Health & Safety
The Office of International Education wants everyone to have a happy, healthy and safe study abroad experience, and the staff will provide students with useful information regarding health and safety abroad. The Pre-Departure Orientation, which is a required session for all students going abroad, will provide much of this necessary information. At Pre-departure students will receive a hardcopy of the Study Abroad Handbook and will be presented with health and safety information by the Study Abroad staff.
The OIE staff believes that the primary responsibility for a student’s safety abroad lies with the individual student. Students should get informed about the health and safety concerns in their host country by asking the right questions and consulting a variety of resources. Based on this information students should prepare diligently for their time abroad and communicate any health and safety concerns to their program provider, the Office of International Education and/or any other resources recommended in the handbook or the Study Abroad website. Lastly, we expect all students to act responsibly, and remember that they are ambassadors of Carnegie Mellon and the United States.
View a list of companies (pdf) offering health and travel insurance options for student purchase. Feel free to compare, though always first check with your current health insurance provider to confirm and understand the coverage they offer. Questions to ask:
1. Do I have coverage for the country(ies) to which I am traveling?
2. What is the process if I need to see a doctor abroad?
3. What is the process if I go to a hospital abroad?
4. How is payment/reimbursement handled?
Remember, health insurance and travel insurance are very different. We require both for CMU students studying abroad. Visit Travel Insurance Review's website, for some helpful guidance.
As a precaution, students should have a routine medical and dental checkup before going abroad. It is also recommended that students pack a small first aid kit that includes their preferred and most often used over-the-counter medicines, bandages, antibiotic cream, antacids, etc. A full list of recommended items can be found in the Study Abroad Handbook.
Immunizations for Tetanus and Hepatitis A and B are recommended for all foreign travel.
No immunizations are currently required for travelers to Western Europe. Immunizations may be required for travel in Southeastern and Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Students without proper immunizations may not be allowed to enter a foreign country or may be quarantined at the U.S. border. Check the embassy website of the host country and all countries to be visited regarding required immunizations.
Medical Services Abroad
The style of medical care abroad is largely dependent on the country. Some study abroad programs provide medical services for students. Other programs provide a contact list for emergencies. Non-routine medical costs (including hospitalization), dental care and eye exams are generally the full responsibility of the student. Students must ensure that their medical insurance provides complete coverage for the entire time abroad!
English speaking doctors are available in most parts of the world. The study abroad program will have information on this. A directory of English speaking doctors can also be obtained through the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) by writing to:
World Medical Association
536 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60610
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Students with medical conditions that are not easily recognizable should wear a medical alert bracelet and inform their study abroad program of the condition and what to do in the event of an emergency.
Students should not assume that the care needed will be available or available free of charge. It is the student’s responsibility to make their needs known and to ensure that the services needed are available in the host country. Contact OIE, the study abroad program or Mobility International for information and assistance.
Students should also carry with them pertinent information from their medical record such as: medications, medical conditions, allergies, immunization history, blood type, glasses/contacts prescription, name of primary care physician at home, and health insurance information.
There are also special considerations for students with disabilities abroad.
U.S. prescriptions cannot be filled abroad. Take enough medicine for the entire trip or make arrangements to have medicine mailed. Check the embassy website to make sure that the needed medication is legal in the host country and the countries to be visited. Some commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. are illegal in other countries.
Bring a physician’s letter listing the generic and name brand of each medication, the dosage, and the condition the medicine treats. This is also the procedure for injections such as insulin.For students who wear contacts or glasses, bring an extra pair. Consider bringing contact solution as well. Glasses and contacts can be very expensive to purchase abroad.
As wonderful as study abroad is, it is also stressful. Learning a new language, navigating foreign streets, and meeting new people are all exciting experiences, but they require intense physical and mental energy. Coupled with jetlag and loneliness, it can prove overwhelming. In short, studying abroad is not a way to escape problems. All students should have strategies for taking care of themselves while abroad. Keep a journal, exercise, or take up a new hobby. The methods used by students at home for reducing stress are also excellent choices for reducing stress abroad.
Students who have mental health concerns should consult a therapist/counselor before going abroad and have a plan for staying healthy while abroad. Students should inform their study abroad program of any special needs or requirements and find out what services will be available to them while they are abroad. The study abroad program will be able to help the student find a counselor or therapist while abroad, if needed. Carnegie Mellon’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) will do telephone consultations with students studying abroad.
Dietary Needs Abroad
Students with food allergies, vegetarians, vegans, picky eaters, students with religious dietary restrictions and those prone to eating disorders should take special care to ensure that their dietary needs will be met while abroad. Many countries do not label food containing nuts or understand the concept of vegetarianism.
Eating disorders can be heightened while abroad due to unfamiliar foods and an unfamiliar setting. Students who have eating disorders are urged to consult a physician before studying abroad and have a plan for staying healthy while abroad. Consider packing power bars or other lightweight, nutritious food.
Students living with a host family should inform the program provider of their dietary requirements. They can work with students to find suitable living arrangements. Host families are typically willing to accommodate a student’s request, but they must be informed of the requirements. Be specific!
For more information on where to find vegetarian or vegan dishes abroad see our Additional Resources handout.
Alcohol & Drugs
Culture plays a role in attitudes about alcohol and drugs. In many countries alcohol is much more accessible than in the U.S. In other countries alcohol may be illegal, or at least frowned upon. At the same time, recreational drugs are legal in some countries while highly illegal and penalized in others. Students should determine the cultural norms and laws regarding drugs and alcohol and act accordingly.
Attitudes by Culture
Social drinking is the norm in most of Western Europe compared to norms in the United States. Europeans may feel comfortable drinking earlier in the day or having wine at dinner every night, but they typically drink more slowly and have fewer drinks over all.
Australian beer is stronger than most beer found in the United States. Australians, like Europeans, tend to be social drinkers. They, however, will be used to stronger beer!
Alcohol is illegal in many Muslim countries. Other Muslim countries, such as Qatar, provide drinking permits to non-Muslims.
A Word of Caution
Since attitudes toward alcohol can differ widely from the U.S. and since students may not know what effect it will have, it is important for students to have a strategy for staying safe while abroad. Alcohol and drugs, even if legal, can impair judgment and reduce safety. It is recommended that students go out in groups and never walk home alone at night, especially if impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Also, just because the drinking age is lower does not mean that public drunkenness is acceptable. Ending up in a foreign jail is not the way a student should spend their semester abroad! The U.S. embassy will not intervene. Students caught with illegal substances will pay the penalty, and these penalties are often much more severe than in the U.S. Not knowing the law is not an excuse.
Students who struggle with alcohol or drug addictions now should be aware that studying abroad can often make the problem worse. Loneliness and culture shock symptoms can cause drinking problems. Alcoholics Anonymous has meetings worldwide.
Information on contraception overseas may be more difficult or more available to obtain, depending on the location. OIE recommends that students purchase contraceptives before leaving the U.S, if they will be sexual active while abroad. It goes without saying that STDs are worldwide, so bring protection. University Health Services can provide more information on contraceptives, AIDS and other STDs.
Keep in mind that HIV can also be transmitted through needles, so do not get a tattoo or an acupuncture treatment in a country with lax health standards. In some countries blood transfusions can also be risky. Contact the program director or the closest U.S. consulate for advice if a transfusion is necessary. Research the health standards of the host country before going abroad.
Sexual Assault & Harassment
Sexual assault can happen anywhere, and unfortunately study abroad is no exception. The newness of the language and setting can make study abroad students particularly susceptible to assault. Never walk alone at night, especially if intoxicated. Stay away from dark alleys, do not leave beverages unattended or accept a drink from a stranger. Essentially, use common sense and follow the same precautions as in the U.S.
It is important to know the cultural norms surrounding sex and gender, clothing, sex roles, and what constitutes harassment. Know what resources are available including the study abroad program director, English speaking doctors and therapists, Carnegie Mellon’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Carnegie Mellon’s Sexual Harassment Advisors. CAPS will do phone appointments, and the Sexual Harassment Advisors can be contacted by phone, email or instant message.
Most of the harassment that Carnegie Mellon women have reported over the years is verbal harassment, which can usually be handled by simply ignoring the person – a tactic used in the U.S. as well. Anything more serious than verbal harassment or blatant staring should be addressed in a more serious manner.
Tips on how to deal with harassment:
- Ignore it if at all possible. Chances are they are just looking for a reaction.
- Avoid large groups of men. Discreetly cross to the other side of the street and continue walking.
- Observe the local women. Find out how other women deal with any harassment that they may receive. Mimicking their behavior will help to reduce or eliminate verbal harassment and stares. Sometimes something as simple as making eye contact can be viewed by men as an invitation. Recognizing that local women do not make eye contact and following their example can often eliminate the unwanted attention. If the opportunity presents itself, ask local women how they respond to certain situations and/or how they avoid harassment.
- Learn key phrases. Sometimes just the right words are the best solution.
- Act confident. Always walk with confidence.
- Leave and find somewhere safe to go. If ignoring the situation does not help, leave and get to a safer location. For students harassed on the street, getting on a bus or going into a store can usually solve the problem. Bus drivers and store owners are often very helpful in these situations.
While abroad, students must be particularly street savvy. Gender roles, attitudes toward homosexuality, attitudes toward people of color, traffic laws, and drinking laws may not be the same as in the United States. It is the student’s responsibility to be observant and cautious.
Students should register with the State Department when they arrive in the host country. That way, students will be alerted if any large scale emergency occurs and/or if an evacuation is necessary. Students should also periodically check the travel alerts issued by the CDC and the State Department. International Students should check-in with the embassy of their home country to see if a similar process is available.
Observe local behaviors. Many behaviors and cues will be different than in the United States. Body language is not universal, and behaviors may be interpreted differently. Be aware of sending mixed signals, such as smiling while saying “no”.
Remember that there is safety in numbers, so travel in small groups when possible. In any large city, a foreigner holding a huge map could invite trouble, so study the city map before arriving at the destination.
Ask the Right Questions
A new culture brings more than a new language and interesting food. There may be hazards in the host country with which U.S. students are unfamiliar. The host country may have dangerous natural phenomena, animals or plants. Students should research this information before going abroad and know how to appropriately handle such things if encountered.
Know the environmental hazards, common crimes, and traffic laws. Find out the norms governing clothing and behavior and who can be trusted in that country. (Police cannot be trusted everywhere.) Also, it is important to know what documentation, if any, must be carried at all times. Do not carry more than needed, but always carry what is required.
The study abroad program provider and a good guidebook can provide answers to these and other questions.
Take some time to research the traffic laws and typical driving practices in the host country. Second to alcohol, traffic is the most common culprit of accidents while studying abroad. Driving laws vary dramatically, and it is not recommended that students drive while abroad. In many places, pedestrians do not necessarily have the right of way. Even if pedestrians do have the right of way, traffic laws might not be regularly obeyed. Use caution on busy city streets, and do not assume that any car, truck, bus, or scooter will stop to let a pedestrian cross. Do not forget to look in the opposite direction if studying in the U.K., Australia, India and parts of Africa! The Association for Safe International Road Travel provides helpful resources.