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Colleges highlight risks for students heading abroad

Tragedy of BU students is a reminder to colleges that safety warnings are an important part of study-abroad programs

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When Sam Benatovich studied in London, the program had a three-day orientation that stressed safety.

With the school year winding down, Tufts University administrators met recently with students planning to study abroad, outlining what they should do before they leave and what to expect when they arrive. Above all, they stressed the risks - and ways to minimize them.

But with an audience of young adults eager to see the world and seize adventure, it was hard to know whether the warnings truly hit home.

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“I think the message gets through,’’ said Sheila Bayne, who directs the university’s study-abroad program. “But of course it never gets through as much as you’d want.’’

Such words of caution have taken on a tragic aspect after a fatal car accident in New Zealand earlier this month that killed three Boston University students and critically injured a fourth.

Accidents can happen anywhere, and young adults are particularly willing to take risks wherever they are. But at a time when international programs are increasingly popular, the accident has put inherent concerns about the safety of overseas students into new perspective.

Over the past decade, the number of American college students abroad has climbed by more than 65 percent, raising questions about whether programs provide - or receive - sufficient oversight.

While some colleges like Tufts run their own study-abroad programs, most rely on outside providers, and many students enroll in foreign universities directly. Colleges say they regularly evaluate the programs, both for academic quality and student safety.

‘I think to some degree students feel invincible. But once they start reading about it, it’s on their radar.’

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“We vet all of our programs, and we pay a lot of attention to safety and emergency support,’’ said Jack Ahern, director of international programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Programs run directly by universities, like BU’s in New Zealand, typically provide students a good deal of structure and oversight, administrators say. Staff run orientations and are available to help students should problems arise. They also organize excursions, recognizing that students are eager to see as much as they can.

Most colleges strongly recommend that students not drive, particularly in countries with left-side driving, but understand students may choose otherwise.

After the New Zealand accident, an administrator at Auckland University said the school would intensify warnings for international students not to drive. Authorities in New Zealand charged the BU student who was driving the van with three counts of careless driving causing death.

Critics say colleges and international programs need to redouble their efforts to explain the risks associated with overseas travel.

“Students who are going abroad need to be better informed of the risks,’’ said Sheryl Hill, the founder of ClearCause Foundation, a group that urges regulation of study-abroad programs. “Students are so eager to drink up the experience, but they need to stop and think.’’

Hill, whose teenage son died of dehydration after a hike while studying in Japan, said colleges are doing a better job reviewing third-party programs, but said federal oversight is needed to regulate a growing industry. Even the number of students who die while on overseas programs, she said, is unknown.

“No one is counting,’’ she said.

What is clear is that interest in overseas study has never been higher. Colleges have expanded the range of study-abroad opportunities, and promote them to prospective students.

Last academic year, more than 270,000 US students went abroad for school, up by about 10,000 from the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education.

The United Kingdom remains the top destination, followed by Italy, Spain, and France. The number of US students going to China and India has sharply increased, the group reports.

Despite the increases, the vast majority of students do not travel during college. Among students pursuing bachelor degrees, about 14 percent study abroad.

As more students spent time in far-flung locales, colleges have preached caution. But for independent-minded young adults craving new experiences, warnings may only go so far.

“Colleges spend a great deal of time trying to ensure that students are going to places that are safe as possible,’’ said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a leading advocacy group. “But they are generally treated as adults, and a lot depends on their good judgment’’

Rochelle Sobel, president of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, said they should impress on students the risks of unfamiliar roads.

“They don’t emphasize road safety enough,’’ said Sobel, whose son died in a bus crash in Turkey. “It’s the single greatest risk students face, and we have to remember that.’’

Sam Benatovich, a rising senior at Tufts who studied in London last fall, said the program started with a three-day orientation that stressed safety. But with a new city beckoning, thoughts were elsewhere, he said.

“They definitely gave us some structure,’’ he recalled. “But I’m not sure how much we took it to heart.’’

Benatovich, who traveled through Europe during his stay, said security at the dorm was tight, but that students were generally free to do as they wished. That’s no different than back home he noted.

“We have very little supervision at college here,’’ he said.

Mike Stone, cofounder of Abroad101, a study-abroad review website, said students can get valuable advice for living abroad from peers, who learn firsthand the things to avoid.

“I think to some degree students feel invincible,’’ he said. “But once they start reading about it, it’s on their radar.’’

Tufts programs have resident directors to assist students, while mindful of the balance between oversight and independence.

“If someone were holding their hand, students wouldn’t want to do it,’’ Bayne said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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