International SOS to assist study abroad

Nathalie Tadena

A new partnership between Northwestern and International SOS, a private provider of global security services and medical assistance, will give NU students access to free travel assistance and services while studying abroad.

Since contracting with International SOS last year, all NU students are now required to sign up for the provider’s services, which include telephone advice and referrals, medical and travel alerts and air evacuation from any call center across the globe in the event of a political emergency. These services supplement services already provided by NU. When registering with International SOS, students create a “personal travel locator” to provide emergency contact information. Students are then provided with a membership card, which they are instructed to carry with them at all times.

“Students and their parents consider safety and security to be an important factor when considering where to study abroad, along with academic options, costs, housing arrangements, personal interests,” said Alicia Stanley, associate director of NU’s Study Abroad Office.

For immediate emergency assistance, students abroad can call an International SOS Alarm Center and speak to a multi-lingual specialist. NU faculty and staff members traveling on University business can also utilize the program but are not required to do so.

International SOS, however, does not provide health insurance, which is also required for all students abroad. When students traveling internationally need assistance, it is most commonly for medical situations, said Christopher Johnson, NU’s director of Risk Management and Safety and a board member of Students Publishing Company, The DAILY’s publisher. Approximately 700 NU undergraduate students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 school year, and there are 386 students abroad this quarter.

“We as a university have a strong commitment to the safety and well-being of every student,” he said. “We wanted to have every instrument and every opportunity for students.”

To further this goal, NU established a University-wide Risk Assessment Committee last year. Among its responsibilities, the committee evaluated three travel and security assistance firms with services for students and faculty traveling abroad. Of the three candidates, International SOS, which has a number of other university clients, provided the best services “hands down,” and had more efficient evacuation capabilities, Johnson said.

NU’s campus in Qatar also has a contract with the company, he said.

Though the program benefits are free for students, NU paid approximately $50,000 as a client to International SOS, he said.

Before participating in a study abroad trip, students can get additional information from International SOS about the country they are studying in, travel and health concerns in the region, and customs issues. This information allows students to “stay on top of the types of things that might put them in a bind,” Johnson said. Other free membership benefits include help in the event of lost documents and legal referrals, according to NU’s Web site. Additional services are available for a fee.

Some students said they agree with the precautions needed before embarking on an extended foreign trip.

Though he participated in a New York University-affiliated program, SESP junior Austin Pate had to sign up for the International SOS program before he studied abroad in Ireland this summer.

“It was a bit confusing, but it did give you a sense that in the off chance there is some disaster, someone will be there to get me,” he said. “But it was something very much in the back of my mind.”

Similarly, Weinberg junior Jasmine Rassiwala said she was not concerned about an emergency evacuation from China, where she studied this summer as part of NU’s global health program.

“I was healthy the whole time and I felt really well-prepared for anything that could happen to me,” she said.

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