University expands travel abroad tracking

Change to the student travel policy would require students notify the University any time they travel independently.

Jake Steinberg

The University of Minnesota sends approximately 6,000 students abroad each year, and it wants to have a better idea of where they are.

A proposed change to the University’s student travel policy would require students to notify the University any time they travel independently. The change would improve the University’s ability to send help if a student ends up near an emergency like a terrorist attack, natural disaster or dangerous riot.

“We believe we have a responsibility to our students when they’re on our programs to make sure we can provide them with appropriate duty of care. And that means that we have to have a basic sense of where they’re going,” said Kevin Dostal Dauer, health, safety and compliance director for the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance.

The GPS Alliance oversees all University travel systemwide, including study abroad, department-organized trips and research travel. The proposed policy changes would require all GPS Alliance units implement a system for gathering and tracking when students leave their host site.

“This is free weekend travel during program dates, not before or after the official program,” said Dostal Dauer.

The changes will go through a public comment period after being presented to the March 1 President’s Policy Committee.

The GPS Alliance monitors global events that might require they check on their students. In the event of an emergency, students’ University-mandated travel insurance covers medical expenses and evacuation. But Dostal Dauer said it only works if they know where students are.

“When the Paris attacks happened, we had a number of students who were on our program in Montpellier who had not notified us that they were going to be traveling,” he said. “We looked at our rosters and said, ‘Oh we don’t have anybody in Paris,’ when in reality we had eight students that were there.”

Agricultural communication and marketing junior Cyrus Gottlieb said it was inconvenient to fill out an independent travel form every time he left Buenos Aires while studying abroad. 

“You kind of question it. It’s kind of weird that all these people know what you’re up to,” he said. “We would travel a lot, and I’d forget and then be like, ‘Oh I’m not gonna do that now.’”

The University of Minnesota-Duluth doesn’t make students report their independent travel, said Duluth’s International Programs and Services associate director Lyndsey Andersen.

“We do ask our faculty to have discussions about it before they go,” she said. “But we don’t give them a form to fill out.”

The Learning Abroad Center at the Twin Cities campus makes students document their independent travel. The changes would make the practice consistent across all University travel programs.

Dostal Dauer said the tracking program is not an approval process. The only time the GPS Alliance would step in would be if a student tries to travel to a country determined by the Department of State to have a travel advisory level of 3 or 4 — something students already sign a waiver not to do before traveling abroad.

“Travel tracking simply means we know where you are,” said Dostal Dauer. “[Some think] that means we’re going to put chips on people, and we’re definitely not doing that.”