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'U' considers new policy for study abroad

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two University of Minnesota students who were studying abroad last year refused to come home after the SARS outbreak in Asia, despite pleas from university officials.

The students did not get sick, but the incident caused the school to re-examine its policies on study in countries where there are travel warnings due to political upheaval, disease or natural dangers.

Under a proposed policy, if students insist on going to potentially dangerous areas despite the warnings, the university could strip their financial aid and possibly denying academic credit.

"It is to protect students and to protect the university," said Al Balkcum, director of the university's Learning Abroad Center. "It gives us clout with students. I certainly do not want our students going to some parts of the world right now. We know that some young people think they will live forever."

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About 1,800 students will travel around the world this school year on University of Minnesota-sponsored programs. The university's students also study abroad in programs run by other schools.

Students also seek permission to travel independently or to go on nonsponsored programs that university officials know little about.

Until now, it was up to Balkcum to evaluate student plans on a case-by-case basis. He said he wasn't comfortable with that.

The new policy sets up a committee that will make decisions on questionable travel requests and what to do when travel or disease warnings are issued in countries where programs are already operating.

If the committee canceled a program or denied permission to travel, the university could pull financial aid from students and prevent them from registering -- essentially waiving responsibility for them.

Balkcum said that perhaps 10 students each year ask to travel in dangerous areas. Most end up going somewhere else after they talk with university officials, he said.

"It's a rare circumstance," he said. "But I have no doubt there's a few students who would do risky things."

The new policy would take effect once it's been cleared by attorneys.

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Balkcum said most other Big Ten universities have similar policies.

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