A Worthy Exception

The College should support students who want to study in restricted countries


Having taken a step in the right direction regarding student travel restrictions, it is a shame that Harvard continues to limit research and inquiry in a misguided effort to save students from themselves.

As of last week, students can once more receive funds and credit for studying, researching, and traveling in some countries with State Department warnings, including Israel, Iran, and eleven other countries. The College, however, still refuses to fund or give credit for travel or study in 15 countries with stronger State Department travel warnings. We join the Staff in applauding the College’s decision, but we do not believe that this loosening goes far enough; travel policies should be made even more liberal. The current blanket restrictions for the 15 countries in question should have an exception procedure whereby students can apply to get credit and funding for travel and programs in restricted areas on a case-by-case basis. Such procedures already exist at peer institutions like Yale, whose system of restriction waivers allows students to explore normally restricted opportunities by petition.

Harvard should ensure that students demonstrate their understanding of the risks involved and perhaps talk to some sort of adviser to make sure they have exhausted alternative options to travel. We understand that there are liability and publicity issues involved, and perhaps there should be additional waivers for travel to these more dangerous countries. However, fear of bad PR does not justify infantilizing students; in every other respect the college treats its students as adults, and there is no reason for travel restrictions to be any different.

Beyond preserving the sanctity of individual choice, there is also the issue of distinction between and within countries. It is difficult to understand how the College draws the line between different State Department travel warnings, which come in a wide spectrum—not neatly divided into “slightly dangerous” and “very dangerous.” Furthermore, with a few exceptions, the State Department’s country-wide warnings do not make a distinction between more and less dangerous regions of the same country, so otherwise safe countries can be declared forbidden because they contain islands of instability. Instead of arbitrarily drawing a “too dangerous” line, the school should leave this sort of determination up to each student provided that they have a suitable reason on their application.

For a concrete example of the importance of such an exemption system, look at Indonesia. To be sure, parts of the country are unquestionably dangerous—students shouldn’t be encouraged to travel to Aceh—but much of the country is less dangerous. Regions determine danger, not entire countries. Smart student travelers can navigate nearly any situation as long as they take certain precautions. In the case of Indonesia, visiting the country’s unique cultures and wildlife, including the world’s last wild orangutans, does not have to entail any more danger than visiting similar wonders in Africa would. If students can prove they have a reliable guide and a safe plan of travel, they should be able to go almost anywhere.

The College has made a good start in loosening its travel restrictions. Now it must go farther. The College should make information and travel warnings available to students, educate them on the risks of travel, and make them think twice before they travel to dangerous places. But ultimately, the College must lend all reasonable support to its students’ decisions. An exemption system for restricted countries would put the onus on students to prove the safety of their travel plans, allowing the College to prevent downright crazy explorations (say, travel to downtown Grozny) while at the same time adding invaluable flexibility. We encourage the College to take the next step forward and further expand international opportunity at Harvard.