Little oversight exists for study-abroad orgs


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Rarely in the United States does an industry that pulls in $17 billion annually go unregulated.

Still, many study-abroad programs in the United States are operated by private companies, and many answer only to private accreditation boards, not to any government regulators.

University of Iowa student Thomas Plotkin went missing late last month while he was on a trip to India with the National Outdoor Leadership School, one of more than 1,500 independent organizations governed by the Association for Experiential Education.

"The core essence of our accreditation is on risk management and safety," said Shawn Tierney, the director of programs at Association for Experiential Education. "It is no guarantee, but what it does is it provides standards that a program strives to meet and hopefully exceed."

Tierney said the current manual that the association uses comprises 298 standards — ranging from ethics standards to standards on human resources — that must be met or exceeded by every organization that the association accredits.

"There will always be risk," Tierney said, noting that the group's goal is to minimize the risks students in any given program will face.

University of Iowa officials acknowledge the risks of studying abroad but maintain that it can provide significant educational benefits.

"There are no no-risk environments," said Phil Carls, the assistant director of the UI Office for Study Abroad. "The flip side is that study-abroad programs are reasonably safe."

Carls also said the UI partners with many independent study-abroad programs, such as the group Plotkin was traveling with.

"Because we can't offer programs in all places at all times that perfectly match all students' academic and personal objectives, we allow UI students to participate in programs offered by other institutions," he wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

"We don't have the capacity to evaluate and monitor each and every one of these programs … " he said. "… We have to trust that other institutions are taking the same prudent steps that the UI does. In our experience, they do."

But that assurance isn't enough for Sheryl Hill, the founder of ClearCause Foundation, a not-for-profit public-policy organization focused on solving problems in the U.S. youth-travel, study-abroad, and student-exchange industry.

"The United States government needs to step up, because this generation deserves to go abroad and be safe," Hill told The Daily Iowan.

"There are literally thousands of youth-travel, study-abroad, and student-exchange programs, but virtually no government oversight or federally mandated safety standards regarding their operations — most importantly, how they handle a crisis involving a child," she said in a press release earlier this year.

Hill said she and her husband founded ClearCause after their 16-year-old son, Tyler, died of preventable causes on a People to People Student Ambassador Trip to Japan.

"Travel and study abroad can and should be a wonderful experience for a young person, but there are inherent risks and failures in this self-governed industry that must be addressed," Hill said in the press release.

Carls said Plotkin's presumed death in India Sept. 22 would be the first study-abroad fatality in university history.

"To our knowledge, which extends to the early 1980s, this [would be] the first UI student to lose his or her life while studying abroad," Carls said.

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