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?
The year was 1996. Study abroad students traveling the world with Semester at Sea were meant to get from Delhi, India, to Agra. When one of their busses plunged off the road, seven people were killed, including four American students. Many more were injured.
Immediately, survivors were connected by grief. One newly bereaved father happened to be an attorney. From professional experience, he knew that when things go wrong facts get lost, which means there’s a limited time to get the true story. So he recommended that the families hire an independent investigator, and that is what they did.
What these families learned is that Semester at Sea was working with a new tour operator. A last minute itinerary change moved students from plane to bus, two busses at night on the Grand Trunk Road, dubbed by travel writers as “one of the most perilous roads in the world.” Neither students nor parents knew that locals stay off this route at night; the U.S. embassy advises their personnel to do the same. Moreover, the bus driver had been driving all day and night, and Semester at Sea’s tour operator was uninsured.
The 1996 Semester at Sea incident resulted in headlines such as this, “Death clouds floating college” (L.A. Times). But this was not Semester at Sea’s first student death, nor last.
Two years later, in 1998, armed gunmen removed St. Mary’s of Maryland study abroad students from their bus traveling through Guatemala. All students were robbed and five were raped. This time, headlines read, “Traveling in a troubled land” (Washington Post).
And then, in the year 2000, two Antioch College students were shot. News accounts spoke of their deaths as “Hell in a heavenly place” (Newsweek) and “Their paradise lost” (People). Once again, media commented on the landscape, as if the beauty of a place should protect America’s collective innocence.
But where were the names of the dead? Virginia Amato, Sara Schewe, Cherese Laulhere, Jenna Druck, Emily Eagan, Emily Howell. Real people, someone’s child, sibling, or friend, young learners dying horrific deaths far from home. The New York Times went so far as to say, “Costa Ricans fear slaying of U.S. women will hurt tourism.”
These three incidents joined as an American pivot point, in part because each incident resulted in more than one victim, which garnered more than one day’s news. At the time, Peter Hoekstra was a Republican congressman from Michigan’s second district, member of The Education and the Workforce Committee, and chairman of its subcommittee, Oversight and Investigations. Hoekstra was reportedly moved by Detroit Free Press coverage of the Antioch College deaths. After all, one of the dead hailed from Ann Arbor.
In October of 2000 study abroad student safety took the national stage, with six stakeholders testifying before Hoekstra’s subcommittee. Included were John Amato, the aforementioned lawyer and bereaved father, and also Peter McPherson, president of Michigan State University, home to the nation’s largest study abroad program. Additionally, ten appendixes contain written testimony.
The resulting document is one hundred seventy pages long. And for all of these pages, so many words, this Congressional hearing resulted in what? Though many federal and state officials have promoted the growth of study abroad, it’s been sixteen years since our national legislators considered study abroad student safety. Our sons, Thomas Plotkin and Ravi Thackurdeen, have been dead for more than four years, and during this time, how many other study abroad students have died or been injured?
No one can say. The study abroad industry still does not count and report safety incidents. As a consequence, when Ros Thackurdeen and I meet newly bereaved families, it is common for us to hear the very words we once spoke, “I thought my child was study abroads’ first death.”
This is why ProtectStudentsAbroad’s inaugural blog begins by asking the question every bereaved family wishes to have answered.
What will it take for student safety to become America’s priority?