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Study Abroad's top priority is safety for students

Bobby Warshaw and Ruchi Tekriwall
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Having both studied overseas, Study Abroad student advisers Bobby Warshaw and Ruchi Tekriwall are able to share their first-hand knowledge with other students considering participating in a U. of I. program.

Students participating in the U. of I.’s Study Abroad program say they were thankful for the comprehensive safety training they received on campus before traveling – and more thankful still they never had to employ it in an emergency situation.

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Bo White, the assistant director for international health and safety, works with colleagues on campus and at other universities to ensure students have a safe study abroad experience.

“The university training really stressed safety a lot and for the most part I knew what to expect,” said senior Ruchi Tekriwall, a linguistics major and Arabic studies minor who traveled to Morocco last fall. “It’s not that where I went was unsafe, but there is a need to act a little differently because of the culture.”

The cultural aspect of overseas travel was one of many presented to Tekriwall before she left campus, thanks to mandatory training provided to the 2,500 U. of I. students in 400 Study Abroad programs who annually travel to more than 60 nations.

The training includes drills for common travel problems, such as what to do when travel documents are misplaced or stolen, as well as health, language, local customs, and legal and security issues. Two of the primary suggestions for students are registering with the U.S. Embassy in the host country they’re visiting and purchasing travel insurance.

“Obviously, we can’t control everything, but we do everything we can to prepare them and help them through their travels,” said Bo White, the assistant director for international health and safety in International Programs and Studies. “They are still students – but their classroom just happens to be in some far-away place like Western Africa.

“If something goes wrong we have people here on campus who can help,” White said.

Bobby Warshaw, a senior finance major, studied in Spain and visited eight other countries.

“I really felt prepared,” he said. “The training taught us how not be a target, and there never really was a time where I was worried about my safety. Overall, I felt safer in Granada that I do sometimes in Champaign.”

But it’s more than extensive training; the entire Study Abroad system is set up to promote safe travel, with students usually staying in groups in close proximity to one another, participating in structured classroom work and living with host families who are used to visitors. The average travel group runs from 12 to 25.

And, thanks to a group of well-connected U. of I. employees, help is always a phone call away for anyone with a campus connection traveling overseas.

White, whose position was created last year through the Office of the Associate Provost for International Affairs, works closely with the university’s Study Abroad programs. He is among the group that never strays far from a cellphone and is the point man when an emergency arises and action is needed.

“My role is to backstop all of the students, all of the staff and all of the faculty members traveling abroad – all of the time,” he said. “We want everyone to know the university has their back even when they’re not around.”

To avoid mishaps that could lead to an emergency, the university has put together a large network of faculty and staff members as on-campus contacts and provides training for students and faculty members who work and study abroad, he said.

Faculty members can take advantage of organized campus travel discussions prior to a trip, and students participate in orientation sessions targeted to their destinations. Local customs, language differences, security risks and legal requirements all are covered in the student training.

“I’ll intersect with the advisers so that we can offer effective orientation and ongoing updated training,” he said. “We do what we can do to standardize things, but we try to pinpoint that information based on where the students will be traveling.”

Services also are available for the 10,000 international students who call the Urbana campus their home.

During winter emergencies that delay flights, for example, campus contacts work with hotels and keep in regular communication with advisers at all hours.

White said the university’s Study Abroad program would not go nearly as smoothly if not for the extra efforts of faculty and staff members from a variety of departments and disciplines. He said the campus is a unique source of expertise for interpretation assistance and specific travel information for students and advisers, and that many of the advisers already are well-traveled Study Abroad alumni.

“We wouldn’t be able to provide all we do for the students in the program if not for the fact this campus is so open to sharing information,” he said.

He said the University Library has been especially helpful in looking up and finding specific travel information and that the university also utilizes some third-party resources for travel planning.

“We’ve taken a lot of the university expertise and applied it to this experience,” he said. “People are always willing to help, and the cooperative spirit has been amazing.”

White said he also works with counterparts at other universities, considering Illinois is ranked 17th nationally and the Big Ten schools are national leaders in travel abroad programs. He said the members of the loosely organized consortium help one another when the need arises and that they regularly discuss best practices and new approaches to make the travel abroad process run even better.

According to Warshaw and Tekriwall, the experience has left them fuller, more-rounded students.

“It really helped my Spanish skills,” Warshaw said, “and I really got to know the people I was living with.”

Warshaw traveled with 70 other students and was housed with a family that included a very “mothering” mother and a 27-year-old “brother.” He said just communicating in that setting, not to mention intensive dialect classes, changed the way he looked at the language.“It’s been really awesome to be able to talk about that trip in a job interview,” he said.

Tekriwall also got the familial experience, with those in her student group assigned to host families who were related. She said just about anywhere she went, family members “went out of their way” to ensure she was accompanied.

“Half or more of the families were related, so we did a lot of things together,” she said. “We even had what you would call ‘host cousins.’ ”

She said the relationships she forged were important, but she also feels like she came back with a better understanding of the language.

“Communicating was challenging, but it was really satisfying to learn and to see how much I learned in just a short time,” she said, adding there are hundreds of nuances when it comes to formal versus conversational communication. “The kids would just laugh sometimes because they couldn’t understand what I was saying.”

She said the experience has made her want to return overseas. “I’d love to go back abroad and get more dialects under my belt,” she said. “I’d like to speak perfect Arabic.”

And as the population of U. of I.’s Study Abroad program rises, so does the student demand.

White said that in the past decade travel abroad programs have tripled at U.S. universities, but that growth has not been matched with increases in federal funding – despite calls at the federal level to increase student exchanges with China.
“That’s a very ambitious goal and there would have to be a larger national infrastructure created to support that,” he said of the hoped-for expansion, noting that the U. of I. already is cementing a presence in China.

Wherever the trip, he said the most important tool that advisers and university contacts have is to stay calm and collected in all situations. It not only helps resolve the situation more quickly, but it calms travelers who may be stressed and in a different time zone.

“Doing this, whether you’re on this end of the phone or stuck in an airport, you have to have a sense of humor,” he said. “Otherwise, working through some of these details can be maddening.”

White, who has traveled extensively himself as part of international nongovernmental organizations, said he thinks of his own children when he fields a late-night call from a frazzled adviser, student or parent.

“Being a parent has been helpful, I think,” he said. “I’m fielding the call with a parent’s perspective and I get it: They’ve entrusted their students with us and they have to have someplace to call when help is needed. That’s why we take it seriously when they call, no matter what the reason.”