Safety first for students abroad

January 27, 2005, vol. 32, no. 2
By Howard Fluxgold



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The world is a dangerous place. Tsunamis, earthquakes, coups, wars and political upheaval can all tax the ingenuity and flexibility of the most intrepid world traveller.

Fortunately for SFU students and faculty who are increasingly on the move, strong preparation and support and a bit of luck have kept serious emergencies to a minimum.

In fact, according to Nello Angerilli, executive director of SFU international, “We have never had to use our emergency procedures. But we have had serious incidents. For example, last July, the Thai army shot some young people in a mosque in southern Thailand. It occurred just before a field school was scheduled to be in that area and we had to make alternate arrangements to avoid the area.”

Just in case, SFU students going abroad on an international co-op or academic program are issued an emergency contact card. Explains Tanya Behrisch, international co-op co-coordinator, “If a SFU student is found lost or disoriented and has the card with them, it tells the person who found them their name, nationality and a 24-hour phone number they can call collect for SFU emergency services. But we've never had it happen. We also encourage students to register with the local Canadian consulate and write that phone number on the card.”

Before they even leave Canada students are given a wealth of preparation to orient them to a new culture and country. SFU co-op students fill out a questionnaire to determine whether they will be able to adapt to their new environment. “It's a rigorous self-evaluation,” notes Behrisch. “If there is any equivocation, we have them in for an interview. If there is any ambiguity we try to dissuade them from going. We are looking for people who are flexible and adaptable and able to handle unforeseen situations.”

To ensure safety, both SFU co-op and international provide students with an orientation program that covers everything from finances to visas. When there is an incident abroad “we constantly monitor the department of foreign affairs website,” notes Daria Hucal, international mobility co-coordinator with SFU international. “The site posts information if there is, for example, a guerilla movement, SARS outbreak, tsunami, or demonstrations. They advise on whether Canadians should travel in that region. We also work closely with our colleagues at international partner institutions.”

Students abroad can also contribute to the flow of information. During the tsunami and its aftermath three SFU co-op students in Thailand, who were not affected by the disaster, provided information by using co-op education's new online community at www.coopcommunity.sfu.ca/, a bulletin board where information can be exchanged quickly.

Not only are students supported abroad but, says Behrisch, she is also in contact with parents and loved ones in Canada looking for news of their relatives who are working or studying in a foreign country.

There were 180 co-op students working abroad in 2004 and 261 students studying abroad. The result of all this preparation and support is that, so far, there hasn't been a serious emergency.

“While we are ready to handle emergencies, fortunately we've had no grisly examples to date, and we hope that continues,” says Behrisch.

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