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Undergraduate International Travel Policy

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Undergraduate International Travel Policy


To minimize health and safety risks, the University has adopted the following policies and procedures to govern undergraduate travel for international opportunities and experiences.

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International activities covered by this policy

This University Undergraduate International Travel Policy (“Travel Policy”) governs, but is not limited to, Northwestern affiliated, approved unaffiliated and approved non-Northwestern undergraduate study abroad programs; internships; field studies; service learning; research; athletic competitions; arts performances or exhibitions; and volunteer, experiential, or work programs sponsored, endorsed, or administered by the University (collectively, “international activities”). (See undergraduate travel definition.)

Newly proposed study abroad programs in countries under U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings (“Travel Warnings” or “U.S. DOS Travel Warnings”), a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) Travel Health Notice Warning Level 3: Avoid Nonessential Travel (“CDC Warning”) must first be approved by the Undergraduate Study Abroad Committee (USAC) prior to applying for permission to operate under the Travel Policy, and may not be announced or formally marketed until permission under the Travel Policy is granted by the Provost. No promotional materials (print or web-based) may be distributed to students until a program has been approved by USAC and/or IRAC (if required).

Sponsors of new study abroad proposals for programs located in countries with Travel Warnings or CDC Warnings are encouraged to work on the USAC and IRAC requests concurrently. However, new proposals have to clear USAC before being forwarded to the IRAC for review and recommendation to the Provost.

Permissible travel

  1. Undergraduate participation in international activities, as defined above, is permitted, provided that the country in question is not subject to a U.S. DOS Travel Warning or a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) Travel Health Notice Warning Level 3: Avoid Nonessential Travel.
  2. Undergraduate participation in international activities in locations subject to a U.S. DOS Travel Warning or a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) Travel Health Notice Warning Level 3: Avoid Nonessential Travel requires a request for special permission at least one quarter prior to planned departure (see Travel permission request process).
  3. For Northwestern-sponsored non-credit group travel or new/existing study abroad programs/affiliations located in Travel Warning or CDC Warning countries, the proposed program’s sponsoring administrative unit or the program’s faculty director/sponsor must make any such requests.
  4. For Northwestern-sponsored non-credit group travel, that is not accompanied by a faculty or staff member, typically a Registered Student Organization, the student trip leader is responsible for submitting the Travel Permission Request.
  5. Individual travelers must work with a faculty or staff sponsor on their request.
  6. The Director of the Office of Global Safety and Security (OGSS) reserves the right to require, in her/his sole discretion, a Travel Permission Request of any group or individual in cases where an additional level of review seems prudent. Some examples of situations that might prompt such a review include travel destinations that are new to Northwestern, groups or individuals inexperienced in travel proposing to go to locations of heightened risk, higher-risk activities (such as construction, open water, medical services, etc.), countries recently removed from either the U.S. DOS Travel Warning list or CDC Travel Notice Warning Level 3 list, or other specific locations of heightened risk that are not subject to either a Travel Warning or CDC Warning.

The International Risk Assessment Committee (IRAC) will review these requests and make a recommendation to the Provost, who will make a final decision.

Prohibited/restricted travel - individual activities

In general, individual undergraduate students are not permitted to participate in unaffiliated study abroad programs, independent studies, research, service learning, conference travel, athletic competitions, arts performances or exhibitions, or internships in countries with U.S. DOS Travel Warnings or CDC Warnings. Accordingly, the University will not grant academic credit or provide funds for any such activities. However, exceptions may be made in certain circumstances when the student’s experience is facilitated, sponsored, monitored or controlled by Northwestern faculty or staff. As a result, all students must obtain a faculty or staff sponsor. If the student intends to obtain credit for his/her experience, the student must meet with the Associate Director of Study Abroad at least four to six weeks prior to the standard study abroad request deadline corresponding with the proposed term of study to ensure the activity meets Northwestern standards of academic integrity. If the student is not earning credit, but applying university funds, the student is required to work with the OGSS to meet various pre-departure requirements. Finally, the student must apply for permission to travel under the policy at least eight weeks prior to the student’s planned departure. Individual student requests for permission to travel under the policy without faculty or staff support will not be considered. For more information, see Travel permission request process.

Program suspension/revocation of travel permission/withdrawal

The University reserves the right to withdraw its approval at any time should conditions presented in a request for approval change materially. The Director of OGSS, the faculty advisers or program directors (if applicable), and the students are responsible for monitoring conditions in approved travel locations. The Director of OGSS will communicate information and an assessment with affected individuals when there is a sudden change of condition (see below). 

Sudden change of condition

In addition to reviewing requests for permission under the Undergraduate Travel Policy, IRAC is also responsible for recommending whether or not to suspend an ongoing or previously approved education abroad opportunity if a significant health, safety or security concern is raised regarding that experience. In making this assessment, the Committee will consider the risk management plan for the students, staff or faculty involved in the program or experience and the balance between the value of the experience in that specific location versus the risks associated with that location/activity.

Though uncommon, it is possible that a specific program, activities in a specific location (city, region, or country) or all activities abroad would need to be modified or suspended by the University due to a health or safety concern. This concern may arise if a new/revised Travel Warning or CDC Warning is issued for a location or if conditions presented in a Travel Permission Request change materially.

See Travel Modification or Suspension and Evacuation for more information.

Travel permission request process

Note: the Committee reserves the right to adjust these procedures without notice.

Requests for permission to engage in undergraduate international activities in locations subject to a U.S. DOS Travel Warning or CDC Warning are made to the IRAC. Requests for permission to create a new Northwestern-affiliation should follow the official Travel Permission Request Guidelines for Program/Group Travel. Requests for permission for individual student international activity should follow Travel Permission Request Guidelines for Individual Experiences or Unaffiliated Programs.

All review materials must be submitted at least one quarter prior to the envisioned start of the program to the Director of OGSS. The Committee will not review requests until all relevant materials have been submitted. Due to the limited number of times the IRAC meets each year and the complexity involved in making a quality travel permission request, applicants should plan on the entire review process taking six to eight weeks. Failure to allow sufficient time for review may result in a denied request and/or a delayed program start. Please note that Travel Permission will only apply to the specific program or experience approved, not to a country or region.

In cases where a new Travel Warning or CDC Warning is issued less than one quarter prior to an already approved program’s student request deadline, every effort will be made to facilitate an emergency meeting of the Committee to conduct a thorough and timely review of the situation.

Special Note - Expedited review

Certain requests for travel permission may qualify for an expedited review, such as:

An expedited review requires a two-page memo outlining his/her travel plans. This document must be provided to the Director of OGSS at least six weeks prior to planned departure for email routing/review to the IRAC.

The Director of OGSS, in consultation with members of the IRAC, will determine whether an expedited review is appropriate.

Exemptions (new as of 1/1/2017)

Northwestern undergraduates (F-1 or J-1 visa holders) who are returning to their home countries for university-sponsored experiences need not apply for Travel Permission, but proof of citizenship and permanent residency must be provided to OGSS at least six weeks prior to departure. Such students are still required to complete all other pre-departure requirements, like all other undergraduates, including enrollment in Northwestern's International Travel Registry.

Request materials

Complete electronic requests should be submitted to the Director of OGSS. Most importantly, the request should discuss the academic value of the program and the necessity of its location (as opposed to an alternate location not subject to a Travel Warning or CDC Warning) and how the structure of the program and the safety procedures in place on-site mitigate the concerns raised by the Travel Warning or CDC Warning.

Requests must include the following:

  1. Program overview/institutional context;
  2. Letter of endorsement from the academic unit (or individual) likely to approve the course credits or endorse the experience, e.g. Dean, Department Chair, etc., (some exemptions apply see PDF guidelines below);
  3. Links to the relevant U.S. DOS Travel Warning, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention country profile and/or other credible news/risk analysis sources such as security information subscription services.
  4. Summary of the risk management plan, including pre-departure health, safety, and security information/education; and
  5. Additional materials in support of the request or otherwise requested by the Chair of the IRAC.

Detailed descriptions of these request elements can be found in Travel Permission Request Guidelines for Program/Group Travel or for Individual Experiences or Unaffiliated Programs.

Approval criteria

The proposal must be strongly linked to academic program goals, and the safety issues raised in the request must be adequately addressed and documented. The IRAC will only recommend approval of requests when there is a compelling justification for the program.

In addition to the materials provided by the applicant, the Committee may also take into account in its discretion:

Approval decisions

Requests for special travel permission are reviewed by the IRAC. Approval decisions are made by the Provost after review and recommendation by the IRAC, as described more fully below.

In addition to the expectation that all participating students will abide by the standard study abroad code of conduct/participation rules and regulations - including but not limited to submitting proof of GeoBlue insurance coverage and enrollment with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)- all students accepted to programs that operate under special travel permission are required to electronically agree to the  Undergraduate Travel Release  found in the study abroad application or international travel registry.

The directors/leaders of any trip or program that has received special permission to operate in a country with a Travel Warning or CDC Warning are required to schedule a discussion with the Director of OGSS at least four weeks prior to departure to review and update (if necessary) the risk management plan as well as establish a communications plan. Failure to schedule and attend this meeting may result in revocation of Travel Permission.

IRAC approval recommendations

After reviewing the request materials and conducting its review, the IRAC, by majority vote, could make one of several forms of approval recommendations to the Provost:

  1. Approve participation at the location for a one-time specific education abroad program opportunity only.
  2. Approve participation at the location for a specific student for a one-time specific project or program.
  3. Approve operation of an affiliated, USAC-approved study abroad program. Such approval would be granted for two years, absent any material change in the Travel Warning or CDC Warning. At least one quarter prior to the approval’s expiration, a representative from the sponsoring academic unit may request continuation.
  4. Conditionally approve in one of the three above categories, with recommendations for programmatic changes. (As soon as the Chair receives written communication affirming the completed changes, the recommendation to approve will pass from the Committee to the Provost.)

The Provost will review the Committee’s recommendations to make a final determination, or, in rare incidents, request additional information or clarification from the Committee or from the travel permission applicant.

IRAC denial recommendations

After reviewing the request materials and conducting its review, the IRAC, by majority vote, could recommend that the Provost deny travel permission. In cases of a denied recommendation, the IRAC will share its written recommendation and rationale with both the travel permission applicant and the Provost. The travel permission applicant will then have 10 days from the receipt of the IRAC denied recommendation to submit additional written materials in support of the request to the Provost, should the applicant choose to do so. The Provost may also request additional information or clarification from the Committee or from the applicant.

The Provost will generally accept the denial recommendation of IRAC unless the applicant can demonstrate that:

  1. There was a procedural error in the initial recommendation (i.e. failure to meet quorum, incomplete review packet, etc.);
  2. There is new information that was not available at the time of the initial review; or
  3. The recommendation to deny permission was grossly unfair or manifestly contrary to the weight of the record.

The Provost will review all information to make a final determination. In all cases, the Provost’s decision is final and not subject to appeal.

Additions or modification to trips/programs approved by the Provost

If an approved international activity adds a new experience or academic track that materially changes the security profile of the activity, an explanation of how perceived risks may be mitigated is required. The applicant should consult with the Director of OGSS to determine what parts of the Travel Permission Request Guidelines for Programs/Group Travel  or Individual Experiences or Unaffiliated Program Travel are required for the Committee’s review and approval by the Provost.

Permission/limited duration

Absent a change of condition that warrants earlier evacuation, programs/experiences that operate with permission under the policy are valid for two years and upon expiration, the program's administrative sponsor (or the individual’s faculty/staff sponsor) must submit a renewal request.

Financial responsibilities

Northwestern University does not assume responsibility for financial risks associated with participation in its education abroad opportunities. If the University cancels a program before departure or while the program is in progress for reasons beyond its control including, but not limited to, political unrest or danger to participant safety, changes to the U.S. DOS Travel Warning or the CDC Warning, only those recoverable fees or tuition refunded to the University by service providers and/or institutions will be returned to participants. The University will make reasonable efforts to obtain refunds from applicable service providers and/or institutions, but no refunds are guaranteed. In addition to lost fees and tuition, participants may incur additional travel expenses in connection with program cancellation. Participants may or may not receive academic credit if a program is canceled. The University assumes no responsibility for the financial or other losses of program participants resulting from cancellation. 

Supplemental insurance

Students, staff, and faculty are encouraged to consider supplemental insurance options to cover losses if programs or activities are canceled. Supplemental insurance is also helpful if a student needs to cancel participation in a program or return early due to unforeseen personal emergencies. Such insurance is not required by the University and must be purchased on an individual basis.

First finalized by the Study Abroad Risk Assessment Committee June 8, 2012. Nomenclature adjustments made September 21, 2012. Policy and procedure revisions approved January 23, 2015. Nomenclature and formatting updates August 14 and 17, 2015.

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