UI suspends study-abroad program marked by student's death


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Starting this winter, University of Iowa students will no longer be granted any credits for courses completed at the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Wyoming.

In August, the UI Office of Study Abroad decided to closely investigate the courses offered by the school, almost a year after UI student Tom Plotkin lost his life during a school course in India. The UI will not grant credits for courses completed at the school during its yearlong evaluation of the program.

Officials at the UI will then evaluate all other third-party programs. Third-party programs provide study-abroad experience, while working with a university that handles granting credit for students who complete the program being offered.

The outdoor leadership school goes through the University of Utah to grant credits to its students from the UI.   

Downing Thomas, the dean of UI International Programs, said the Daily Iowan investigation into Plotkin’s death helped shed light on the issue.

The DI report raised some  questions about tardy rescue efforts and decision-making in the aftermath of Plotkin’s accidental fall in the mountains of northern India, while he was enrolled in an Outdoor Leadership School 2011 semester in India.

“Absolutely. That’s what triggered it,” Thomas said, referring to the DI report which was published on Feb. 16, when a reporter traveled to India to interview locals involved in the case. “We realized that there are a number of these kind of programs for which the University of Iowa is at some distance from being able to evaluate the actual circumstances of the education provided.”

In the meanwhile, UI officials have asked the Outdoor Leadership School to provide them with extensive syllabi, credentials of instructors, and other information that would qualify courses offered by the school for academic credit.

Bruce Palmer, director of admission and marketing at the school, in a brief email wrote that the Outdoor Leadership School has already provided the UI with the required documents and believes it is common for universities to re-evaluate programs offered.

“All of our interactions with the university have been very cordial and professional,” he wrote in an email. “We look forward to continuing that relationship.”

One expert says while UI’s decision to re-evaluate the program is a good one, more needs to be done to make study abroad safer.

Sheryl Hill, founding director of ClearCause Foundation — an organization that advocates for safety in study abroad programs — said there is strong need for federal oversight of study-abroad programs, which currently doesn’t exist.

“We discovered there were no federal oversight, no disqualification, no guidelines, and no transparent reporting,” Hill said, whose son died while he was on a study-abroad program in 2007.

“U.S. Department of State has the power and the authority to sanction programs that put foreign-exchange students at risk in America. Equal rights, to sanction programs that put American students at risk abroad, are non-existent.”

She cited University of Minnesota as being one of the only 15 universities that has a study-abroad director totally dedicated to health and safety.

The University of Minnesota, she said, has never offered credits for Outdoor Leadership School courses.

Hill added that she doesn’t aim to be a “buzzkill” for study abroad but emphasized that more needs to be done.

“I have been cautioned, that in the study abroad industry, these are not kids, these are young adults,” Hill said, referring to the students who opt to study-abroad. “Well, let me tell you. When Thomas Plotkin died, his mother still said that was her kid. She doesn’t say that was my adult child. They are our kids.”

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