Education Law

Being Smart about Study Abroad: Knowing the Risks

It started as a Cinderella story. The class valedictorian from a small high school packed her bags to start a year of study abroad. As she sipped coffee in an outdoor café in Athens, a kindly man befriended her, talked about how he wished he could study in America. He then bowed and offered that she could use his apartment, just around the block, to take a shower and rest before her train departed. Once inside, the young student quickly realized that the man had tricked her, and he attempted to rape her. Only with quick thinking and a speedy exit was she able to escape.

Discuss in Advance

Nearly any parent would have fears and anxieties about their son or daughter going off to another country to study. Parents shouldn't assume that a connection with a university guarantees complete safety and security while being away from home. Even the most carefully planned safety measures won't be enough to prevent students from maximizing their cultural experience by venturing out into the local community and beyond.

However, before your child leaves it's critical that you have a serious discussion about being smart while studying abroad. The importance of safeguarding their important documents can't be overstated, especially their passport and visa. It's essential that parents keep one copy of all such documents at home, and that the student has at least two copies with them in case of loss or theft. They should be kept in a safe place other than where the original documents are.

Adequate Safety Preparations

A traveling student should take on some of the responsibility for becoming informed about the culture and customs of the country where they will be studying and any countries where side trips are taken. Pay close attention to the written materials, on-line resources, and in-person conferences and meetings the college offers.

Later, if there's a question about legal responsibility for an incident where the student is harmed, one of the key questions could be the extent the student was warned against the dangers. One helpful resource is the US State Department Web site, which contains up-to-date information about travel warnings. The country's embassy office can also be a helpful source.

Legal Responsibility of a Foreign Institution

If there's an unfortunate incident during the student's time abroad, the student and parents should seek the advice of an attorney in the foreign country and in the US. Filing suit in another country may be extremely difficult or even impossible. In many countries, there's no way to seek justice for personal injuries. And the public offices are probably immune from being sued.

The only legal route may be against the university or college, tour program, or individual officials of those entities. It's important to consider whether pursuing an action against the college may hamper any future relationship between the college and the student, however.

An attorney can assess any counter-arguments that might be used to try to prevent liability. These could include "assumption of risk," meaning that the student knowingly engaged in a dangerous or risky activity. Relying on the law, their experience, and the particular circumstances to know whether this can be proved, or whether there are other legal theories that could be used.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If seeking legal relief should a student be harmed while in a study abroad program would be difficult and uncertain, are there any legal precautions to take before participating in a program?
  • My student enrolled in a study abroad program, but since enrolling the US State Department has changed its advice on travel to that country. Can the school be forced to refund the fees paid for the program?
  • What types of insurance and support services should be offered for students in a travel program? Medical, emergency travel or even legal services if needed while abroad?
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