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Warnings Restrict Harvard Support For Undergraduate Travel

By SHATHA I. HUSSEIN, Crimson Staff Writer

“From the mountains you can see all the way to the sea on a clear day,” says Beatrice H. N. El-Hage ’11, a half-Lebanese senior planning to work in Lebanon for the next two years. “On a cloudy day, you’re literally above the clouds. It’s like you’re in heaven.”

But Lebanon is on the “travel warning list” issued by the U.S. Department of State, so the University does not fund undergraduate travel to Lebanon or provide credit to students studying in that country.

El-Hage says that as a result, she did not receive funding or credit for summer courses she has taken in Lebanon.

In order to protect its individual travelers and itself as an institution, the College follows State Department advisories to determine whether to support student travel to countries in question.

“We, as an institution, have both a moral and a legal responsibility to undergraduate students that’s different from and higher than the level of responsibility that we have to graduate students or faculty and staff,” says Todd S. Washburn, assistant provost for international affairs.

STRIKING A BALANCE

“It would be both intellectually wrong and, frankly, legally foolish for us to look at a map of the world and make a decision,” Washburn says.

“We need to rely on an organization that has the capacity and expertise. That’s not to say that its [the State Department’s] judgments are above question. It’s just to say, we’re relying on an external expert to advise us and we’re not making separate decisions,” Washburn adds.

But some students say that relying on State Department policy does not allow for consideration of individual student circumstances.

“I’ve been going to Lebanon for almost every past summer and would have liked to receive credit for studying at the American University of Beirut,” El-Hage says.

She says she thinks a release form with the parents’ consent should be enough if there is an awareness of the situation in a country and knowledge of the possible implications of traveling there.

The College's policy does support students traveling to be under their parents’ or guardians’ care, but since El-Hage’s parents live in the U.S., that option was not available to her.

Felix de Rosen ’13, an avid traveler who has been to Ethiopia, Somaliland, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen in the past couple of years, says that based on his travel experiences, Harvard’s policy could be improved.

“One of the problems I have with Harvard’s policy is that it doesn’t [always] make a distinction between a country and the different parts of a country or, in fact, if there are countries within a country,” says de Rosen, pointing to his travels to Somaliland, which he considers a safe region in the otherwise tumultuous state of Somalia.

“It’s tricky because Harvard wants students to understand this world and go out there and be active, but not in certain regions,” says de Rosen. “For me, places where few people have been are places where there is the most to learn.”

Washburn cites the College’s need to ensure student safety.

“We try to strike the right balance between letting our students do all the good and interesting things that they want to do but also fulfilling our, what we call, duty-of-care responsibility to them,” Washburn says.

CLEAR AND STRAIGHTFORWARD

“Any time we’re making a decision about what our policies and goals are, the guiding principle is this question: what would a reasonable person expect of an institution like Harvard?” Washburn says.

Before 2003, any country on the travel warning list was considered off limits for support.

But Washburn says that the policy seemed overly restrictive in principle and in practice.

In 2003, Jane Edwards, the former director of the Office of International Programs, changed the policy to make it more practical.

Today, the University interprets certain language in the warning to determine whether Harvard will fund students or provide credit for their travel to certain countries or regions on the list.

“The wording is purposely chosen because there are certain categories of wording that imply a higher level of security concern than not,” Washburn says.

Language in a warning such as “orders departure of U.S. dependents and non-emergency personnel,” “recommends that any U.S. citizens remaining in the country should depart,” and “(strongly) warns U.S. citizens against (all) travel to the country,” prohibits students from receiving Harvard sponsorship for activities abroad, according to the Harvard policy.

“Our policy is clear and straightforward. This is policy for dummies,” Washburn says.

Countries with warnings of a lesser level may be excluded from this prohibition, though caution is strongly advised if a student chooses to travel to such a country.

An “assumption of risk and general release” form with the parent’s or guardian’s signature is required from students who intend to travel to countries where a warning does not elicit Harvard sponsorship prohibition.

In addition to travel warnings, the College will examine the wording of travel alerts, which, according to the State Department’s website, explain “short-term conditions, either transnational or within a particular country, that pose significant risks to the security of U.S. citizens.”

Withholding of Harvard sponsorship can occur until the day of departure. If a warning is issued while a student is already in the country, the College may ask students to leave the country or help evacuate them through International SOS, which provides emergency evacuation assistance for Harvard affiliates abroad.

Rayman Aryani ’12, the former vice president of the Society of Arab Students, was in Tunisia on a SAS recruiting trip when the recent revolution occurred.

“Harvard showed a lot of care when they found out we were stuck in the country [and offered] sending a chartered plane to fly us out,” Aryani wrote in an email to The Crimson.

But Aryani and his peer Michael I. Khayyat ’12, who was also on the SAS trip, were able to catch a flight out of the country.

THIS SUMMER ON THE LIST

“You can go to Israel, if you’d like,” the College told El-Hage when she asked if she would receive credit for studying Arabic in Lebanon.

Israel is an example of a country with a standing travel warning for which Harvard will still support student travel.

The State Department “warns U.S. citizens of the risks” in traveling to the region, but Harvard is sponsoring two study abroad programs through the Harvard Summer School in Israel.

“The wording in the travel warning for Israel is that of the second category, so this is consistent with Harvard’s policy,” Washburn says.

Daniel J. Granoff ’14, who will be in Israel this summer with one of the two Harvard programs, says he felt comfortable traveling to Israel despite the travel warning.

“If there was any substantial danger, the program would have been canceled,” Granoff says.

In other countries on the travel warning list, Harvard will support travel to certain regions or cities in the country that are deemed safe by the State Department.

After the travel alert issued on April 14 for Japan replaced the previously issued travel warning, Harvard decided to provide funding and/or credit for travel to Kyoto, Japan.

The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies coordinates study abroad programs in Mexico—for which a warning of a lesser degree is in effect.

According to Halbert M. Jones ’99, senior fellow of the Mexico and Central America Program at the DRCLAS, the center works with a local university in planning for its Summer Internship Program in Sustainable Development.

Jones says the center “works with local partners at the [Tecnológico] de Monterrey, a leading Mexican university, to ensure the program participants will be in a safe environment.”

In 2010, rising levels of violence in the west-central state of Michoacán led the State Department to recommend the deferral of non-essential travel to the region. As a result, the center reassigned students to other program sites in Mexico.

More recently, the upheaval across much of the Arab world has forced some students to reevaluate their plans.

Catherine H. Winnie, director of the Office of International Programs, wrote in an email that some students on post-graduate fellowships have had to change their plans.

“In those rare cases, the College does its utmost to ensure the student’s safety and assist him or her with the cancelation or departure plans,” she wrote.

“I think we’ve got it close to right,” Washburn says.

—Staff writer Shatha I. Hussein can be reached at shatha_hussein@college.harvard.edu.

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