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At Home and Abroad: Institutions Address International Program Safety

Health, Safety, and Well-being Campus Safety and Violence Prevention International Education
September 6, 2019 Elizabeth Brenner Ros Thackurdeen


In 2011, my 20-year-old son Thomas died during study abroad. Seven months later, Ros Thackurdeen’s 19-year-old son Ravi died during study abroad. On the surface, a fall in India and a drowning in Costa Rica might seem disconnected—tragedies to be sure, but random events. It would take some time to understand that events separated by distance and time can, in fact, be related.

The first few years after Thomas’s death were spent in a haze. While I was able to accomplish certain tasks by rote memory, other caches of information were simply gone. I paid bills, but forgot how to use an automated teller machine. I remembered how to drive a car, but forgot nearly everything about grocery stores, groceries, cooking, and eating. Sleep was massively disrupted. If I dreamt about Thomas, I would "wake up" inside the dream and beg him to take me with him. His response was always the same; he’d slowly turn and walk away.

Eventually, I realized that this life was now my life. What was I going to do with it? Toward the end of the first winter following Thomas’s death, even if the rest of my day was spent in a haze, there was a period of time about mid-afternoon when I would position myself sitting up in my bed. I felt as if I was on a ship in the middle of the ocean, so vast was the feeling of aloneness. I would gather my tools around me, lots of pillows, my computer, cell phone, yellow legal pad, and pen. Then I would call someone who might know something about what happened to my child. I wrote down their words, as if an explorer drawing a map. I did not know what I would find, but I believed that one phone call would lead to another, and that eventually an arc of facts, stories, and opinions would sort themselves out to recreate a landscape, a boy, and his death.

One of the first things I learned is that what had happened to Thomas was not isolated. Within his own program, he was the 12th death. Some of the people I spoke with knew of other student deaths, too. A story told here, a story told there, told quietly as if secret. Increasingly, I called people who did not know anything about Thomas, but did know about higher education and the study abroad industry. To these people, my question was always the same: How many deaths have there been? And the answer was always the same: No one knows.

My professional background is as a nurse practitioner. Careers in healthcare are built upon variables and outcomes. Information is collected as data. No question is foolish. Complex cause and effect relationships can be studied and simplified. New knowledge can ultimately be used to save or improve lives. Researchers must have no vested interest in results, only fidelity to the process itself, for the stakes are high.

Numbers Speak Volumes

In 2013, I met Ros Thackurdeen. She had traveled from her home in New York to my home in Minnesota. We sat together on my living room sofa and told our sons’ stories. For a while we cried. Then, Ros took the blue binder she had been cradling in her arms and placed it on the coffee table.

I picked up the overstuffed binder and was surprised by its heaviness. I lifted the cover and there was Ravi’s photo. The page was set up much like a newspaper story. Above the picture was a headline with text below. At the bottom, there were news links, presumably to more versions of the same story. I turned one page, then another. Thomas was in the binder, plus students I had read about, and students I had never heard of. There were pages and pages of beautiful faces, catastrophic captions, and the briefest of stories. Ros said she had three more binders at home plus other students "waiting" on her computer.

Like me, Ros had imagined her child as the first death during study abroad. When she realized Ravi was not, she imagined her son would be the last, or at least be the start of change. Stories told to Ros by newly bereaved families had disabused her of that hope. And so, yes, she called newly bereaved families. She called media. She called legislators. She called anyone she thought might listen.

Ros was channeling her grief into a fierce will to action. While the education abroad industry did not know the number of student deaths, Ros was creating an informal database, and with that information she was kicking doors open.

For me, this was a turning point. Being a door kicker was not in my nature, but I greatly admired my new friend and believed that our skills could be complementary. The formal organization of Protect Students Abroad (PSA) took another few years along with thousands of phone calls and emails, and hundreds of meetings. During this time, Minnesota wrote the nation’s first study abroad transparency bill. When I testified before the Minnesota State Senate, I brought one of Ros’s binders, held it up, and challenged legislators as well as attending educators, "This should not have to be a bereaved mom’s job." The bill passed without challenge and was later said to have taken the industry by surprise.

At the same time, Ros met with her congressman, Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). When he heard about Ravi’s death, without hesitation he said, "I have children. I will write a bill."

As Ros and I turned toward the future and how transparency legislation might change the education abroad experience, we had to confront what we would have wanted for our own sons. This was not an easy task, because revisiting their deaths, especially points of prevention, was emotionally triggering. Neither of us believed that study abroad programs wanted students to die. We knew programs were often staffed by nice people with noble goals. Yet, the lack of transparency was astonishing.

Expanding Knowledge About Study Abroad Student Safety

We wondered, since study abroad orientation and programming content were not being informed by evidence-based science, what sources were being used? Among pre-program documents we examined, three types of information seemed to dominate. The U.S. Department of State was cited most consistently, with particular emphasis on its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service that allows U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad to receive the latest security updates from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. The U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council provides information on travel advisories, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks disease outbreaks. We came to think of these sources as institutional authorities, for their words carry the reach of large, historic federal organizations.

In contrast, program-accumulated guidance appears to be based on the collective experience of staff members, whether a large group of university-based international educators or a small group of third-party field instructors. Content sometimes contained narratives of study abroad experiences gone wrong—stories directly or indirectly known and steeped in lessons, though the distribution of such information may be limited.

Read more in the Summer 2019 Edition of Leadership Exchange Magazine