As Director of Global Studies, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage risk. Last year, 19 different faculty members were involved in leading over 100 students on Global Studies Programs to The Bahamas, Canada, Lithuania, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, China, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Scotland. This year, we are slated to travel to Jordan, Canada, Tanzania, South Korea, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Spain, and France. With a record breaking number of applications, we will be offering spots on Global Studies travel programs to more than 125 students, and I expect that number to increase even more next year. As we realize the goals of Imagine Deerfield, and Global Studies travel programs become more firmly embedded in the Deerfield program, we will continue to involve more and more students, and with that, more and more families.
These past few weeks, as we’ve been gearing up for another exciting round of abroad programs, I’ve been talking with many of you about events in news and how these stories might impact your children as they travel abroad with Deerfield. For all my work in risk management, I am at heart an educator, and like any educator, I believe in doing my homework. For me, that means collaborating with experts in the field of risk management so that we can provide your students with meaningful opportunities for learning about themselves and their role in the wider world. Though this world can, at times, seem like a scary place, I believe that a proactive and informed approach to risk management can make global travel not only plausible but also essential in this ever-changing world in which we live.
Here I hope to offer you some tools so that you, too, can recognize, understand, and manage the risks and rewards of travel abroad programs.
What is risk?
One of my favorite activities as an introduction to risk management for students is a risk perception line. After designating one side of the room as “high risk” and another side of the room as “low risk”, I ask all of the students to stand up, and as I read out different activities they have to move to the place that most accurately reflects the risk of the activity. I usually start with something like SCUBA diving with sharks, which often sends all students quickly to the high-risk side of the room.
After a few rounds of activities, students quickly learn that perceptions of risk vary amongst their peers. They start asking questions, and realize that the premise of this exercise is unfair.
It’s unfair for two reasons: everyone has a different perception of risk, and to understand actual risk, we need to have a lot more information. When faced with something scary, such as sharks swimming only a few feet away from us, we tend to focus on the hazards of the situation. This makes sense, and yet our fear often paralyzes us from asking questions that would help us better understand the real risks at play. By the same token, we often fail to ask questions when engaging in a seemingly mundane activity like sleeping in a hotel. And yet there are questions we could and should ask ourselves with both of these activities.
When we’re planning our trips, we look at risks on all points on this spectrum, from the outright scary to the small details that others might neglect. This past October, when I traveled with students and faculty to the Round Square International Conference in Jordan, I spent a lot of time talking to contacts in the State Department and in the Middle East about the geopolitical situation, but I took just as seriously my task of calling our hotel and asking some basic questions about the safety and security of our lodgings. Where was the hotel? Were there any security risks in the area? Were there guards by the doors? Are there smoke detectors in the rooms and fire extinguishers in the halls? These kinds of questions were as important to our safety as my discussions with the Assistant Secretary of State.
Why? When dealing with risk, we have to think about the likelihood of a risk, as well as the severity.
How do we manage risks?
So how do we manage risks? We prepare for the worst, we plan for likely occurrences, we cancel activities or whole trips if necessary, but most importantly, we teach our students well.
We carefully plan our itineraries, understanding all the while that someone will sprain an ankle on a hike, a vehicle will get a flat tire on a safari, or a student will get sick while traveling. We take measures to prevent these kinds of occurrences. But these are likely and unavoidable risks. At the same time, these are manageable risks.
As scary as it can be to have a child who is sick while traveling abroad, we expect to deal with illness on every trip. According to the CDC, “travelers’ diarrhea (TD) is the most predictable” illness travelers face. Between 30 and 70 percent of travelers contract TD, and the statistics for our trips are no different. But we know that we can take steps to manage this part of being an experienced traveler. Dr. Tom Hagamen, our very own certified travel medicine doctor and Director of Medical Services, provides pre-trip training for students and faculty leaders, instructing them on proper sanitation techniques and prescribing antibiotics to treat TD, if it should occur while abroad. We also educate our faculty leaders to assist students who are ill, access the medical expertise available to them 24/7 at International SOS, and keep families in the loop as needed.
Most importantly, we educate our students. By providing training before the trip, guidance during the trip, and resources throughout, we help students learn to manage risk, as well. Many of the most likely risks in our travel programs are mitigated by applying sunscreen, using bug spray, practicing proper sanitation techniques, and staying hydrated. Ask any of the students who traveled with me to Tanzania or Colombia last year, the three Ds — DEET, dehydration, and diarrhea — were frequent topics of conversation.
After all of this discussion of risk, why travel at all? Wouldn’t the best strategy for staying safe be staying at home?
In some cases, the answer is, in fact, yes. If, due to unforeseen events, a trip becomes too dangerous, we will cancel the trip. We also avoid adding any activities that increase risk without providing any educational meaning.
After all, it is for this reason alone — the education of your students — that I am committed to developing these programs. To see a student, as I did in Colombia last summer, go from a tentative Spanish speaker to someone eagerly exchanging ideas with a Colombian coffee farmer — this is what makes me passionate about Global Studies. We are not just teaching your children how to travel the globe safely, we are encouraging them to reflect and make meaning with their experiences so they can thoughtfully interact with other cultures.
Travel is in and of itself a risk — but there is also a risk of doing nothing. There is great value in doing something different, of seeing new perspectives, of being uncomfortable. Travel is by no means the only way of expanding horizons, and taking risks purely for the thrill of novelty is never a sound strategy for growth. But by creating meaningful travel experiences, where students have the opportunity to learn more about the world and more about themselves, we are mitigating the very real risks of stagnancy and complacency.
How do we evaluate risk? Together.
In the end, risk management is about choices. Risks are unavoidable. Safety cannot be guaranteed. Some level of uncertainty is a constant in a dynamic and complex world. We work hard to manage risks and add a value throughout our Global Studies programs, but ultimately, the decision to have a child travel abroad is one that is made by families and not by schools. I am humbled by and grateful for the trust that parents put in us to educate their children around the world.
In her fall article in The Link, Dr. Curtis wrote, “If character is about who we are, then citizenship is about what we do.” Our students give me hope, for no matter how scary the world seems, everyday I see your children becoming the kind of global citizens that are prepared to manage risks, solve problems, and provide leadership in a rapidly changing world.
Please feel free to reach out to me directly at any time by email or on the phone if you have questions about any of our programs. Below are a few resources that might be of interest if you would like to learn more about risk management and international travel:
International SOS is our international medical and security services provider. For our school membership login number, please contact the Global Studies Office.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website provides tips on how to travel safe and travel smart.
The State Department traveler’s checklist also provides resources for travel outside of the United States.
“Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You,” by David Ropeik and George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis provides a helpful framework for understanding risk in the world around us.