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Travel Warning Deters Some From Summer Study In Mexico

06/30/2010 06:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The far reaching implications of continued drug-related violence in Mexico has hit study abroad programs this summer.

A travel advisory extended twice since March finds colleges tasked with determining whether to continue studies in areas not affected by the violence or to suspend all programs in the country until the advisory is lifted.

A June 26 New York Times article sparks the debate over erring on the side of caution versus taking a more nuanced review of the risks associated with studying in Mexico. Interpreting the violence in Mexico as a macro representation of the country puts on hold students' endeavors to expand their knowledge of the country beyond cartels and beheadings and risks freezing mobility between universities in both countries.

"To make an analogy," said Geoffrey E. Braswell, an associate anthropology professor at the University of California, San Diego, "I would not have considered taking students to Mississippi during the early 1960s or to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, but other parts of the U.S. were of course safe for travel. Mexico is that way."

The University of Kansas is mentioned in the article as one of the colleges that opted for a blanket policy against sending students to study in countries with travel advisories. This is despite the fact that the university's program in Mexico is located in Puebla, hours away from the more volatile northern Mexico states.

The State Department initially issued a travel advisory on March 14. Sue Lorenz, director of the Office of Study Abroad at the University of Kansas, said that the university waited and worked with the 18 students planning to study in Puebla in the event that the advisory would be lifted, but ultimately had to consider alternative plans when the advisory was reissued on April 12.

At that point, Lorenz said, 15 of the 18 students agreed to be relocated to the university's program in Costa Rica.

"What we're just seeing is a straight up cautious policy," Lorenz said. "Here we can be sure we have not sent students where the place is volatile. The university is saying we're using our best and broadest judgment. We may lose something, but we focus on the situation and use other opportunities."

The April 12 advisory was extended May 6 and specifically named the northern Mexico border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon initiated his government's war on drug cartels, nearly 23,000 narco-related deaths have occurred. Reports of drug-related violence regularly highlights correspondence from Mexico when immigration is not being debated. Last week, a gubernatorial candidate in the northern border state of Tamaulipas was assassinated while on the campaign trail.

Yet while what bleeds often leads, these reports do not mean that every stretch of Mexican soil is treacherous. Kansas students in Costa Rica will still have to exercise caution, in so much as if they were studying in Washington, D.C. or Detroit.

This is the second consecutive summer that Kansas' Puebla program has been canceled. Last summer, fears of the H1N1 virus kept the college away. Lorenz said that mobility of students going back and forth between the countries may be hurt.

However, she still wouldn't necessarily say that her school's policy is too cautious. It is often a matter of having the resources in place for more thorough analysis of specific regions in the country. Lorenz said the location of a university and its connections with Mexico can also better allow more selective approaches towards travel advisories. This is the situation in which the University of Texas at Austin -- listed among US News & World Report's top colleges for study abroad -- finds itself.

Christian Clarke Casarez, director of International Public Affairs at the University of Texas, said the university had to recall students from a program in Monterrey on March 23 based on the State Department's advisory.

"That was the first time, to my knowledge, that the university had recalled exchange students," Casarez said. "It's tough for the University of Texas at Austin because of our ties with Mexico."

This prompted a statement from the university on April 23 that announced a new policy toward foreign studies. Per the statement, all University of Texas institutions will thoroughly review foreign activities sponsored by the system. The college's vice provost for international programs leads a committee of academic leaders, faculty members, and travel and risk specialists.

While the university recalled students from Monterrey, its Health Care in Mexico program in Guadalajara was approved for this summer. The college's geographical and historical ties with Mexico, coupled with its review process and resources allows it to avoid a blanket policy.

"It is important to see what the State Department is saying, but it's also important to read those reports closely," Casarez said. "The general consensus is that it's important for us to ensure the safety of students abroad and that we have to balance that with and preserve academic freedom and the robust research opportunities we have."

Lindsey Clarke, a geography student studying in Southern Mexico, told The Daily Texan in a June 10 article that she is not concerned about the area where she is studying.

"In my area, the restriction is very low. I think that in general I understand the University's perspective in trying to keep students and researchers safe," Carte said. "But for my area in southern Mexico, I don't think a travel warning is warranted there. I always feel comfortable doing research there."

Despite the differences in policy and risk assessment, Kansas and Texas accept appeals from graduate students or faculty members that wish to conduct research in volatile areas.

"At this point, the International Oversight Committee has not denied any graduate student travel requests to restricted regions," Casarez wrote in a follow-up email. "With strong academic preparation and faculty support, our graduate students all have demonstrated a compelling reason why they must travel to a restricted region. They also have demonstrated an understanding of the risks and a plan to mitigate those risks."

Joanna Holvey-Bowles is the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Institute For Study Abroad (IFSA), a nonprofit organization founded at Butler University in 1988. She said that the Institute has observed a drop in both summer enrollment and enrollment in the semester programs in Yucatan, Mexico.

Holvey-Bowles said that students enroll from Butler as well as from across the country. Colleges enacting blanket policies toward travel advisories cannot send students through programs like IFSA.

She said that there has been some frustrations with the travel warning because of the varying levels of safety in different regions in the country.

"You stand to lose the opportunity to work with universities abroad," Holvey-Bowels said. "Opportunities lost are opportunities to learn more about the culture and history of Mexico."

She added that avoiding study in Mexico allows the opportunity for stereotyping to evolve and a decrease in the understanding of what the people and society in the country are like.

"What's happening is a lot of institutions are having to resolve this on their own instead of nuanced guidance provided by the U.S. government," she said.

Holvey-Bowles is also a co-chair on the subcommittee on health and safety for the National Association of Foreign Study Advisers (NAFSA), an organization founded in 1948 to provide professional services for students studying internationally. On March 22 she was one of three authors of "Developing Response Procedures to U.S. DOS Travel Warnings," a NAFSA report intended to provide advice to institutions interested in developing a review policy in response to travel warnings.

The report was written keeping in mind the fact that university officials nationwide would interpret travel warnings "in multiple ways" regardless of their specificity. Holvey-Bowles, Julie Friend of Michigan State University and Ines DeRomana of the University of California outlined eight suggested guidelines to developing review criteria.

Briefly:

  1. Involve a variety of stakeholders at the institution so that everyone understands and has a role in the college's risk management.
  2. Collect information on student enrollment abroad, including the location and duration of programs in the area of concern and the number of students in each place among other data.
  3. Contact relevant partners abroad to discuss what risks are of concern, culture, resources and emergency response plans.
  4. Contact any students, staff or faculty abroad to inform them of the warning as soon as possible. Inform them of your response timeline and elicit input.
  5. Compare student activities and program locations to the risks outlined in the Travel Warning.
  6. Know how you will communicate about risks with constituents such as students, parents and spouses.
  7. Determine the likelihood of "imminent harm" and a plan of action as that likelihood increases.
  8. Work with public relations and general counsel offices to craft a clear and concise message once a decision has been made.

Again, a more detailed breakdown of this criteria can be found in the link to the aforementioned report. While it is important that each institution has the freedom to craft its own plan of action, much can be gained by implementing a criteria similar to that suggested by NAFSA.

It can be easy to take for granted the fact that college students are independent adults as much as they are students. Risks must be taken if experience is to be gained.

A great deal is to be lost if one turns away from an endeavor because violence is occurring somewhere in the country. Careful review of the circumstances in specific regions of Mexico and the same precautions and common sense that is employed at home could mean the difference between gaining study and understanding and ignoring an opportunity.