Justin Donald Leader

Benefits Professional
  • Student Travel – Caring for Students, One Trip at a Time

    Aug 25, 2015

by Justin Leader


Student Travel

The number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than doubled in the last 15 years.  In the world we live and work in, that number does not come as a surprise.  Globalization is rampant and introduction to travel beyond our borders for both business and pleasure is occurring more often than any time in our recorded history.  It is safe to assume that most of us have traveled outside the United States if not extensively within our own country.  I believe it is also safe to assume that many of us have or know someone that has been involved with a study abroad program at the University level.

The excitement of attending college is both thrilling as well as terrifying for many students.  Stepping away from home is often one of the most liberating experiences in our lives.  This thought strikes a much deeper “heart chord” with me regarding my early experience as a Resident Assistant at California University of Pennsylvania.  I remember caring for each and every student that entered my building.  Often, many of the students relied heavily on the resources of the university well beyond the professors.  The health centers, counselors, residence life staff and advisers are a staple that can be found in all institutes of higher education. The changes that take place during these years can take a toll on students as they experience total freedom often for the first time.  Nothing compared to the joy I felt from students who thanked me for my help along the way as well as the heartache I felt for those students who did not live up to their full potential.   I can speak first hand with the many conversations I had with students from the initial move in day to the proud moments I had as I received invitations for graduation from numerous individuals that I called my residents.  I relate this experience and the feelings I had to that of those who oversee the many study abroad programs at our great nations universities.

Recently I participated in a RFP for a large Division 1 University who was seeking consult regarding multinational travel insurance with substantial services for medical, safety, security and evacuation needs.  During this process I had the pleasure of working with extremely passionate individuals who are directly responsible for students, faculty and staff who travel the globe through the university’s vast array of programs spanning 85 countries.  The responsibility these individuals feel they have for the safety of their people was inspiring.  It reminded me of my many conversations, seminars and conferences with global organizations regarding duty of care as well as my earlier blog based on the perspective of the end user.

Taking the conversation one step further I have seen many students leap at the opportunity to study in another country.  A recent publication from International SOS stated that “It is estimated that US-based universities alone have about 2,000 expatriate faculty and staff working and living abroad in these campuses, often in high-risk areas.”  Similar to leaving home, often we do not know the danger that lurks in a strange city let alone a foreign country.  Think about your own city or town that you live in.  Typically there are the safe parts of town as well as those parts you know from experience are dangerous.  Another country poses the same risks if not more.  I believe many parents put much trust not only in their children but also that of the university where their kids attend.  While the movie Taken showed us the danger that can face a young adult abroad, I assure you that instances like that are a rarity in my experience.  Murphy’s Law can prevail however if the necessary resources are not made readily available to travelers in the form of education pre-trip as well as during the duration of their stay.  Having your daughter fall victim to human trafficking is a sickening thought and I would aim to say that most of us do not have “a very particular set of skills” like Liam Neeson’s character to aid in a situation such as this.  There are however many solutions available to responsible program directors outside of having an assassin and very angry Father on standby.

While my Taken analogy is the extreme in regards to a travel nightmare many incidents do occur regularly and to varying degrees.  These can involve medical emergencies, safety evacuations, natural disasters, mental health issues as well as death and sadly, the repatriation of mortal remains.  I have seen multinational organizations that do a great job in protecting their people as well as some that do not provide what I would call a basic industry standard.   In my opinion a top tier university or organization should offer at the very least educational resources to their travelers in the form of specific pre-travel training or a web based platform where information is easily accessible.  This includes information on the country that is being traveled to including but not limited to, emergency contact phone numbers, detailed reports on safety information, dangerous locations to be avoided as well as customs specific to that country.  Most if not all travel assistance companies offer this.  Some do it much better than others I will add.  There should also be insurance made available to the travelers that will help to protect them from a medical standpoint.  There are many insurance carriers that will offer this coverage directly to the students for purchase.  I would safely say that most if not all universities offer at least these basics to avoid negligence from a duty of care perspective.

A more robust offering is becoming common and a key differentiator amongst the major programs coast to coast.  These programs offer something so much more than just safety measures to the students, faculty, staff and university guests.  I feel that there is something to be said of an organization that goes above and beyond to show that they truly care for the participants involved in their programs.  The people that head these programs as well as the partners and consultants they work with are bringing a new standard that will frankly leave other competing programs in the dust, thus limiting their exposure to liability as well as increasing awareness amongst individuals and families looking for a top tier study abroad experience.  In these programs we look to expand the coverage offered beyond the individual, eliminating gaps that may leave someone in tremendous danger.  A proactive approach in providing a fully-insured benefit as opposed to self-insuring the risks involved allows for peace of mind regarding many of the situations that can and given a long enough timeline will occur.  A blanket coverage protecting the total travel exposure combined with medical, security and natural disaster coverage is step one.  Step two is ensuring that the insurance coverage is placed alongside a quality global assistance provider with 24/7/365 access.  Many of the global assistance providers are offering notifications via mobile in real time as well as up to date information via the web. The last piece of the puzzle are what I call services that go above and beyond including, travel tracking of individuals, global EAP programs offering assistance for arising social and mental health issues, and travel risk mitigation training for key staff.  Since we are discussing education, communication of these benefits effectively, becomes vital to the success of any multi-national program.  An educated and informed traveler whether employee or student is a better prepared traveler for any scenario.

While there is much more involved with these programs than what I described above this is a starting point for any organizations consideration.  Ultimately strategy between departments must take place regarding what fiscally makes sense.  I will caution however that in many instances it is better to have a well-rounded offering as opposed to cutting corners.  We have to think from the mindset of the end user and consider risk versus reward.  Most of these packages are highly competitive from a pricing perspective in today’s market.  On the other hand a self-insured incident involving medical evacuation and air ambulance can cost upwards of $60,000 USD, let alone attempting a repatriation of mortal remains without an assistance provider.  There is a case that is taking place right now with an uninsured student traveler who is stranded in Cuba.  The family is desperately trying to raise $50,000 USD to have the student airlifted to Florida. The news article link can be found below.

The last thing that any university needs is a tarnished reputation from a poorly handled incident or worse, litigation involving a preventable situation.  There are many court cases that I could site however I would rather focus on the positive rewards that are intended by these programs.  That is furthering one’s education and life experience as well as making life long friends while developing a greater understanding of another culture. Whether it is sipping an ice cold beer at Oktoberfest in Munich, surfing the waves in Australia, eating authentic Sushi in Japan or perhaps discovering a new found appreciation for the United States of America, studying abroad should be one of the greatest experiences of one’s life.

Uninsured Florida college student stranded in Cuba after horrific car crash.  http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/08/25/uninsured-florida-college-student-stranded-in-cuba-after-devastating-car-crash/

Injured UFC Students GoFundMe Page: http://www.gofundme.com/cjf87sdy