sure to cover not just what's what during the 'program' of the program, but what can happen on excursions, as well as during independent travel. Obviously, there are many variations between countries, regions, and programs.

6.Who can help my daughter or son if trouble erupts?

In those few locations where even remote danger might occasionally exist, program directors work with local police, U.S. consular personnel, and local university officials in setting up whatever practical security measures are deemed prudent. In such places, students will be briefed during orientation programs and reminded at times of heightened political tension about being security-conscious in their daily activities. Terrorism is a twentieth-century reality and is not likely to diminish (or increase) significantly. To succumb to the threat by reacting in fear may well be the objective that terrorists seek to achieve. On the other hand, no one wants to make this point at the expense of the health and safety of your daughter or son. It is important to ensure that your son or daughter has sufficient insurance, which would include include major medical, evacuation, repatriation, and 24 hour emergency assistance.

7. If our child is abroad when something dangerous develops, how can we make contact? Or what if something happens here, and we want to communicate this immediately?

Don't let your child leave home without having as many reliable means of contact as possible in place – a mailing address, an e-mail address, and phone and fax numbers. These should be furnished in advance by the program sponsor (or campus study abroad office, or both). As noted, overseas programs and home campuses are likely to have set up regular and reliable means of communication, so it may be best to utilize these systems as a first resort, rather than trying to make direct contact with your daughter or son overseas. Nevertheless, you should develop a family communication plan for regular telephone or e-mail contact, with contingencies for emergency situations. With this in place, in times of heightened political tension, natural disaster, or other difficulty, you should be able to communicate with each other directly about safety and well-being. On the other hand, responsible programs may even anticipate your concerns, and make contact with you immediately. Instant international communication in emergency situations continues to improve with easy access to international e-mail access and cell phones around the world.

Dr. William Hoffa is the Principal Consultant of Academic Consultants International, where he works with colleges and universities to globalize their campuses. He is an active member of NAFSA and is well-known as an expert in education abroad with numerous publications, such as "NAFSAÕS Guide to Education Abroad: For Advisers and Administrators," "Study Abroad: A Guide for Parents," and the forthcoming "Crisis Management in a Cross Cultural Setting."