Several months after Ravi Thackurdeen’s death, his mother, Ros, began searching the Internet for well-established study abroad programs. On this day, Ros telephoned a private college whose international program had a large Internet presence. She intended to inquire about the safety of their student travel.
“I’m wondering what safety procedures you have in place for study abroad,” Ros asked.
“Oh, we only run safe programs,” the woman answered.
“What kinds of specific safeguards do you have for students?” Ros guessed that the woman believed she was speaking to a prospective student’s parent, so Ros played the part. She was not intending to speak of Ravi.
“I’m not sure what your question is.”
“What kinds of things do you do to protect students from injury? Or death?”
“We’ve never had a student death.”
“But you might, someday…”
“Well, we’ll deal with that when it happens.”
Now Ros felt angry, “My son died on his study abroad. Do you understand, someday is somebody’s child?!”
“I’m so sorry about your son, ma’am. As I said, we run safe programs.”
This conversation is a glimpse into two distinct modes of perception. One looks at the world through the lens of a working professional. The other looks at the world through the lens of a bereaved mother.
In all honesty, Ros and I didn’t know about “the other lens”—not until the deaths of our sons. Bereaved parents are said to be in “a club no one wants to join.” But more than that, bereaved parents are in a club no one wants to imagine. With profound grief comes the complete extinction of innocence. In its place, a new way of perceiving, a lens replacement so abrupt and thorough, the world can never be viewed as before.
As Ros’ conversation with the study abroad professional implies, most higher education institutions have policies and procedures regarding student injury and death during study abroad. Hence, the woman’s response, we’ll deal with [it] when it happens. And no one would argue against protocols for terrible outcomes; from this woman’s professional perspective, having protocols for when bad stuff happens is about safety.
In contrast, through a bereaved parent’s lens, safety is actually very different. Safety is about ensuring, to the best extent possible, that bad stuff doesn’t happen in the first place. This type of safety exists. It is known as “fatality and injury prevention”. Such strategies are well established in the health care community and always rely on transparent data.
What concerns us about basing student safety on reactive protocols is this: Protocols for negative outcomes are paired with insurers and lawyers, plus one unspoken wish: We’ve never had a student death [and we hope we never will].
Most of us call this luck. There is good luck and bad luck, and everything in between. Hoping to be lucky is what waivers are about. Risk is shifted to an eighteen year old who signs the bottom line because he or she doesn’t really understand risk like a fifty year old, or even a twenty-five year old. And besides, the study abroad industry is great at selling sizzle: Study abroad as an adventure, a far away land, different customs and culture, language and topography, and sure, some unknowns.
The industry can do better.
But they don’t. Not yet. To date, no one in the study abroad industry has publicly advocated for industry-wide comprehensive and transparent safety data.
How can this be? We are talking about one of America’s most sacred institutions, higher education. Higher ed understands that the noblest purpose of academia is the collection and sharing of information for the common good. With comprehensive data, plus statistics to search of patterns, risk can be clarified, allowing for strategies of prevention. A proactive approach to student safety depends on science. Unknowns need not be unknowable.
So here is a little secret from our horrible club: We recognize our kind. They know radical change—a dramatically shattered world, plus an internal wound that will never fully heal. For many, the life that remains becomes a kind of purgatory. Survivors reside in a liminal space, not fully here, with the living; and yet, not quite there, with the dead. Rather, it is through this “other lens” that the profoundly bereaved see both ways.
And what we see in this world is that it goes on and on as always, with barely a registry of what we have lost and the human potential we all have lost. Our children’s deaths are sad stories, old stories, too rarely told stories, only to be lived by some other family in the not too distant future. After all, the business of study abroad is complex, enormous, important, and for some, lucrative.
It is for this reason that we purposefully recall those who have preceded us into grief. Sixteen years ago, John Amato testified before a Congressional hearing about study abroad student safety. He spoke of the death of his daughter, Virginia, plus seven others, including three American students.
“Nearly from the day after the accident, we parents have been attempting first to learn the facts that resulted in our daughters’ deaths, and secondly to work toward preventing such accidents from occurring in the future. We have endured a frustrating struggle in both regards.”
Mr. Amato asks for two things. First, the facts. Not agendas, no spin. Truth.
Second, Mr. Amato asks for prevention efforts to protect someone else’s child.
These should not be a big asks. And yet, apparently they are, for bereaved parents are still seeking the same two things!
The absence of transparency from schools meant to serve our children as students multiplies the devastation of their deaths. And it is in this context that the emotional leveling extends, from families, through friends, and into communities as unmeasured collateral damage.
For many, these student deaths come to represent more—a betrayal by the very institutions we raise our next generation to believe in, as well as the values that propelled us to embrace study abroad in the first place.
Education. Hard work. The understanding of others. Wonder for this world.
We expected more from higher education.
Sometimes now, it is impossible for the bereaved not to wonder, Who are these people who would spend the children of others in favor of their own deal-with-it-when-it-happens ignorance?