Delving into study-abroad deaths

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AP

In this April 13, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, who is following the last footsteps of her son in India, enters the Gangasagar beach in West Bengal state, where the Ganges river flows into the Bay of Bengal. Brenner’s son Thomas Plotkin, died during a study abroad trip to the mountains of India more than five-years-ago. His body was never found. Brenner spent two months tracing the 1,037 mile path along the Ganges River as she believes this is the path taken by her son’s remains. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)

Note from the Editor: In 2012, The Daily Iowan published Rishabh R. Jain’s piece, Fatal Fall Raises Questions (link). Jain worked for the DI from August 2011 — December 2012. His follow-up article (below) was published by the Associated Press on Friday, July 7.

By RISHABH R. JAIN, Associated Press

NEW DELHI — Nearly six years after her son slipped and fell around 109 yards into a raging mountain river in India, never to be seen again, Elizabeth Brenner is still wondering how such an accident could have happened.

Brenner’s son, University of Iowa student Thomas Plotkin, was one of the millions of American students who have studied abroad on university-sponsored programs in the last decade — part of a growing global youth travel industry estimated to be worth $183 billion a year.

He wanted to experience another culture “unlike anything that he’d ever known,” Brenner said.

Others want to study a new language or learn about different political systems. Universities generally encourage study abroad because they believe it improves leadership skills and employment prospects.

 

When her son died, Brenner began looking into how many other students died overseas, and who might be keeping track of the deaths.

“The answer was that nobody was keeping track of this at all,” she said.

The number of American students studying abroad each year has doubled in the last decade. But while U.S. colleges and universities must report deaths on their campuses, they are not required to disclose most student deaths that occur abroad, and data collected by industry organizations are incomplete.

More than 313,400 American students earned academic credit for studying abroad in 2014-15, according to the Institute of International Education, which creates study-abroad programs and manages U.S. government study-abroad scholarships.

Most student deaths or injuries overseas are only briefly discussed or mentioned in local newspaper reports. The U.S. Department of Education keeps no such statistics.

•••

Ros Thackurdeen hasn’t been able to sleep through the night since her youngest son, Ravi, drowned while on a school-sponsored excursion to a beach in Costa Rica in 2012.

“I began searching the Internet,” Thackurdeen said. Within five years, she amassed seven binders of newspaper articles and travel alerts counting 3,200 other students who had died or been kidnapped, drugged, injured, or assaulted abroad over the last few decades.

For 2014, she counted 14 student deaths — far higher than the four listed by the Forum on Education Abroad among the nearly 150,000 students it was able to track that year. The forum calculated a mortality rate of 13.5 per 100,000 from those four deaths in an effort to compare on-campus deaths with those during study-abroad programs, which often last less than a full school year.

“What I discovered about study-abroad safety was disturbing,” Thackurdeen said from her home in Newburgh, New York. “The numbers of incidents and deaths on study abroad are overwhelming.”

She and other grieving mothers began demanding more transparency about what happens when students go overseas.

“Coffee beans and bowling balls have more rules than any program, school, professor, or teacher escorting our kids into foreign countries,” said Sheryl Hill, who has built a business called Depart Smart around providing safety advice to students going abroad after her 16-year-old son, Tyler, fell ill and died while studying in Japan in 2007. She said he had Type-1 diabetes and died from dehydration when he did not receive medical attention in time.

Grieving parents successfully lobbied for legislation in Minnesota in 2014 and in Virginia two years later to regulate the study-abroad industry. A similar measure has been introduced in New York, and one member of Congress is now pushing a nationwide bill.

“Knowing which areas are hot spots for violent crime is important information for kids and parents to know when they’re making decisions on where they’ll study abroad,” said Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., who first introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act in Congress in 2014. The bill failed to pass in the Republican-led House of Representatives, and Maloney plans to reintroduce it in September.

“If our kids are consistently getting hurt in a particular city or at a particular university, American families have a right to know that information so they can make informed choices about where to study,” Maloney said.

Gregory Malveaux, study-abroad coordinator at Montgomery College in Maryland, published a 2016 book titled Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities, and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education, covering study-abroad risks and preventative measures that could offset them. Malveaux backs the idea of mandating institutions to release data on student deaths and injuries while studying abroad.

“If these data exist on-campuses, it needs to also cover off-campuses,” Malveaux said. “Study abroad is no more dangerous for students than on-campus activities and occurrences. But it is beneficial to know the level of safety, and safety measures available, for the entire institution, including study abroad.”

•••

The lure of studying abroad is as strong as ever, and universities are eager to accommodate. At least 1,000 American universities and colleges currently offer credit for studying overseas, up from 700 a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education. In addition, “many campuses” with fewer than 10 students studying abroad aren’t on the list, institute spokeswoman Sharon Witherell said.

Last year, new federal legislation was introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., to make studying abroad an integral part of higher education by creating more university grants and incentives. The goal of the bill is to increase the number of Americans studying overseas to 1 million a year.

Educators believe the experience increases students’ chances of landing management-level employment.

“Study abroad is a priority” at the University of Iowa, said Downing Thomas, the dean of International Programs, which sends more students to India than any other U.S. institution. “Far too few executives have the skills to be truly successful in unfamiliar cultural waters.”

RELATED: Investigation raises questions over UI student’s death in India

But the benefits of study abroad are not limited to landing good jobs. “It contributes to personal growth through greater independence, deeper self-knowledge and greater tolerance for ambiguity,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education. “There is evidence that study abroad is a high-impact practice that contributes to overall academic success.”

•••

There is much about study-abroad programs that parents may not know — including that their child’s university may not actually be overseeing the program. Many American universities and colleges find it too expensive or difficult to manage such programs. Instead, they refer students to independent, third-party operators such as the Institute for the International Education of Students, the Council on International Educational Exchange, or Semester at Sea.

These independent program operators are not authorized to give college credits. So they partner with accredited institutions, often different from the school where the student is enrolled.

Thackurdeen said the setup was duplicitous. “These universities offer these programs as if it’s theirs,” she said.

Her 19-year-old son had been studying chemistry and pre-med at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but his tropical-medicine course in Costa Rica was being accredited through Duke University. “They give you a sense that they have done their due diligence,” she said.

After Ravi Thackurdeen died, Swarthmore stopped backing the program he had been on, offered by the Organization of Tropical Studies, but continued backing others offered through that same nonprofit consortium.

When Plotkin died on his 2011 trip to the Indian Himalayas, the UI, where he had been enrolled, cut off all ties with the National Outdoor Leadership School and stopped accepting academic credits earned from its courses.

Thackurdeen and Brenner both sued the program providers for negligence, and their cases were moved to courts in the states where the programs were based. Thackurdeen’s case is pending in North Carolina, while Brenner was forced to settle after a court ordered mediation.

“It is as if the state itself doesn’t want you to prevail,” Brenner said. “Safety will come from transparency.”

Earlier this year, Brenner spent two months tracing the winding, 1,037-mile trail along the Goriganga and Ganges rivers to where the water empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Brenner said she believed this was the path her 21-year-old son’s body traveled after he fell more than 300 feet from the trail in September 2011.

“He lived 30 days after I put him on the plane and sent him to India,” said Brenner, from Minnetonka, Minnesota. Now fatigued and unsure of what she was searching for, she said she was trying to gain any knowledge she can about those 30 days leading up to his death.

“Did he suffer? Was he awake when he hit the river? That part breaks my heart over and over again, thinking about him being alone during those last few seconds,” Brenner said.

“I still feel a tremendous amount of grief. I’ll have to figure out how to carry that for the rest of my life.”

 

Note from the author:

“I first discovered this story while working as a reporter for The Daily Iowan in winter of 2011. The death of University of Iowa student Thomas Plotkin in the mountains of India had compelled me to go to the area, a few hundred miles north of my hometown, New Delhi, during my winter break from school. I really wanted to find out more about what happened, because not much information was available in American or Indian media at the time. Through my reporting, I was able to find some crucial information about the incident that would have been otherwise lost in the mountains.

“When Plotkin’s mother, Elizabeth Brenner, informed me about her trip to India earlier this year, I wanted to document her journey for my current employer, Associated Press. We decided to do a cross-format report, and it gave me a chance to dig deeper into into the field of study abroad in the U.S. As a former international student at the UI, and someone who has reported from both the U.S. and India, I have always been fascinated by stories that go beyond borders. Also, I have always wanted to follow up on the story I wrote in 2012, and I had kept in touch with a lot of my old sources, including Elizabeth Brenner, which gave me the opportunity to report this story. Interestingly, when I went back on the trail following Brenner and her family in April this year, we realized that the bell that hung in Plotkin’s memory (the front-page photo for the 2012 story in the DI), marking the spot on the trail where he had fallen, had been washed away by the seasons. We were able to identify the spot using the DI’s front-page photo. We matched the shape of rocks that pave the trail from our 2012 photo, with the actual rocks on the trail and were able to figure the exact location. Brenner and her family had carried with them another bell, with “Thomas,” inscribed on it, that they then hung on the same spot.

“As I have said before, The Daily Iowan is the newspaper that made me a journalist. I am extremely thankful to the paper that equipped me with the right skills and discipline, which have helped me further my career as a journalist.”

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