The Winter Term trip to Mexico has a 30-year tradition in the Hispanic Studies department. This year, however, the trip is still being vetted by the Office of Study Away, thanks to a new policy restricting student travel to potentially dangerous countries.
The Travel Warning policy states that “students are not permitted to receive academic credit or use College or Conservatory funding for activities in countries that are subject to Travel Warning issues by the U.S. State Department.” According to the State Department’s website, these warnings range from risk of arrest and long-term detention in North Korea and the threat of sporadic terrorist attacks in the Philippines, to drug-related violence in Mexico and “ongoing unrest” in countries such as Libya.
Established, semester-long, College-affiliated programs are generally exempt from the policy, which applies most directly to Winter Term projects.
According to Amy Moniot, acting assistant director of programs for international study, the policy has been evolving for several years and the issue has been the subject of discussion for many schools, not just Oberlin. “Everyone’s been sort of moving towards this for the last decade or so,” she said.
It is Moniot who coordinates international Winter Term projects, including the first five waiver requests currently being considered by a composite committee of representatives from the Offices of the Dean of Students, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Dean of the Conservatory, the Office of Study Away, the Off-Campus Studies Committee and the Winter Term Committee. Student proposals must address the concerns detailed in the official Travel Warning, specifying a ground itinerary and the institutional, personal or programmatic supports available at the destination as well as the academic value of visiting that area.
Moniot is quick to emphasize that although the policy may be worded as a prohibition, in practice it is actually a helpful tool. Before submitting their proposals, students meet with Moniot, who helps them plan and directs them to information from sources like travel websites and the Overseas Security Advisory Council.
“Often you’re thinking about the fun parts of it,” said Moniot. “It’s my job to come in and sort of be a bummer.” She helps students ask, before an emergency situation occurs abroad, what they would do in different situations. “Would I immediately contact Oberlin or the embassy, would I go to the consulate, is there some other institution I could go [to] there? … Do we need to get insurance?”
Conservatory junior Alexa Ciciretti, who is planning to travel to Israel, a country on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning list, appreciates the goals of the policy. “I am going on the Birthright trip [to Israel] during Winter Term, and would understand if the College did not want to give me credit for the trip if they thought it wasn’t safe,” she said. “I think it’s admirable that the College and the Study Away Office want to protect our students against potential global threats. The fact that they are willing to make exceptions if they see that the program would only go to safe parts of the country shows that they are willing to compromise on a case-to-case basis.”
In many ways, this policy is only a formalization of the process the Office of Study Away conventionally goes through when approving intenational Winter Term projects.
“I think that the new policy does make sense,” said College senior Sonia Roubini. “I mean, in a way, a less standardized but similar process has been in place for a while. When I was trying to decide where to study abroad, I was sure that I wanted to go somewhere really exotic and tried to figure out where the Office would let me go. Somalia and Iraq were vetoed pretty quickly.”
The idea for the Travel Warning policy originated because “we just wanted some teeth to encourage students to do what they’ve been doing anyway,” Moniot explained. “We haven’t had any crazy security concerns with students. A lot of other schools have, which is some of the impetus for these decisions.” Moniot also said that for the some other schools, the decision consisted of a complete restriction, with no opportunity for a waiver. Overall, students seem to appreciate the goals of the policy. “I haven’t had a lot of pushback,” said Moniot. “I’ve just had questions.”