When war broke out between Lebanon and Israel last summer, Yale students studying in Beirut were quickly assisted in escaping the conflict. But while the evacuation was successful, the University is not taking any further chances, and Lebanon has since been added to the list of countries restricted for Yale-funded undergraduate travel.
Compiled by the University Faculty Advisory Committee on International Education and updated at least three times a year — most recently on Jan. 30 — the list serves as a first line of defense for keeping Elis safe when they study abroad, administrators said. While some students said the guidelines can interfere with their plans, many expressed general appreciation that the University is looking out for their safety.
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In addition to Lebanon, the list includes 73 other countries either in part or whole. These include Iraq, Colombia and North Korea, as well as unstable regions in Russia, Mexico, and Peru, for example. Perhaps the most common areas listed are border regions harboring perennially high-conflict zones, which include parts of Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and India.
Nancy Ruther, associate director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, said undergraduates can petition a campus liaison for an exception to the general restrictions. The liaisons then present their recommendations to a specially designed Task Force on Student International Travel, which has final authority over approving an exception.
“We built in a waiver because no rule should be enforced universally,” said Ruther, who sits on the committee and helped design the protocol.
To create an objective list, the committee relies on travel advisories from a handful of national governments. While some universities follow only the guidelines for U.S. citizens, Ruther said, Yale also uses the guidelines put out by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to avoid political motivations on the part of the governments. The University then works to smooth out any variation among the lists. The guidelines themselves are usually not black-and-white, but present a continuum of risk depending on the person and the reason for travel. The committee also takes into account information from other University-level sources, such as MEDEX, the University’s international insurance program.
Ruther and Assistant Dean Barbara Rowe, director of the International Education and Fellowship Programs, keep up on international news and consult each other as to whether a new region needs to be added on short notice before the regular triannual update, Ruther said.
Sam Heller ’08, who was evacuated from Beirut last summer, said that the system works well but that the opportunity to get a waiver should be more publicized. He had been interested in traveling to East Timor last summer, he said, but it was restricted; Lebanon, except for southern, Hezbollah-controlled areas, had not yet been placed on the list. Heller was studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut, in a summer program popular with Yale students, when he was evacuated.
Heller is a columnist for the News.
Administrators, however, are not eager to emphasize the waiver option. The forms are available online, but Don Filer, associate secretary and director of international affairs, said the process should only be used in specific circumstances. An exception might be someone who is originally from the particular country to which he or she wishes to travel, he said, or whose family lives in the region. Waiver requests are considered on an individual basis, he said, and often serve as a reality check regardless of the outcome.
“[The waiver] is also an excuse for making someone step back and reflect on the risks, on why one wants to go to this particular place at this particular time,” Filer said.
Eyad Houssami ’07, who was evacuated along with Heller last year, said the “unprecedented” situation Yale found itself in last summer in Lebanon was proof that a list of restricted countries makes sense. The system ensures the well-being of all students, he said, even if it errs on the side of caution.
“Nothing was going to happen to any Yale student [in Beirut],” Houssami said. “So of course it’s unfortunate, but the University is not out to give students the war experience. The purpose of [Yale-funded travel] is traditional education, not photojournalism in a time of conflict.”
But Houssami also questioned the composition of the restricted list. He noted that situations in parts of Israel were not that different from those in Beirut, but besides the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Israel remains off the list. This discrepancy could be explained in light of the two countries’ different histories, he said.
“Israel does not have the history of civil war that Lebanon has,” Houssami said.
A recent e-mail sent out by the secretary’s office to the student body did not mention the travel restrictions specifically, but encouraged students to fill out emergency travel and contact forms to provide information which proved critical in locating students last year during the conflict in Lebanon.