Tristan Ignacio Hurlburt was studying abroad in the Philippines last spring when the University of California Education Abroad Program (EAP) he was a part of was put on hold. Hurlburt, an undergraduate at UCLA, had not planned to stay through the summer, but his eight classmates were also told that their enrollment was being suspended because of a U.S. State Department travel warning for the country.
"I was really surprised it was cancelled," Hurlburt says. "I felt that it was safe because the atmosphere in the Philippines when we left was exactly the same as when we got there."
Students in the year-long program were pulled out of the country in April, just as their semester was ending, in response to a March 23 State Department warning. Some were unable to complete planned summer internships -- which, in the Philippines correspond to UCLA's spring semester -- though several stayed on without EAP support.
EAP's policy is to suspend all programs in countries made subjects of the department's travel warnings. The Philippines program will be on hold until at least the Fall of 2006, says Bruce Hanna, Director of Communications at the UC-wide EAP office in Goleta. A suspension turns into a complete cancellation based on its duration as well as local conditions. "Are we talking about a cold or are we talking about a cancer that is incurable?" asks Hanna.
"Our goal is always to restart a program as soon as possible," says Hanna. But safety, he says, is EAP's highest concern, followed by academic quality.
The State Department warns that terrorist groups are planning multiple attacks in the Philippines, information it says has been corroborated by the Philippine government and media. The warning also says that likely targets include schools and housing compounds where Westerners are known to reside.
Hanna maintains that EAP's policy of following State Department travel warnings is an issue of prudence. "The State Department is a group of professionals whose focus and purpose is to guarantee the safety of U.S. citizens in that location," he says. "For the University of California to be projecting that we are in a better position to make that judgment is highly questionable."
Harvard Program Reinstated
However, some question whether State Department travel warnings are always grounds for leaving a country. Harvard University changed its study abroad policies in October to allow for closer review of travel warnings before suspending programs. While the most severe travel warnings, those which call for immediate evacuations and cancellations of all non-essential travel, are still grounds for ending a program immediately, Harvard will now review lesser travel warnings before pulling students out of a country. Its new policy is to consult several sources, including colleagues and the Overseas Security Advisory Council briefings, before responding to State Department travel warnings. Under this new policy, Harvard continues to offer credit for students who study abroad in the Philippines.
Gulf News reported on Apr. 25 that then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone backed lifting the travel warning, while admitting that some areas are a security risk for Americans and Filipinos. "I would urge the lifting of that travel advisory, of that warning, as soon as possible," Ricciardone said, according to the article.
Critics of EAP policies argue that the nature of terrorism today is such that it can happen anywhere, from New York City to Manila or London, and that to single out the Philippines is unfair.
Hanna counters that EAP's role is not to look at general conditions in a country. "We're not looking at the possibility; we're looking at the probability and the risk."
A Growing Program
The Philippines program is directed by Donald Goertzen, a Philippines resident. He remains on EAP's payroll, but, with no UC students around for him to counsel, it is unclear for how long.
"We are just hoping that the travel warning is lifted in a timely way, allowing us to push forward with what is, by any stretch, a very fine program," says Goertzen by e-mail.
Hanna says that EAP tries to maintain its staff when programs are suspended to make it easier to restart programs when conditions improve. EAP still maintains staff for an Israel program that has been suspended since a 2002 travel warning.
In the EAP Philippines program's first year, 18 participating students completed language and cultural immersion courses as well as a regular semester at the University of the Philippines (Diliman) and Ateneo de Manila University. In its second year the program began to include summer internship programs, which Barbara Gaerlan says was often the highlight of students' time abroad. (See Donald Goertzen's essay about his students' internship experiences.) Gaerlan is the assistant director of UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies and was the director of the first EAP Philippines program in the spring of 2001.
Before the program was put on hold in the spring of 2005, it was, however, experiencing problems recruiting students from the UC system. In the 2004-05 academic year, nine students were enrolled for the year-long program; last fall, EAP and Southeast Asia faculty in the UC system agreed that the Philippines program would need to have 20 students enrolled by the 2006-07 academic year in order keep the program afloat. Gaerlan and other UC staff and faculty began a recruitment drive to attract more students to study abroad in the Philippines, an effort that was beginning the yield results. Sixty-three students had been recruited for the cancelled 2005-06 summer EAP program in the Philippines.
Hanna says that EAP's recruitment deadline will be reworked once the State Department lifts its travel warning: "A joint review of the plan would be likely first steps upon the lifting of the travel warning," he says.
Gaerlan says that 15 -- 10 from UCLA -- of the 63 students recruited for this summer's program went to Philippines with the University of the Philippines Philippine Studies Program without UC course credit. She hopes that she will be able to find a way to offer UC credit to these students. UCLA Summer Sessions is also looking into the option of offering credit for University of the Philippines coursework.
"To this day," Gaerlan says, "I'm still committed to try to revive the program because it's just so amazing."
The writer of this article is employed in part by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.