Global Education: Why Take the Risk?


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.


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?