Global Education: Why Take the Risk?

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Global Service Learning in India

As is the case in any profession, those of us in global education have a wide array of approaches to our work. We’re grounded in a variety of theoretical foundations and pedagogical approaches; this is part of what makes the field exciting, dynamic, and collaborative. Despite our different perspectives and backgrounds, everyone I have met in the field agrees on one thing: global programs have inherent risks.

Why then, some people ask, do we advocate for international travel? Why take the risk at all? My answer, in short, is this: life is risky. It doesn’t matter where we are, we are always at “risk.” Some risks are perceived and others are real. Certain risks are greater than others, and the consequences vary in severity. What is most important, in everyday life as in international travel, is how prepared we are to manage risk.

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Wilderness First Responder training

Much of my work has been in wilderness education, both domestically and internationally. I’ve taken the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder course three times, and I’m about to take it fourth time in preparation for a three-week backpacking trip I’ll be leading in Portugal this summer. A common misconception about this course is that it is focused primarily on emergency response. While this is most certainly a component, the real focus of this 10-day course is prevention.

How do we safely navigate experiential education? We plan ahead and prepare. We research program locations extensively, we go on exploratory trips, we vet third party providers and other in-country partners, and we identify potential issues and concerns. All things considered, we make a plan and a contingency plan. We develop policies and protocol, train staff, and implement emergency response plans.  We check in with the Department of State about travel alerts and warnings and require location-specific vaccines. We hold meetings with students and parents to discuss concerns and convey pertinent safety information. We pay due diligence to safety during all stages of program design and implementation.

Risk Assessment Matrix

Risk Assessment Matrix

If you find yourself at a global education conference, you’re sure to find sessions on risk management by the experts. Vicki is currently in Boston for the 2015 NAIS Annual Conference. In a quick glance at the program I see six sessions with “risk” in the title.

Risk management has become a field unto itself; it is growing rapidly as more and more people are realizing that the benefits of global travel outweigh the risks as long as the risks are carefully analyzed. Allowing students the opportunity to expand their worldview and challenge their perspectives by immersing themselves in a new culture teaches lessons beyond what is possible in the classroom. It facilitates exploration at the edges of their comfort zones — the places where learning and growth occurs. Organizations such a Lodestone Safety International have found their niche helping schools and organizations develop risk management plans specific to their programming.

Are we ever free from risk? No; not at home and not abroad. All travel — including the daily commute to and from school or work — comes with risk. This shouldn’t prohibit schools from offering travel experiences to their students, and it shouldn’t stop parents from encouraging their children’s participation in global programs. The global “classroom” offers unparalleled opportunities for learning. In an increasingly globalized world, it is imperative for students to develop their values and beliefs by understanding themselves in a global context. For me, the question isn’t “is going worth the risk?,” but instead “what are we risking if we don’t go?” I find the latter far more compelling. How about you?

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How Should the Ebola Crisis Affect Your Global Programs?

The Ebola crisis has got me thinking. Asking a lot of questions. This is the time of year when schools are presenting their global programs to students and their families. Any school or organization with projects in Africa is wondering how the Ebola crisis will affect them. They wonder: Should we go? Should we cancel? Should we wait to decide? How long? What factors will influence our decision? How far away from the infected countries is far enough to risk? Even if your prospective program is in Kenya and you know that isn’t next door to Liberia, does the fact that the virus moves via air travel give you pause? Is travel to anywhere on the continent worth the risk? People are frightened; are their fears justified? Schools are frustrated: how can they make decisions so far in advance with limited information?

B19dYseCEAEC3eSResponse to these questions varies. People look to resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the State Department travel warnings, and the World Health Organization (WHO). They talk with their legal council and reach out to online communities such as the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) to share their thoughts, post articles, see what others are doing, and discuss the pros and cons. They look at the goals of their global programs and wonder if these can be met without being on that continent, this year. We all hope the crisis will have passed by the time we need to purchase non-refundable plane tickets.

Because you see, the Ebola crisis, this virus that affects mostly people in poverty, in poor countries in West Africa, highlights exactly why we need global programs. We need to travel to different places, meet people who live there, and seek to understand their lives, the joys and the challenges that face them. See Rick Steves’ recent article on this subject.  When we see the issues in their countries as issues that affect us all, when we come together to share our struggles and triumphs, when we come away with a new perspective on this our fragile planet and the people who are working hard to make things better; then we find hope and inspiration.

So, as we wait to decide and weigh the risks and benefits of travel to Africa at this time, our task is to continue to understand Ebola and the people directly affected by it in a broader context. Resources such as this free webinar “From Ebola to Mental Health” on December 1 will help provide that context and lead to greater comprehension of our interconnectedness.