You probably know what to do in an emergency situation at home, but what if you found yourself in a similar position overseas? Experts say it’s important for future international students to have some sort of response plan for emergency scenarios such as injury or a natural disaster.
Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at California State University—Dominguez Hills, says students and parents can approach international safety planning by thinking: “Okay, here’s how I handle health and safety emergencies in the city, state, university or wherever I am. What do I need to do to be able to deal with things where I’m going at that same level?”
Here are several things students headed overseas can do that will help them cope during a crisis.
Do your research: Students should study up on the political climate and cultural norms in their destination country, experts say.
“It’s important for students to obey the laws and regulations of the country where they’re visiting,” says Robyn Prinz, a consular officer at the U.S. Department of State. Prinz, who supports the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management personnel at U.S. embassies in Belize, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela, says it’s particularly important to obey the laws that have to do with alcohol and other drug use.
In some countries, drug-related charges have extremely severe penalties compared with the U.S.
If students are imprisoned overseas, there may not be much home-country embassies can do to get them released. An extreme example is the case of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting the country.
Students can be proactive about connecting with their country’s embassy by registering their trip online, if possible. Some countries, including the U.S., Canada and Australia, encourage globally mobile citizens to enroll their trips so that consular officers will know how to reach them.
Have a plan: After researching their destination country, students can put together an emergency action plan detailing the steps to take in a crisis. Some items to include are numbers for emergency contacts; the hierarchy of who a student will call first, second and third in an emergency; and information about transportation options.
Having important phone numbers written down or printed out – not just programmed into a cellphone – ensures students will know how to reach emergency contacts even if their phone gets lost, says Colin Chaperon, who manages the American Red Cross’ international disaster team.
Students and parents can check out a sample emergency action plan from the Center for Global Education.
“You have this plan, you put it on your computer or your put it in your pocket, and suddenly you’re like, okay, now I know what the incident is and here are the steps to solve it,” says Rhodes, “as opposed to just entering into a state of confusion and freezing.”
Thinking about how you’ll react in an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, can be the difference between survival and not, says Niles Cole, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Information on natural disaster preparedness can be found on the bureau’s website.
“Be aware of what kinds of natural disasters you could potentially face and have a plan for how to deal with those,” Cole says.
Keep in touch: Families should have a communication plan for when a student is abroad. “It really helps both sides to know: Should they expect communication every week? Or every day? And then also the best way to get ahold of each other,” says Prinz.
Parents should also keep their student’s university updated on any changes to their phone number or email address for emergency contact purposes, said Kazuko Suematsu, deputy director of the Global Learning Center at Tohoku University in Japan, by email. In March 2011, Tohoku University was severely impacted by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit eastern Japan and the tsunami that followed.
If an emergency does occur, the State Department recommends that students reach out to their families to provide updates on their condition. One way to do this is via Facebook – the social network has a check-in tool called Safety Check that is activated in affected regions after natural disasters or other large-scale emergencies, such as the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
Students should have a plan for how they’ll reassure loved ones that they are all right, but also for how they’ll calm themselves.
Chaperon, of the Red Cross, says he recommends packing a small item with sentimental value, something that – in times of uncertainty or anxiety – you can just look at and touch to reground yourself.