When study abroad ends in death, US parents find few answers
NEW DELHI — Nearly six years after her son slipped and fell around 100 meters (yards) into a raging mountain river in India, never to be seen again, Elizabeth Brenner is still wondering how such an accident could have happened.
Brenner's son, Thomas Plotkin, was one of the millions of American students who have studied abroad on university-sponsored programs in the last decade — part of a growing global youth travel industry estimated to be worth $183 billion a year.
He wanted to experience another culture, “unlike anything that he'd ever known,” Brenner said.
Others want to study a new language or learn about different political systems. Universities generally encourage study abroad because they believe it improves leadership skills and employment prospects.
When her son died, Brenner began looking into how many other students died overseas, and who might be keeping track of the deaths.
“The answer was that nobody was keeping track of this at all,” she said.
The number of American students studying abroad each year has doubled in the last decade. But while U.S. colleges and universities must report deaths on their campuses, they are not required to disclose most student deaths that occur abroad, and data collected by industry organizations are incomplete.
More than 313,400 American students earned academic credit for studying abroad in 2014-15, according to the Institute of International Education, which creates study-abroad programs and manages U.S. government study-abroad scholarships.
Most student deaths or injuries overseas are only briefly discussed or mentioned in local newspaper reports. The U.S. Department of Education keeps no such statistics.
A group called the Forum on Education Abroad has attempted to gather such data for 2014 from two insurance companies, which together cover half of the U.S. study-abroad market. The group — with about 100 study-abroad companies and 570 schools as members — used the partial data from only one year to argue in a 2016 report that students are less likely to die overseas than on a U.S. campus, and “to understand more about the student experience, so that programs can be improved and risk can be mitigated,” its chief, Brian Whalen, told The Associated Press.
It calculated a mortality rate of 13.5 deaths for every 100,000 college students studying abroad, versus 29.4 deaths on campus, to argue that studying overseas was actually safer.
Brenner and other parents slammed the report, saying the findings are misleading because a full half of the study-abroad market was ignored, giving parents the idea that programs are safer than they may actually be.
The Forum on Education Abroad has since expanded its study to cover the five-year period from 2010-15, and will be releasing a new report in the fall. A preliminary analysis of that report was presented in June, and showed a mortality rate for college students studying abroad of 18.1 deaths per 100,000. However, the report will still cover only half the number of students studying abroad.
Whalen said his group tried to get the exact number of student deaths overseas from the U.S. State Department, but it was not available.
Ros Thackurdeen hasn't been able to sleep through the night since her youngest son, Ravi, drowned while on a school-sponsored excursion to a beach in Costa Rica in 2012.
“I began searching the internet,” Thackurdeen said. Within five years, she amassed seven binders of newspaper articles and travel alerts counting 3,200 other students who had died or been kidnapped, drugged, injured or assaulted abroad over the last few decades.
For 2014, she counted 14 student deaths — far higher than the four listed by the Forum on Education Abroad for that year.
“What I discovered about study-abroad safety was disturbing,” Thackurdeen said from her home in Newburgh, New York. “The numbers of incidents and deaths on study abroad are overwhelming.”
She and other grieving mothers began demanding more transparency about what happens when students go overseas.
“Coffee beans and bowling balls have more rules than any program, school, professor or teacher escorting our kids into foreign countries,” said Sheryl Hill, who has built a business called Depart Smart around providing safety advice to students going abroad, after her 16-year-old diabetic son, Tyler, fell ill and died while studying in Japan in 2007.
Grieving parents successfully lobbied for legislation in Minnesota in 2014 and in Virginia two years later to regulate the study-abroad industry. A similar measure has been introduced in New York, and one member of Congress is now pushing a nationwide bill.
“Knowing which areas are hotspots for violent crime is important information for kids and parents to know when they're making decisions on where they'll study abroad,” said Rep. Sean Maloney, a Democrat from New York, who first introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act in Congress in 2014. The bill failed to pass in the Republican-led House of Representatives, and Maloney plans to reintroduce it in September.
“If our kids are consistently getting hurt in a particular city or at a particular university, American families have a right to know that information so they can make informed choices about where to study,” Maloney said.
Gregory Malveaux, study-abroad coordinator at Montgomery College in Maryland, published a 2016 book titled “Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities, and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education,” covering study-abroad risks and preventative measures that could offset them.
Malveaux backs the idea of mandating institutions to release data on student deaths and injuries while studying abroad.
“If this data exists on-campuses, it needs to also cover off-campuses,” Malveaux said. “Study abroad is no more dangerous for students than on-campus activities and occurrences. But it is beneficial to know the level of safety, and safety measures available, for the entire institution, including study abroad.”
The lure of studying abroad is as strong as ever, and universities are eager to accommodate. At least 1,000 American universities and colleges currently offer credit for studying overseas, up from 700 a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education. In addition, “many campuses” with fewer than 10 students studying abroad aren't on the list, institute spokeswoman Sharon Witherell said.
Last year, new federal legislation was introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, to make studying abroad an integral part of higher education by creating more university grants and incentives. The goal of the bill is to increase the number of Americans studying overseas to 1 million a year.
Educators believe the experience increases students' chances of landing management-level employment.
“Study abroad is a priority” at the University of Iowa, said Downing Thomas, the dean of international programs at the school, which sends more students to India than any other U.S. institution. “Far too few executives have the skills to be truly successful in unfamiliar cultural waters.”
But the benefits of study abroad are not limited to landing good jobs.
“It contributes to personal growth through greater independence, deeper self-knowledge and greater tolerance for ambiguity,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education. “There is evidence that study abroad is a high-impact practice that contributes to overall academic success.”
There is much about study-abroad programs that parents may not know — including that their child's university may not actually be overseeing the program. Many American universities and colleges find it too expensive or difficult to manage such programs. Instead, they refer students to independent, third-party operators such as the Institute for the International Education of Students, the Council on International Educational Exchange or Semester at Sea.
These independent program operators are not authorized to give college credits. So they partner with accredited institutions, often different from the school where the student is enrolled.
Thackurdeen said the setup was duplicitous. “These universities offer these programs as if it's theirs,” she said.
Her 19-year-old son had been studying chemistry and pre-med at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but his tropical medicine course in Costa Rica was being accredited through Duke University. “They give you a sense that they have done their due diligence,” she said.
After Ravi Thackurdeen died, Swarthmore stopped backing the program he'd been on, offered by the Organization of Tropical Studies, but continued backing others offered through that same nonprofit consortium.
When Plotkin died on his 2011 trip to the Indian Himalayas, the University of Iowa, where he had been enrolled, cut off all ties with the National Outdoor Leadership School and stopped accepting academic credits earned from its courses.
Thackurdeen and Brenner both sued the program providers for negligence, and their cases were moved to courts in the states where the programs were based. Thackurdeen's case is pending in North Carolina, while Brenner was forced to settle after a court ordered mediation.
“It is as if the state itself doesn't want you to prevail,” Brenner said. “Safety will come from transparency.”
Earlier this year, Brenner spent two months tracing the winding, 1,670-kilometer (1,037-mile) trail along the Goriganga and Ganges rivers to where the water empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Brenner said she believed this was the path her 21-year-old son's body traveled after he fell more than 90 meters (300 feet) from the trail in September 2011.
“He lived 30 days after I put him on the plane and sent him to India,” said Brenner, from Minnetonka, Minnesota. Now fatigued and unsure of what she was searching for, she said she was trying to gain any knowledge she can about those 30 days leading up to his death.
“Did he suffer? Was he awake when he hit the river? That part breaks my heart over and over again, thinking about him being alone during those last few seconds,” said Brenner.
“I still feel a tremendous amount of grief. I'll have to figure out how to carry that for the rest of my life.”