Handling Emergencies at University

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Arriving in the United States to pursue your education is exhilarating when you think of all the opportunities that await. But in the middle of all this excitement, it can be easy to forget that crises may happen while you are away from home, even though colleges and universities are generally safe places.

When planning your study abroad, it’s important to prepare for emergency situations, such as falling victim to a crime or a natural disaster around campus. This also includes planning for emergencies back home while you’re away, like a close family member having a medical emergency or disastrous weather. (U.S. Federal law requires schools to report crimes on campus, and they usually have plans to put into action if students are in danger.)

Judy Loctor was working on a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia, when Hurricane Tomas hit her home country of Saint Lucia in October 2010. She learned about the hurricane’s wrath from her friends’ postings on the social-networking website Facebook.

“The first thing that came into my mind was, ‘I hope my family’s safe,’” Loctor remembers. Telephone lines were too busy to connect her to people at home. Eventually she got through to her mother, who said everyone in Loctor’s family was fine.

Loctor stayed on campus because airplane tickets were too expensive for her to go back to Saint Lucia, a southeastern Caribbean island. “In a natural disaster, there’s really nothing I could do anyway,” she says.

Although she couldn’t physically get to Saint Lucia to help, Loctor and other students at Lynchburg collected $3,000 in donations and 185 pounds of children’s clothing to send to the heavily damaged country. “It really does help to have a support base here,” Loctor says.

If an emergency strikes at home

Officials at several American universities say the most common emergency that international students encounter is a relative falling ill or dying. That’s why you should talk with your family before you come to the United States, says Rehema Clarken, Coordinator for International Students and Scholars at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. Discuss what you will do in case of a relative’s illness or death before it happens, she says.

“Are you going to come home for the funeral?” Clarken asks. “If you are going to fly home, can you afford it?” Airline fares often rise and fall, and you might find that tickets cost a lot of money right when you want to go home. Instead, set aside the money you’ll need for a ticket, like an emergency fund, before you even leave home.

If you do return home unexpectedly, perhaps for an extended period, you may miss classes, projects, and homework assignments. Missing even a week of classes can have a poor effect on your grades if you don’t make up the work. Luckily, your college will likely have guidelines for letting students complete their assignments in case of family emergencies, says Patrick Brown of Occam Education, an organization that counsels overseas students who want to attend American universities. “Most universities want students to be very comfortable,” Brown says. “Those policies, while they might be written down, can be flexible to an extent.”

If you feel the need to go home, talk to your instructors first and ask how you can complete your course work upon your return. They will probably accommodate you—after all, faculty members have families too.

You’ll also need to talk to someone in the university office that works with students from abroad. An advisor there will help you arrange documents that you’ll need in order to leave and return to the United States without trouble. Your college’s office for international students is also there to help if disaster strikes in your home country.

Officials at The New School in New York, New York, reached out to each of its Japanese students after an earthquake and tsunami struck the country in March 2011. Linda Reimer, Senior Vice President of Student Services at The New School, says the college just wanted to know how each Japanese student was coping with the disaster, and wanted the students to know that people at the college were there to help. It did the same for its Norwegian students in July 2011 after a man set off a bomb and went on a shooting spree in Norway, killing dozens. “We want them to feel like this is their second home,” Reimer says.

If your home country is unsafe because of political unrest or a natural disaster, you might want to stay in the United States at the end of your academic term. If that’s the case, talk to an international student advisor about whether American immigration rules will allow you to stay. Your university might also help you find housing and work; Reimer says The New School takes extra steps to hire international students for on-campus jobs. You might not change any of your plans if an emergency strikes at home, but it can be hard to focus on schoolwork if you’re worried about friends and family thousands of kilometers away.

Your instructors will probably understand your difficulties if they know what is going on, says Krittika Onsanit, Director of International Student, Scholar, and Internship Services at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. Some students came to the university from Afghanistan. When bombings in that country struck close to home, campus administrators contacted Afghan students’ professors and explained that a student might have trouble concentrating in class. “We try to get to know students personally,” Onsanit says. “We’re small enough that we can do that.”

When something happens in the United States

You will need health insurance in case you become very ill or are hurt in an accident while studying in the United States, and the American health care system might be different from what you’re used to.

In the States, patients are required to pay for their own medical needs. Paying for health insurance means the insurance company will pay most of what you owe for medical care, although you will probably have to pay a small amount yourself. The University of Richmond, like many colleges, requires international students to pay for a special health insurance plan.

What about situations out of your control, at school? Your college may have a system that alerts students to emergencies on or near campus. Most universities in the United States have such systems, which send students e-mails, automated phone messages, and/or text messages. Schools use them to warn students about threats of crime, bad weather, or even delays on public transportation.

Colleges also make plans for severe situations, like a natural disaster or bomb threat, that could require evacuating campus. Brown at Occam Education says students should ask officials at their U.S. universities about the schools’ emergency plans; students should then make sure they understand what those plans are.

Brown says it’s also a good idea to make friends with people on campus and in the city where your university is located. This will give you more people to turn to if you find yourself in a tough situation. Lots of American students will be excited to get to know you and learn what your home country is like! Many colleges have clubs for students from overseas as well as programs that connect international students to American classmates.

It’s also common for colleges to have volunteer host families nearby. You probably won’t live with a host family, but you could be welcomed into an American classmate’s home for holidays and special occasions.

Some of the most common emergencies that happen at American schools are weather related. The good news is that local people have plenty of experience handling the kind of weather you’ll encounter during your stay. Students who grew up in southern California know what to do if there is a warning about a possible wildfire, and classmates who hail from northern Minnesota are used to dealing with snowstorms. They’ll be glad to give you advice if you ask for it.

People to support you

Getting to know people on and off campus means you’ll be surrounded by friends if you need help handling a crisis or just want someone to talk to.

It’s a good idea to tell your new American friends how to get in touch with your family back home if they need to. You should also give your college’s office for international students the name of someone in the United States who can contact you if necessary.

Clarken also recommends registering with your country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., in case something happens and your family has no other way to get in touch with you.“Their job is to take care of their citizens abroad, and most of them do a very good job of that,” she says.

American universities have several employees dedicated to helping students through hard times. The office for international students can guide you through questions about everything from filling out immigration documents to navigating American grocery stores, and tutors can help you if you’re struggling in class. Professional counselors and chaplains of various religious faiths are there to talk with students about personal problems. Colleges also have campus security or police officers that can help if you’re worried about your safety.

You will probably hear about all these student service offices during your orientation to the university. Take notes while they are sharing these important pieces of information; it can be hard to remember everything about a new place!

Yes, you might encounter an emergency while studying in the United States—disaster can strike anywhere in the world. But don’t let that keep you from coming to America. Most likely everything will be fine, and should an emergency occur, remember that there will be many resources on and off campus to help you handle whatever happens.

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