Penn State’s Global Safety Office assesses safety for Penn State travelers

April 08, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Natasha Soulé, global safety manager at Penn State, decided to conduct safety assessment visits to Italy and Spain, she got a similar reaction from many of her colleagues.

“It was usually a little grin,” she recalled. “Like, ‘Italy and Spain, huh? Funny how you decide to visit two of the most beautiful places in the world.’”

But for Soulé, the point of the visits was never about sightseeing. Over the past few years, the Global Safety Office within Global Programs has been working on ways to be more proactive in providing resources and information to the Penn State community. In addition to the Travel Safety Network, or TSN, which gathers information on Penn Staters traveling abroad to better support them in an emergency, the team also trains students, faculty and staff on international health and safety, provides 24/7 emergency support, and consults with travelers to higher-risk destinations.

Even though her colleagues teased her with wry grins and comments, Soulé knew her visits to Italy and Spain were important.



“Our two most popular study abroad programs are in those two countries,” Soulé explains. “Even though they’re considered to be ‘safe,’ safe is really a relative term. The truth is, incidents can happen anywhere. They happen in the U.S. all the time. If we’re sending a large number of students anywhere, we need to make sure they have the support and safety network they need, regardless of whether the area is considered to be ‘safe’ or not.”

Last December, Joe Thurston, the University's global safety analyst, conducted the office’s first site visit to Honduras.

“We send numerous student groups to Honduras,” Thurston explained. “It’s one of the most popular countries for service organizations. But there have been some security concerns in the last few years, so we thought it was important to assess the situation on the ground.”

Thurston found that generally, the organizations that students were working with were doing a good job in the key areas at which the safety office looks.

“How close is medical care in case of an emergency? Are there safe places to walk at night? What are the procedures for reporting and receiving care for sexual assault? These are just some of the questions we’re asking in these site visits,” said Soulé.

After a site visit, the staff member who conducted the visit submits a detailed report of their activities, their findings, and a rating for certain criteria as high-risk, medium-risk, or low-risk. If necessary, they give suggestions for changes to make or conversations to have with certain partners. In Honduras, for example, Thurston found a concern about long travel times on routes with dangerous traffic flows and poor road conditions. The Global Safety Office met with the international partner and found a solution to minimize driving times on bad roads.

“We want students and faculty to have the opportunity to have a variety of experiences abroad,” said Rob Crane, interim vice provost for Global Programs. “The work of the Global Safety Office is to make sure that can happen in a way that reduces risk and provides avenues for help when it’s needed.”

Meanwhile, Soulé’s visits to Italy and Spain, which lasted a week in the middle of February, proved to be fruitful.

“We deepened our relationships with on-site partners and got a more complete picture of the processes our students might have to go through in case of an emergency,” said Soulé. “Now, we can disseminate that information before they leave and use it to better support our students when incidents occur.”

The Global Safety Office offers a variety of resources for proactive travel planning, such as links to the State Department Travel Advisories, as well as WorldWatch, a service offered through Penn State’s international health provider United Healthcare Global. WorldWatch provides detailed safety and security information for every country and is available to anyone with a Penn State Access ID.

The office also has begun offering some grants for Wilderness First Aid training to students traveling to remote international destinations as another way to enhance travelers’ preparation.

“We want to be more proactive so we can better advise and support our students,” said Thurston.

In addition to the Global Safety Office’s efforts, Penn State’s Education Abroad office also takes steps to mitigate risk and provide resources for student travelers. Students are required to complete a “Health and Safety” module before departure. This module outlines many different topics, including wellness and mental health abroad; alcohol and drug abuse; sexual health abroad; sexual harassment and assault; doctors and medications abroad; what do to in an emergency; and available support from the Education Abroad office and Penn State.

The Education Abroad office also holds optional in-person sessions for those who want to know more about how to protect themselves while abroad. Both the Global Safety Office and Education Abroad take student safety very seriously.

“If there’s one thing I’d like people to know, it’s that we’re really here as a resource. We’re not here to say ‘no,’ we’re just here to ask questions and consult to reduce as much risk as possible so travelers can have a great experience abroad,” said Soulé. “Hopefully as we move forward, we can continue to expand these resources.”

For more information on the types of support offered by Penn State for international travelers, visit https://global.psu.edu/support. For more information on the Global Safety Office, contact Natasha Soulé, Global Safety Manager, at nta7@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 08, 2019