After the democratic revolutions in Egypt and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan forced Yale to recall approximately 80 students and faculty members traveling this spring, the University is refining the procedures it uses to monitor affiliates studying and researching abroad.
The University requires undergraduate students receiving Yale course credit or funding to go abroad to register their trips with the Center for International Experience, and this year that system enabled administrators to establish communication with Yalies stranded amid demonstrations in Egypt and panic in Japan in a matter of hours, said Don Filer, associate secretary for international affairs. Over the years, growing numbers of students have opted to travel outside of traditional destinations in Western Europe, a MEDEX official said. The inherent risk of studying and working in developing countries combined with this year's emergencies have both Yale and its contracted travel services provider MEDEX working to keep more complete records of their charges abroad, Filer and MEDEX representatives said.
"To us, the big lesson was that the ability to communicate with people quickly really matters," Filer said. "In a couple of clicks, I can check to see who is in a certain country, and in a few more clicks send a quick message to them — that's a lot better than spending a few hours trying to hunt people down."
A COMPREHENSIVE REGISTRY
Yale's Office of International Affairs is responsible for monitoring students and faculty studying and working abroad — a job that Filer said proved more demanding this year than in recent memory.
"There's been a lot going on," Filer said. "I think it's safe to say that there's been more in the way of events happening in this calendar year than any other year in the past."
Following the political unrest that emerged in January in Egypt, 20 students and faculty left the country on charter flights contracted by MEDEX, which Yale employs to respond to emergencies overseas. Only one-and-a-half months later, an earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan led over 50 Yale affiliates to leave that country, under a recommendation from Yale administrators and the U.S. Department of State.
In Japan, Yale did not need to ask MEDEX to arrange evacuations because the country's airports remained open and accessible following the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country on March 11. Still, Filer said MEDEX was particularly valuable in providing information on the health situation in Japan, where concerns of radiation have been widespread after safety systems failed at a nuclear power plant.
Although Yale requires undergraduates studying abroad for credit or on Yale fellowship funding to register their trips with the Center for International Experience, Filer said graduate and professional students are not subject to the same requirements and therefore register at lower rates. When students do not register in the database, Filer said the Office of International Affairs contacts Yale departments and organizations to determine their locations — but this delays the crucial process of establishing communication during a crisis situation.
Going forward, Filer said the University will encourage all of its affiliates to provide his office with their contact information and trip itinerary before leaving the country. Because the registration rates among graduate and professional students are lower than undergraduates, Filer said his office will work with colleagues in those schools to provide students with more reminders, especially before the busy travel season in the summer.
Detailed records will not ensure that Yale will be able to respond quickly to every crisis — for example, in Egypt, the lack of functioning internet and phone service during the revolts made it difficult for the University to reach some students who had registered. Still, Filer said the University will step up its efforts to develop a comprehensive list of every Yalie abroad.
"We don't care what purpose your trip is," he said. "With, for example, [Japanese international students] who had gone home on spring break, it was hugely valuable if they had registered their trips."
HELP FROM THE OUTSIDE
Once a crisis situation arises abroad, Yale forwards a list of University affiliates to MEDEX, said Pascaline Wolfermann, director of resource development for MEDEX. MEDEX then works with University officials to contact Yalies in that country and determine what assistance they require, she said.
But because MEDEX relies on its clients to supply traveler rosters, it is sometimes delayed in establishing communication when working with organizations that are less organized than Yale, Wolfermann said.
"With a lot of the [non-Yale] students we had in Egypt, the main problem we had was finding out who was in Egypt [at the time]," Wolfermann said, adding that not all of MEDEX's customers had complete information about their members in the country.
MEDEX does provide a service that supplies traveler information automatically to MEDEX, which allows MEDEX to contact travelers directly, said Christopher Steber, director of marketing for MEDEX. He added that MEDEX is planning to advertise to its clients — including Yale — about purchasing this tracking service. Currently, Yale does not subscribe to this service, he added.
"We're going to look really hard [into] informing our client base about that tool and whether it's going to be appropriate for them," Steber said.
The majority of MEDEX's services are available as-needed to travelers covered by the company, who can call in if they require medical assistance or protection. Wolfermann said these individual cases, which do not receive the media attention given to national crises, keep the company busy with hundreds of calls each day. For example, a Yale student who spoke on the condition of anonymity contracted an illness in the Dominican Republic on a spring break Reach Out service trip, and MEDEX paid the airline fee when he had to change his flight because he was still in the hospital.
Yale officials meet several times a year with MEDEX representatives to review the services that MEDEX provides the University community, Filer said. In the past, when Yale officials have offered suggestions to improve MEDEX's services, Filer said MEDEX has been receptive and implemented Yale's ideas — such as sending more regular updates by e-mail and text message.
Seven of eight of Yale students who were abroad in Egypt and Japan and spoke with the News during the respective crises said they were satisfied with Yale's and MEDEX's handling of their situations, though Jessica Belding '13, who was studying in Alexandria, Egypt on a program run by Middlebury College, said MEDEX did not help her reach the plane it chartered for Yale affiliates 140 miles away in Cairo. She flew home on a plane chartered by a Middlebury alumnus instead.
A total of 437 undergraduates studied abroad in Asia and the Middle East during the 2009-'10 school year.
Daniel Sisgoreo and Antonia Woodford contributed reporting.