U gauges study abroad safety risks

The Learning Abroad Center evaluates travel alerts on a case-by-case basis.

Taylor Nachtigal

Katie Norlund is hoping to hone her Russian this summer when she studies abroad in St. Petersburg.

Norlund, a political science sophomore, will spend her summer in Russia, despite a travel alert issued for the country because of ongoing tensions with neighboring Ukraine.

“As far as my safety goes … I don’t have any worries,” Norlund said.

The Learning Abroad Center and the University of Minnesota assess student risk on a case-by-case basis and consider a variety of factors when making the decision to allow study abroad programs in areas with travel warnings.

In March, the University’s study abroad program to Venezuela was canceled because of protests over crime and economic issues.

Protests have cropped up across the country in recent months, sometimes turning violent.

In Mérida, where the study abroad program was based, protesters clogged the main square and blocked traffic, said program director Holly Zimmerman-LeVoir.

The protests in Mérida weren’t dangerous for students, Zimmerman-LeVoir said, but they inhibited travel enough that the Learning Abroad Center decided the overall student experience would be diminished.

“The buses would be shut down; it was hard to get taxis. The students couldn’t get around as easily as we wanted,” Zimmerman-LeVoir said. “I didn’t think it was fair that they couldn’t get around and move as freely.”

Individual students and the Learning Abroad Center work with the International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee, a group of University officials who help assess the risk of traveling to countries with U.S. State Department-issued travel warnings.

If a student wants to travel to a country with a travel warning, the committee weighs the educational benefits against the travel risks and assesses safety plans. The committee also consults reports from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said University International Health, Safety and Compliance Director Stacey Tsantir.

The St. Petersburg program will go on despite tension between the U.S. and Russia because the risk to students is minimal, said Thuy Doan, associate advising director for the Learning Abroad Center.

The region has been a source of tension in the international community since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula a month ago. 

Zimmerman-LeVoir said programs aren’t often canceled, but there have been a few instances in which students have been pulled out of a country because of risks during their time abroad.

In 2009, University students had to leave Mexico after an outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

When Japan was hit by a tsunami in 2011, University students were evacuated because of concerns about exposure to radiation from damaged nuclear facilities.

That same year, students in Egypt were evacuated during the revolution against then-President Hosni Mubarak.

“Safety of the student is always our No. 1 concern, so if we don’t think the students aren’t going to be safe, we will cancel it,” Zimmerman-LeVoir said.