The Office of International Programs’ current policy states that travel to countries on the State Department’s Travel Warnings list is prohibited, except in cases where students complete an exemption process that takes at least four weeks to complete. OIP’s position is understandable, and they are to be commended for their efforts to ensure student safety. However, strict adherence to this list is not the best course of action. The list is not an objective grouping of the most dangerous countries. Diplomatic conditions often dictate a country’s listing, regardless of the actual security situation. The list is also outdated and often lists countries that are no longer a threat. Further, it is rarely useful to classify an entire country as safe or not, as security is seldom uniform nationwide. We must accept that despite the determinations of the State Department and our own experts, unsafe conditions cannot always be predicted, such as the situation many students faced in Egypt in the spring of 2011.
The need for serious study and research does not dissipate because of rising diplomatic tensions, national disasters or disease. The study of public health in Haiti is more important as disease spreads, as are Islamic studies and Arabic language as social turmoil rises in the MENA. The University’s policy means that crucial nations and regions are off-limits to study, damaging the ability of students to compete in fields where knowledge of these locations is integral to the job.
We recognize that the University has to mitigate its liability for granting funding and academic credit, and we feel this can be accomplished through a waiver system. Under such a system, a waiver would exist that would make clear to the student that traveling to the region poses an elevated risk to his or her safety and that Princeton is, in no way, responsible for any harm that befalls the student. This waiver would also require the signature of a professor and in the case of minors, a guardian, in order to ensure that the student is taking this risk knowingly. Because professors will have to approve of a student’s travel plans, it is unlikely that students will be able travel to particularly dangerous places such as Afghanistan or Iraq.
While we acknowledge that traveling to countries on the list does represent an elevated risk to the traveler, we feel that it is important to the mission of the University as an academic institution to allow for students to engage with the world. There are locations that are simply unsafe, but the State Department’s list as a whole is too restrictive to our needs as an academic community. Our student body is varied in experience and origin, and it is too simplistic to forbid travel to an international student because of a list made for Americans or to an older, more experienced student because of a policy made with the less experienced in mind.
Princeton leads the nation in many of its institutional and academic practices and standards, but our status as a leader must not keep us from pushing further in all directions. In order to provide its students with the opportunities to become thoughtful citizens of the world and leaders, Princeton must provide students with opportunities to engage firsthand with the world around them.