Tennessee: Flu worries ground study abroad programs

Tennessee: Flu worries ground study abroad programs

May 18th, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

If it weren't for the swine flu, Tiffany Wilson could be exploring Aztec ruins and stumbling over Spanish words with strangers.

The Chattanooga State student was scheduled, along with 25 other Tennessee college students, to arrive in Mexico City last week for a monthlong stay in the country, but concerns over the rapid spread of the H1N1 virus pushed leaders to shelve the trip.

"I had never been overseas. I looked at it as the beginning of my traveling," said the 20-year old, who's taking general education classes at Chattanooga State Technical Community College. "I did a ton of work all semester to go on the trip."

A handful of area colleges either canceled or postponed study abroad trips to Mexico this summer following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warnings tied to swine flu. Other colleges, however, aren't acting as quickly.

Lee University, a private Christian college in Cleveland, Tenn., canceled one of its two trips to Mexico because students were afraid of contracting swine flu, officials said. The Tennessee Consortium for International Studies, which provides study abroad opportunities for students at Tennessee Board of Regents schools, postponed its program in Mexico.

"If the swine flu continues to spread we will cancel (the program) all together," said Milton Grimes, executive director of the Tennessee Consortium.

In Georgia, the University of Georgia in Athens stopped 17 students from visiting Mexico this summer, and is working to refund the students' money, said Kasee Laster, director of study abroad at UGA.

"We felt that it wasn't appropriate to go against the CDC statement. They were saying no nonessential travel to Mexico," she said. "We were very sorry to (cancel the trip)."

Tennessee and Georgia colleges are joining a wave of U.S. institutions pulling international programs, hoping to pre-empt an international incident between their students and the rapidly spreading virus, said Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, based out of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Fifty-two colleges and universities have formally canceled study abroad trips to Mexico, affecting nearly 1,300 students, and that number grows by the day, he said.

Ms. Wilson, who planned to travel with the Tennessee Consortium, said she is disappointed about the trip being postponed and possibly canceled. Between loans, scholarships and money from a part-time job, she had earned $2,700 to participate in the trip. But she understands the safety concerns.

"If we were (in Mexico), I have a feeling that some of us would have gotten sick," she said. "I just hope that it is contained so we can still go."

At the University of Tennessee, officials are waiting before deciding to cancel planned travel to Mexico.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga didn't have study abroad programs scheduled in Mexico this summer. However, UT Martin and UT students will travel to Mexico in July, said Elizabeth Davis, a spokeswoman for the system.

"As of right now, the program has a green light to go, but the Center for International Education on (the UT) campus reserves the right to cancel the trip as it draws nearer," Ms. Davis said.

While carefully weighing the risk of students contracting the H1N1 virus, college administrators also are concerned American students could be quarantined overseas.

The number of swine flu cases in the United States - about 2,500 - has now exceeded the count in Mexico - about 1,600 - and many countries are concerned about American students spreading the virus.

A group of American students was quarantined in China last week after an American student with the H1N1 virus brought the first case to the country's mainland, Mr. Marmolejo said.

Japan has put restrictions on American travelers since swine flu cases have multiplied in the United States.

"There is a concern and that is why we are monitoring the situation very carefully," said Beth Thompson, director of the global perspectives program at Lee University. "The airport we are concerned about is Japan."

Lee, which has nearly 500 students studying abroad this summer, sent several groups overseas last week, and Ms. Thompson said so far there have been no problems reported.

If students are quarantined, she said the school will pay for them to fly home.