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Sending Young Adults into the World

Safety, Security, and Risk Management Issues of WPI’s Global Programs

Natalie Mello is director of Global Operations in WPI’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, which oversees the university’s off-campus project centers. Through this unique, nontraditional study-abroad program, students are given the opportunity to complete professional-level projects, designed to resolve real-world problems, while immersed in a different culture. Mello oversees the administration and management of project centers in the United States, Europe, the Far East, Latin America, Africa, and the South Pacific. Her job involves student recruitment, risk management, health and safety issues, participant orientation, and faculty advisor training. This winter, Transformations sat down with Mello to learn more about the training and oversight of the university’s global program that assures the safety and security of its students.

1. WPI’s Global Perspective Program has grown since the first project center was established in Washington, D.C., in 1974; today, there are more than 20 student project centers on five continents. Last year, 61 percent of WPI’s graduating class of 614 students completed a project off campus. How do you oversee the safety and security of such a large number of students in so many different locations?

I work closely with WPI faculty and staff. The university’s risk managers assist in identifying risks inherent in sending students and advisors off campus, controlling those risks whenever possible, and instituting strategies for managing all other risks. I work in tandem with Student Life staff—including the dean of students, the director of the counseling center, and the director of disability services—in creating nonacademic training workshops for project center advisors so they can handle such matters as team dynamics, homesickness, alcohol abuse, gender issues, cultural sensitivities, and general health and safety concerns. I also work with faculty in their roles as advisors and center directors.

These collaborative efforts are supplemented by our site-specific handbooks for students and their families and mandatory student orientation sessions. In sum, good training and site-specific information enables us to reasonably oversee, year-round, the safety and security of a great number of students at different locations.

2. Project center students need to be sensitive to health and safety issues unique to the country they are visiting. How do you indoctrinate students on such issues?

Our Going Global @ WPI handbooks, which cover all centers, are continually updated. Previously, students were handed loose papers, asked to read, sign, and return them, and told, “Oh, by the way, tell your parents about this, too.” Our handbooks, now given to students and their families, are comprehensive resource manuals that cover required paperwork and turnover deadlines, information from the U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control, emergency contact information, the university’s off-campus policies, and logistical information about where students will be living.

All global program students must attend orientation sessions; those who are traveling abroad attend a general session where paperwork is distributed and everyone watches the film Safety and Study Abroad. Site-specific orientations are convened for each group. The handbook is distributed and reviewed, and there are Q&A sessions. A third orientation is for out-of-country destinations and covers the use of cell phones provided by WPI.

Zurich, D-Term 2001: Elizabeth Levandowsky ’02, Ondrej Cistecky ’02, and Taeyun Choi ’02

3. How does the program accommodate the needs of students with disabilities or those who have diabetes, food allergies, and other health-related issues?

Upon acceptance in the program, students detail physical, sensory, psychiatric, or learning impairments on a self-disclosure form. WPI’s director of disability services then contacts those students to discuss on-site accommodations. Sometimes it’s a matter of not rooming a nonsmoker with a smoker; other times, accommodations are more complicated. For example, a wheelchair-bound student would not be able to participate in Venice due to a physical environment that’s beyond our control, but we would work with that student to find a viable alternative project placement.

All students are required to reveal health-related conditions that may affect them while off campus. This information ensures that appropriate resources will be on site in an emergency. Students are advised to bring required prescriptions in an amount that will last for the duration of their stay and to keep them in original containers that show pharmacy documentation—loose pills in a plastic bag will not make it through customs. There are locations where vaccinations are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control; students receive that information over the summer to give them ample time to contact their family physician.

Regardless of where the students travel, they are always alerted to the risks of contracting HIV and AIDS. A sure way to get the students’ attention on this critical issue is when I tell them, “If it’s wet and it isn’t yours, don’t touch it!” I also remind them that it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Worcester or Windhoek [Namibia], tattoos and piercings increase the chance of contracting those diseases.

4. How are faculty center advisors indoctrinated on health and safety issues?

Each May we hold a retreat for faculty who will be project center advisors the following academic year. This carefully planned day, developed in collaboration with campus experts, uses case studies from our experiences. Included in the interactive session are such issues as cultural adjustment, low self-esteem, gender discrimination, sexual assault, high-risk activities, policy violations, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, academic dishonesty, off-campus adjudication, confidentiality, time management, and dealing with dysfunctional teams. Our campus experts guide the advisors through these issues, alert them to outcomes if they are handled improperly, and describe specifically how each issue needs to be addressed to ensure the best outcome.

Our faculty training program is a fairly unique model. In 2003, TIAA-CREF’s Hesburgh Award committee recognized WPI as one of four “certificate of excellence” schools for its exceptional faculty development programs designed to enhance undergraduate teaching and learning.

Bangkok, C-Term 1999: Leon Vehaba ’00, Alexander Lutzky ’00, and Irving Liimatta ’00

5. What effect did the 9-11 terrorist attacks have on the program?

Because WPI was proactive in its risk management practices prior to 9-11, we had a system in place for contacting every student and then contacting their families to let them know their child was okay. On that day, we had a few students in Europe and a large group at the Goddard Space Flight Center, outside of D.C.

However, as a result of that event, we immediately developed a secure Web site—containing all contact information for students and families, accessible only to those responsible for the students’ health and safety—to supplement paper copies. I now carry a pocket PC with that information so a telephone failure won’t prevent us from having 24-7 accessibility.

We also implemented a cell phone policy; now participants at foreign sites carry cell phones provided by the university. We know they work, we know the telephone numbers before anyone leaves campus, and we know the bill is paid so service won’t be shut off. The cell phones enable us to contact participants in the event of an emergency and keep us in touch with students as they travel before or after the program so we know when flights are canceled or if any mishaps have occurred while students are traveling on their own.

Overall, WPI’s Global Perspective Program did not suffer as a result of that awful day; our programs continued without cancellation. The following month, we had a record number of applications (444, compared to 412 the previous year); we sent more students away in 2002–03 than in any other year. Our program’s philosophy is based on the need for international understanding, an end that is most effectively attained through living and learning in another culture. Terrorist acts will not cause us to deviate from our fundamental belief in the value of the off-campus experience that WPI provides to its students.

6. What happens when a natural disaster, such as the tsunami, or a terrorist attack, like the Madrid train bombings, takes place?

No matter what the crisis is, the first order of business is to contact all students at an affected location. While both the Madrid train bombings and the tsunami occurred before the start of programs in those project centers, some students had traveled to the sites early. Within a few hours, we were able to ascertain the safety and well-being of the students in Spain and Thailand and contact their families.

Next, we evaluated what effect, if any, those events would have on our programs. For Madrid, we relied on information from our contacts at the Overseas Security Advisory Council (part of the State Department) and other reliable sources. We also took into account confusion over who was responsible for the bombings (which occurred on a Thursday) and whether the act was connected to the election, which was scheduled for Monday, and we delayed the start of that program for a few days.

The effect of the tsunami was different. Our project center is in Bangkok, which wasn’t physically impacted by this disaster. We did, however, tell students that they were not to travel to the tsunami-affected areas. Even though the Thai government encouraged tourists to return to Phuket and other resorts in the area, we felt there were too many unknowns about the long-term effects—for example, water-borne diseases—that would put our students at risk.

London, D-Term 2001: William Espinola ’02, Stephen Caldwell ’02, Erin Jabs ’02, and Jahdiel Fyfield ’02

7. How do you respond to parents concerned about the safety of their children?

To parents who are very concerned because their child is in an area of the world where a natural disaster or a terrorist attack has just occurred, I offer reassurance and remind them of the crisis management system we have in place. To return to 9-11 for a moment, we had a student at Goddard [near Washington, D.C.] whose mother was in Manhattan. They were frantic to hear from each other, but were unable to connect directly by phone. I relayed messages between them until they were able to make a connection.

However, we are less sympathetic with a parent who expects us to coddle their child by acquiring passports for them, by making exceptions to a policy, or by granting them permission to accompany their child off campus. (Our experience has shown that if students can’t manage to get their own passports, they are probably not ready for the unique circumstances they’ll face on their own in a foreign culture.)

In our handbooks, we include a “parent-to-parent” letter that offers advice from WPI employees whose children have participated in the program. Included are words of wisdom on health and safety issues, as well as tips, such as, “Let them know what you are concerned about and talk these issues out. Make sure they understand what your expectations of them are and that you trust them to make good decisions.” Since we began including the letters, we’ve had fewer phone calls from worried parents.

8. WPI’s Global Perspective Program was selected as one of 10 noteworthy institutional programs by NAFSA: Association of International Educators in its 2003 report, Profiles of Success at Colleges and Universities. How noteworthy is WPI’s program, in relation to programs at other colleges and universities?

Our aggressive risk management practices are nationally regarded as the model in study-abroad programs. In addition to NAFSA’s recognition and the Hesburgh Award, WPI was one of seven colleges and universities in the United States and Mexico to be honored in the third annual Andrew Heiskell Awards program for Innovation in International Education. [The Institute of International Education created these awards to promote international education programs that are making a real difference in the lives of the students and communities they serve.] Our Global Perspective Program received an Honorable Mention award in the Study Abroad category for providing an innovative program and service, and making study abroad more accessible to a broader student population.

I’ve been asked to lead workshops and conference sessions on the subject of risk management at professional meetings. In addition, I’ve been consulted on issues relating to risk management, health, and safety by colleagues at various institutions—Connecticut College, Boston University, Loyola Marymount, UC–Santa Barbara, the University of Rhode Island, and Wellesley College, to name a few—as well as at companies with study-abroad programs. I’ve also contributed to a chapter titled “Maximizing Safety and Security and Minimizing Risk in Education Abroad Programs,” in the most recent edition of NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators, considered “the bible” for study-abroad professionals.

Venice, E-Term 1998: Tanya Corrado ’99, James Behmke ’00, and Gabriel Flores ’99

9. How do WPI’s project centers influence the lives and future careers of students?

I can only speak anecdotally about the influence of our off-campus project experience, as we’ve not yet collected data. But I know students who adopted a minor in international studies as a result of their expe-rience; others changed majors; a few decided engineering was not the right career choice. Some have decided to seek employment overseas; others pursued careers with companies that have overseas opportunities. Many, many students say their experience was life-changing. At a minimum, it increases their curiosity about other cultures and whets their appetite for more travel. Every student who participates in the program gains a greater understanding of the world and, perhaps more important, a greater understanding of themselves.

10. What aspect of your job has given you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

Before they leave for the program, most of the students are awkward presenters and writers and lack confidence in their ability to tackle and solve the problem presented by the project. Then, 15 weeks later, you see a remarkable transformation: the students are comfortable standing in front of people and presenting the work they’ve done; you can sense their confidence and their pride.

Most students return eager to talk about their off-campus experiences. I’ve harnessed that energy by getting students involved in Global Ambassadors, where they share their enthusiasm for the program with current and prospective WPI students, visiting dignitaries, alumni groups, and anyone else who wants to know about the program from the students’ perspective.

While professional recognition from my colleagues at other schools is gratifying, it’s being involved in a program that does so much for our students that keeps me enthusiastic and gives me a deep sense of personal satisfaction.

To learn more about what WPI students have accomplished through their global projects, visit the Global Perspective Program Completed Projects.

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Last modified: May 25, 2005, 11:59 EDT
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