As the Coordinator for International Health and Safety at MSU, I work in an office that is available 24/7 to respond to crises that may impact faculty, staff, or students traveling internationally on behalf of MSU. One of my specific duties is to share responsibility for responding to calls that come in to MSU’s 24/7 International Emergency Assistance Line. Our work to keep you safe and healthy abroad extends far beyond answering phones, but our ‘duty phone’ is probably the most famous aspect of our office.
“So if the phone rings at 3:00 AM… you answer it?”
“What if it’s a Saturday?”
“And holidays? Are you on call over Winter Break even?”
Actually, that’s a busy time of year for us because there are several education abroad programs traveling then.
People are often taken aback – I like to think they’re impressed – by the idea of an office that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I get the sense that their reaction is partly driven by an assumption that the hardest part of my job is answering emergency phone calls. Responding to calls is certainly a crucial part of our office function, and I am not oblivious to the weight of that responsibility. But the truth is that answering a ringing phone is not the hardest part of my job. Dealing with silence is.
Let me explain.
International incidents that have the potential to negatively impact the health, safety, and security of travelers happen on a regular basis. Incidents can be major, like the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, or relatively minor, like a large demonstration in a city that disrupts travel plans. Our office is constantly monitoring international news and when events like these happen, our first response is to check our databases to see if we have MSU travelers in the area. If we do, we share information and guidance with travelers. If the event is severe, we may initiate what is called an accountability check whereby we reach out to our travelers and ask them to confirm if they are safe. We are fortunate in that most of the time, our travelers respond quickly and confirm they are okay. We breathe easy, answer questions, and share resources. But every once in a while, we do not hear from a traveler right away. For a while there is silence.
We have been lucky. So far that silence has rarely lasted particularly long and is typically broken by an apology “Sorry – I wasn’t checking my email!” But if you asked me what the hardest part of my job is, I wouldn’t say answering the phone at 3:00 AM. If you heard the ringtone on the “duty phone” you would understand how impossible it is to sleep through that. The hardest part of my job is the worrying that comes with waiting for a traveler to check in safely.
There are lots of things I want students to know before they go abroad – how to file a reimbursement claim if you require medical attention while traveling, how to call “911” in an international location – but if I had to pick just one piece of advice it would be this: keep in touch. Check your email. Share you cell phone number with us. Chances are we won’t need to reach out because the majority of the time study abroad experiences go smoothly. But if they don’t, we are here to support you, to offer resources and expert guidance, and we want to hear from you.
Travel safe, Spartans.