- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Not so long ago, the term "education abroad" meant a field trip to Europe. Armed with Eurail passes, college students would travel to Paris or London, where the biggest hazards involved crossing the street.

Now it's a different world. Every year, U.S. universities help send more than 110,000 students around the globe, where they tromp through rain forests, trek across India and take part in adventures that once were unimaginable.

Despite this transformation, universities have been slow to respond to the changing nature and hazards of international study, say many parents and academic researchers.

"Travel abroad is a different animal these days," said Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at the University of Southern California. "It increases the challenges for faculty, administrators and students to look at their procedures and adopt programs that promote health and safety abroad."

The safeguards for overseas study again came into question recently with a research expedition to Mexico led by Gary Polis, an eminent ecologist from the University of California at Davis.

Mr. Polis, doctoral student Michael Rose and three Japanese scientists died after wind and waves swamped their boat in the Sea of Cortez. Three other UC Davis students and a postgraduate researcher at the school survived the ordeal after swimming through choppy seas to the shores of two remote islands.

Mr. Polis was an experienced expedition leader, and the survivors say he risked his life for them after the boat overturned. But their accounts also indicate he attempted a return trip across the bay in difficult, windswept conditions. According to survivors, there were life jackets aboard the boat, but not all the passengers were wearing them.

According to Mr. Rhodes, there are no hard numbers on injuries and deaths involving foreign research and study. But in recent years, the dangers have been highlighted by at least three tragic overseas journeys:

• In 1996, the University of Pittsburgh became the target of multiple ongoing lawsuits after four students, part of the school's "Semester at Sea" program, died in a bus crash in India.

A scheduling snafu resulted in the students flying to Delhi, India, instead of Agra, as advertised. They ended up on a bus to Agra, which swerved into a ditch, killing the four students and three others.

• In 1998, a busload of students from St. Mary's College in Maryland were ambushed in Guatemala and robbed at gunpoint; five of the students were raped. Prior to the attack, the State Department had warned about increased violence in the area.

• In March, a pair of students from Antioch College in Ohio were found slain along a highway during a study-abroad trip in Costa Rica. The slayings occurred on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, an area known for drug-running and the site of three other recent homicides.

While different, these incidents have raised similar questions about the duties of host institutions.

Chris and Larry Laulhere, whose 21-year-old daughter Cherese was killed in the Indian bus crash, said parents often think a university program will accept responsibility for safe travel arrangements. "That's what we assumed," said Mr. Laulhere.

In their lawsuit, the Laulheres claim that Semester at Sea officials knew the students would not be flown directly to Agra, but did not notify them for fear the students would want refunds.

Afterward, said the Laulheres, "the university just washed its hands and said it wasn't their responsibility."

University officials maintain the scheduling change was last-minute, and that they could not have foreseen the deadly accident.

The India deaths caught the attention of the Association of International Educators and other study-abroad groups. In 1997, they formed a national task force, which recently came up with voluntary guidelines to help schools improve the safety of their overseas programs and expeditions.

So far, more than 70 universities have endorsed the guidelines, which require them to conduct safety assessments of travel areas; inform participants of risks; come up with crisis response plans; and penalize faculty and others who ignore safety protocols.

A university must assume some of a parent's role when its students travel to far-flung places, said Mr. Rhodes. "These aren't just trips to Europe any more," he said. "Health and safety issues are more complex."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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