For a lot of students, a study abroad adventure can be the highlight of their college career.

"If you think about it, our greatest capacity for growth, change and improvement comes when we are challenging ourselves."

“If you think about it, our greatest capacity for growth, change and improvement comes when we are challenging ourselves," said Jenny Sullivan, director of Education Abroad and Internal Fellowships at the Study Abroad office. "There are so many benefits to stepping out of your comfort zone and finding out how people live and the choices that they make. You learn our way of doing things isn’t always the best way.”

Things don't always go according to plan, however. The Study Abroad office has to prepare for the worst.

The Planning Process

“There is a lot of time and energy that goes into planning that people don’t even realize,” explained Denis Defibaugh, a professor in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. 

Defibaugh is currently in the process of organizing a photography trip to Cuba, a trip he has lead since 1999. For his very first trip, he traveled with a select few people and made arrangements to bring students to Cuba. This year, 20 students will be visiting the country in the spring for an opportunity to experience and capture Cuban culture and landmarks. 

That being said, Cuba faced some negative limelight late last September when U.S. diplomats stationed in the country suffered nearly 50 sonic attacks. The root of these attacks remains unknown, begging the question: is it wise for the RIT trip to continue? Defibaugh is confident that necessary safety precautions are in place.  

"We stay in hotels that are very supportive about what we are doing; there are usually staff members present in case of any emergencies," Defibaugh said. "Students are also responsible for their own safety, so we do the best we can but it's hard to predict how a student will react."

Faculty members are tasked with creating the itinerary and are in constant contact with travel agents in case any political or immediate situation does arise. Faculty members like Defibaugh also have connections in the given locations in order to truly understand the situation of a given area. The itinerary is very important as it directly impacts gaining approval from the Risk Management office.

"We want to make sure that faculty members have an in-country affiliation or partnership; this is really important in maintaining safety," Sullivan said.

Study Abroad and Risk Management

According to Executive Director of Risk Management Melinda Ward, the Study Abroad and Risk Management offices are solely dedicated to creating programs for students and maintaining safety of students and faculty. 

"One of the first places we look is the U.S. State Department and their guidelines," Ward said. "They are the ones who aim to keep Americans safe, such as pulling U.S. diplomats out of Cuba due to the recent sonic attack. They are the government decision-makers and we look really closely at that."

Risk Management assesses the travel details submitted to them by faculty and look deeper into the areas being visited. Traveling abroad almost always has several affiliates involved that operate on the sidelines, until they need to step in for an emergency. United Healthcare Global is an affiliation used by RIT to get further political details of a location and to take drastic measures in case of a international emergency.

"We don't just say, 'There's a travel alert in Cuba, nobody can go to Cuba,'" Ward said. "Most of the universities including RIT don't usually do that because we want students to travel and learn from different experiences; sometimes, these are in areas that aren't deemed to be as safe as the United States.

"We advise students to get in touch with Public Safety in case of any emergency during a study abroad trip. They are always open and can help get in touch with the right people to get immediate help," Ward added. 

The Study Abroad and Risk Management offices also inform students and faculty about certain risks of an area and strive to be as transparent as possible. They also advise students and faculty to do their own research so that they are more aware about their destination.

The Final Decision

All this being said, decisions are always subject to change during the study abroad process. 

"The world is constantly changing. Every day on my way to work I'm hearing about what's going around the world and I'm thinking, 'Do we have students here? Do we have programs in preparation to go there? How do we need to handle this? Is this a good place?' One day it might be a great place to go, next day it might not," Sullivan said.  

"There is risks in everything we do. The trip has to be smartly planned and Study Abroad tries their best in doing this." 

Ward was in agreement. "The truth is, traveling can be scary," she said. "I have always been on the side of highlighting the risks of it."

However, Ward still believes that students shouldn't be fearful of taking some risks. 

"But there is nothing more independent than going into a foreign country and immersing yourself in a culture, possibly a new language. There is risks in everything that we do. The trip just has to be smartly planned and Study Abroad tries their best in doing this."

Study Abroad and Risk Management work hard to provide everyone a safe and memorable journey. With political situations constantly changing around the world, certain countries might be safe to visit now, but might not be quite so accessible in the future. So why not get out there and explore?