“When you study abroad, it should be the time of your life, not the end of your life.”
Tyler Hill, a barely 16-year-old high school student from Mound, MN loved history, books by Stephen Ambrose and watched the History Channel for fun. While on a trip serving as a People to People Student Ambassador in Japan, Tyler climbed Mount Funji and suffered severe altitude sickness. Tyler was not provided with timely medical assistance from the leaders of the program, even when they were aware that he had diabetes, which ultimately led to his preventable death.
Tyler’s mom, Sheryl Hill, prefers to talk about who her son was and how he lived rather than his death in Japan in 2007. Tyler’s accident inspired Hill to create the ClearCause Foundation in 2010 to “provide the tools, resources and information necessary to empower youth and students engaged in study, travel, adventure, goodwill and exchange programs abroad to be actively engaged in decisions affecting their safety.”
Safety while abroad is a conversation most parents do not want to have with their children, since it may scare the child or the parents themselves. They may feel that an accident will not happen to their child. In order to ensure that students have the best time while abroad while being safe, parents and students must prepare themselves and ask questions that must be asked to the home university and study abroad programs. Students and parents can download the Travel Safety Checklist found on aclearcause.org and go to DepartSmart.org and take the ten-point quiz in preparation for going abroad.
According to the United States State Department, 304,467 Americans studied abroad in 2013/2014.That number increases every year, reaching half a million when students who travel outside of the US for conferences and other activities are included.
Despite these growing numbers, the multibillion dollar study abroad industry is not regulated by federal government or international laws, which means that students who travel abroad once they are in foreign lands are not protected. Programs and universities hosting students abroad are not even obligated by law to report how many thefts, injuries, sexual assaults or deaths have occurred within their programs and host countries.
“It’s egregious to us and incomprehensible that the US Department of State would entice undergrad and especially high school students, with Bureau of Cultural Affairs scholarships to study abroad in countries where US employees are not allowed – like Kenya, where Peace Corp. has withdrawn, US AID is relocated, and the USDOS strongly advises you not to travel at all,” Hill said.
In recent years, the federal government increased the number of scholarships they offer, created more programs and encouraged American students to travel to other countries. This is in an effort to turn students into valuable assets when they return to their communities, yet the federal government offers no protection when tragedy abroad strikes.
“We need the government to give the Department of Justice the power and authority to stop perpetrators and poor practices, and set guidelines for safer study abroad. US Congress has to give departments of the United States the authority to provide protection and assistance. The Department of Health needs authority to report statistically meaningful data on illness, injury and death,” Hill said. “Most importantly, the Department of Justice should be given the power to prosecute individuals and programs that put our students in harm’s way. Policy has not kept pace with globalization; ClearCause needs 5,000 signatures to get Congress oversight to engage and write rules.”
It is also important to remember that foreign host families are not held to the same standards and laws that American host families are, so be aware of this and the risks before traveling abroad. Tyler signed his family up to host an exchange student a few weeks before his death, which led to his parents hosting students from countries like Germany, Japan, Chile and Brazil.
“The study abroad students rounded out our family and soothed our aching hearts like a gift from heaven,” Hill said.
Students throughout the United States are becoming Champions for Safe Journey Academy on departsmart.org by setting up campaigns to raise money for safety awareness. Peers can depart smart as well by clicking the advocacy button to send an email to state and federal policy makers regarding more transparency and protections for students who travel abroad.
“When students die on these ‘opportunities of a lifetime’ we lose more than a child or a brother. We lose all of the gifts their future held,” Hill said.
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