Universities need to better protect American students studying abroad

Students and families deserve timely information to make informed decisions

Texas Rep. Pete Olson is championing legislation that would require colleges and universities participating in federal student aid programs to publish reports every two years on safety incidents their students experienced abroad. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Rep. Pete Olson is championing legislation that would require colleges and universities participating in federal student aid programs to publish reports every two years on safety incidents their students experienced abroad. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 6:00am

Thousands of miles away in a foreign country, armed men embark from a vehicle in an attempt to abduct your child. This nightmare scenario for every parent became a reality for my wife Nancy and I when our daughter, Kate, was nearly kidnapped in South Africa during a college study abroad.

The terror that my little girl could have been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery — or worse — paralyzed me. Luckily, Kate got away. She lost her backpack and passport but returned safely to her family. She still suffers from that experience.

Not every victim is so lucky. 

In hindsight, if my family had better information on South Africa and the program’s history, we could have made a more informed decision and might have chosen a different option. No one at Kate’s school told us that the town in South Africa where Kate was going, Durban, was one of the world’s biggest trafficking hubs. The State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report ranks South Africa as a Tier 2 country, meaning it does not meet the United States’ standards outlined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. While the law established anti-trafficking efforts, that information is not clearly communicated by colleges to families trying to keep their kids safe.

We must ensure that colleges take greater measures to protect students, especially as studying abroad becomes more common. Almost 350,000 U.S. students studied abroad for credit during the 2018-2019 academic year, as reported by NAFSA: Association of International Learning. This number will only increase as study abroad programs become more available to students.  

Students and their parents should understand the geographical risks of their preferred destination, and location-specific resources should be provided by the university pre-travel. Europe continues to be a hot spot for American study abroad programs, but it’s also a hot spot for human trafficking. In fact, the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report said there are an estimated 15,000 human trafficking victims each year in Europe’s soccer industry alone.

Fortunately, Congress has a bipartisan solution to this problem: the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act. This bipartisan legislation, introduced by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., would require colleges and universities participating in federal student aid programs to publish reports every two years on safety incidents their students experienced abroad.

Sadly, the bill was created in response to the tragic passing of Ravi Thackurdeen, a university student who never made it home from his study abroad in Costa Rica. In the spring of 2012, Thackurdeen was studying global health and tropical medicine when he lost his life. Despite safety warnings, the university-sponsored program hosted a surprise beach excursion to Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, Playa Tortuga. With inadequate safety precautions, Thackurdeen was caught in a rip current and drowned. Students and families deserve timely information so they can make smart decisions when considering a study abroad program. This legislation would be a key first step toward that goal.

Families want accountability, reforms, truth, justice, transparency and protection. Safety must be mandated and enforced to protect American students overseas. No family should experience the excruciating pain and loss that Thackurdeen’s family went through.

Ravi Thackurdeen might still be with us if the risks of his program were clearly communicated to his parents. My daughter might not have gone through the dangerous experience she did if we had better information about the risks of going to South Africa. This commonsense approach would better inform students and families prior to studying abroad. 

Congress should act quickly to ensure every student has a safe experience abroad. I urge my House colleagues to support this critical bill. 

Rep. Pete Olson is a Republican representing Texas’ 22nd District. He serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairs the Bipartisan Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus.