When senior Scott Slotkin's tour bus drove down a small side street in Alexandria, Egypt in late January and encountered a pack of rioters, he felt something was about to go wrong. But later that night, when Slotkin looked outside his hotel window, he knew the situation was serious.
"We saw riot trucks lining up next to us at the hotel, and that's when it hit us that it was really going to happen," Slotkin said. "The riots on the back streets were just a sign that something was happening, but that it wasn't that widespread. But then the government and police started lining up. It got really serious."
Slotkin, one of 23 students studying abroad in Egypt, evacuated the country with the assistance of the university's Institute of Global Studies. From the Egyptian revolution to the earthquake in Japan, the department has faced unexpected challenges this year, and officials plan to make changes to the study abroad program as a result.
Lesa Griffiths, associate provost at the Institute of Global Studies, was at the forefront of the department's evacuation efforts, and found several areas within study abroad planning that could be improved.
While trying to establish contact with parents, she found that many students' emergency contact information was outdated. Study abroad participants apply for the program so far ahead of time that their personal information often changes by the date of departure. According to Griffiths, officials are looking into plans to collect and verify that data later in the process.
Griffiths worked with two other Global Studies staff members to communicate with the students and make arrangements for their departure. While Griffiths gathered information and made calls, another staff member fluent in Arabic was designated as the team's contact to Egypt.
"The staff member working the phone in Arabic logged roughly 125 phone calls in that 24- to 30-hour period," Griffiths said. "Most of us didn't sleep at all. On the other end, the challenge was getting us information about where they were, in light of the communications shutdown."
After successfully evacuating both study abroad trips, officials realized that one more student remained—senior Liza Melms, a Plastino Scholar still studying in Egypt. When Griffiths was unable to get in contact with Melms directly, she had to think of a more roundabout strategy.
"We literally had to send some Egyptian students we knew from a summer program out on the street to find her," Griffiths said.
Melms was eventually located with those students' help, and she took a chartered flight out of Egypt.
According to Griffiths, Plastino Scholars were not required to register with the Global Studies office while abroad, but she said that loophole, which allowed Melms to slip through the cracks, is now closed. In the future, those in the program will be required to register with the office.
Following the Egypt evacuations, department officials were once again hit with another challenge in Japan. When a 9.0 earthquake shook the country on March 11, there were not any students studying abroad in the area. There were, however, several on semester-long exchange programs. Those programs are overseen by the center, but work a bit differently than traditional study abroad programs.
"They book their own flights, but arranging of courses and housing is done with their assistance and ours," explained Griffiths. "They have much more independence and freedom, so we have less control."
After Japan appeared on the State Department's travel warning list, another committee was formed to analyze the situation. According to Griffiths, officials waited a day or two to convene because all the information they were receiving said the students were safe. Concerned parents were not satisfied, however, and Griffiths realized she should have put the team together sooner.
"It helped me to say to parents that this is an official finding by these experts, and we're not canceling the program," Griffiths said. "But we probably should've immediately put that team together."
Officials said the committee decided to allow plans for a study abroad trip to Japan this summer to proceed. Similarly, officials have decided that the study abroad trip to the North African nation of Tunisia will continue as planned. Though Tunisia is located close to the conflicts in Libya, Griffiths said students will be allowed to attend the trip so long as the country does not appear on the State Department's travel warning list.
"If it actually does appear on the travel warning list, we would call that same committee together and then make a decision," Griffiths said. "If it's not on the list, it'd be largely up to the faculty member."
But despite some difficulties, Griffiths said she was satisfied with the handling of the Egypt and Japan emergencies.
"A revolution, a tsunami and an earthquake. That was pretty challenging," she said. "But overall, we thought that the process worked really well."