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Summer Study Abroad and Travel in the Age of ISIS

I share this reality not to deter you from summer travel or overseas study plans. Just the opposite. Don't fall victim to fear. I am pointing this out to encourage you to be a vigilant traveler, and to have a plan in place prior to stepping on that plane for overseas departure.
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Safe havens no longer exist for Americans who study and travel abroad. It is today's reality, particularly in the age of ISIS.

As a study abroad coordinator for more than a decade, I have been fortunate with not having any of my students become victims of overseas terrorist attacks. I can remember a huge mental shift that occurred with me, and how I advised those who traveled, after terrorist suicide bombings took place in London in 2005. In the attacks, a detonated bomb demolished the first three rows of a double-decker bus. My friend and colleague's student was on the top section of that bus and in the fourth row. "That student's ears continued to ring a long time after," downplayed my colleague. We continued to share a forlorn glance, knowing the student was inches from losing his life. In that moment, I knew with the increasing threat of terrorism, I would need to make every effort possible to turn my students into the most vigilant of travelers.

Unfortunately, similar and more frequent attacks have occurred since that London strike, with the Islamic State, or ISIS being the greatest concern. Just this past March, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Brussels attack that left more than 30 people dead and dozens injured, as well as last November's Paris attack that left a reported 130 dead and hundreds injured. And these attacks are occurring in the world's most popular travel destination--Western Europe.

I share this reality not to deter you from summer travel or study abroad. Just the opposite. Don't fall victim to fear. But with this current overseas culture and my own experiences, I think it is essential that you realize you have to be fully prepared and alert while doing summer travel. Have a crisis plan in place prior to stepping on that plane to go overseas.

If you are depending on a college or university to provide a safe location and program, take the time now to research the history of the place, its attractions, and potential cultural differences because some institutions won't hesitate sending you to a region with a US State Department travel warning. As a coordinator of study abroad in higher education, I firmly believe that students should not be allowed travel to these regions. Even if this seems like an overabundance of caution, in this environment of recent attacks against Westerners in Belgium, Paris, and London, why put anyone at risk?

However, some coordinators take a different approach. Some programs appear to have policies that protect students from going to these potentially dangerous areas, but when you delve into the details of those programs, it is not actually the case. For example, in my book Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education (2016), Coordinator Lonna avows that "[our university] will not ever set up a program that is on the US State Department travel warning list. So that is one automatic." This seems cut and dry, right? But with further discussion, her policy becomes murky: "If the student wants to go to that country on their own, they can . . . We'll let them do that as long as they sign a waiver saying there is a U.S. State Department travel warning and they apply directly through [an] institution [abroad]; and we'll let them transfer their credits back . . ." So she will set up a program with a State Department travel warning with the caveat that a student sign an additional waiver not to hold them responsible.

This approach is common, but I am fully against it. Having a student sign an additional waiver to study in an at-risk area serves to protect the institution, not the student. It sends the wrong message--"you knew what you were getting into before you left, so I have no responsibility if you get hurt." Sorry to disappoint eager students who are willing to brave any location, but I would rather err on the side of caution.

So what if you are making summer travel plans through a travel agency? Then you had better double your efforts to research the location, venues, and cultural differences to know the potential risks and best practices to remain safe. My experience has been that colleges and universities take on a greater responsibility of care than a profit-driven agency. You need to look out for your own best interests and safety prior to leaving.

Here are some critical tasks to do before engaging in summer travel or study abroad in this age of ISIS:
Emergency Plan
Make sure that an emergency plan is in place, prior to leaving. If you are doing a college study abroad program, know the exact steps that they have in place for each of these kinds of risks--terrorist attacks, epidemics, natural disasters, and serious injuries.
Evacuation Insurance
Whether it is a college program or travel agency that coordinates your travel, make sure that they provide emergency evacuation insurance. If there is a serious injury or a sudden need to evacuate, medevac needs to be an option.
Sure the US State Department provides terrorist warnings; however, dig deeper with your own research about past incidents in the region.
Before you leave, register with the US State Department, and know where the nearest American embassy is located to your destination.
US Air Force Base
Beyond a US embassy, know where to find the nearest US Air Force base, which may be closer than a US embassy. Did you know that when there is an emergency that they will evacuate Americans for free?

These details merely scratch the surface. To read more critical safety tips go to the "23 best practices" in my book, Look Before Leaping (2016).

Gregory Malveaux is a professor and author of the "#1 New Release in Student Travel Guides," Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education