In Pics: US mother traces son’s final journey after study trip to Uttarakhand led to death
When Elizabeth Brenner’s 20-year-old son Thomas died while hiking during a study-abroad trip in India, she began searching for other cases and found only partial data and anecdotal records.
“Nobody was keeping track of this at all,” she said.
Brenner’s son, Thomas Plotkin, was one of the millions of American students who have studied abroad in the last decade — part of a growing global youth travel industry estimated to be worth $183 billion a year.
The number of American students studying abroad has doubled in the last decade. But while US colleges and universities must report deaths on their campuses, they are not required to disclose most student deaths that occur abroad and the US Department of Education keeps no such statistics.
A group called the Forum on Education Abroad pulled together information for 2014 from two insurance companies that together cover half of the US study-abroad market. The group used the partial data to conclude in a 2016 report that students are less likely to die overseas than on a US campus.
Brenner and other parents slammed the report, saying the findings are misleading and give parents the idea that programs are safer than they may actually be.
The forum is now planning to release a new report later this year with information for 2010-15, but it will still cover only half of the market. The forum’s head, Brian Whalen, said they tried to get the exact number of student deaths overseas from the US State Department, but were told it wasn’t available.
“Knowing which areas are hotspots 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, a Democrat from New York who introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Study Abroad Act in Congress in 2014 and plans to reintroduce it in September.
The lure of studying abroad is strong, and universities are offering more programs than ever.
“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.
But many American universities and colleges are unable to finance or manage such programs, and instead refer students to independent, third-party operators.
When Plotkin died on his 2011 trip to the Indian Himalayas, the University of Iowa, where he had been enrolled, cut ties with the organization that ran the course, the National Outdoor Leadership School.
Earlier this year, Plotkin’s mother spent two months on a “pilgrimage” tracing a winding 1,670 kilometre (1,037 mile) trail along the Goriganga and Ganges rivers to where the water empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Brenner believes this is the path her 20-year-old son’s body travelled after he fell from a mountain trail and disappeared into the water, never to be seen again.
“I still feel a tremendous amount of grief,” said Brenner, from Minnetonka, Minnesota. “I’ll have to figure out how to carry that for the rest of my life.”