Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Study Abroad Representative and Gilman Program Officer at the State Department Theresa Gagnon spoke via webcam to a room full of close to 25 study abroad and international safety advisors from the greater Boston area during a roundtable discussion in Dowling Hall on Friday.
Bernier-Toth and Gagnon were originally supposed to be in Medford for the talk but were unable to travel from Washington D.C. because of a government shutdown, according to Diplomat in Residence for New England Jon Danilowicz.
The shutdown in question was in regards to the national budget and lasted from 12:01 a.m. on Friday morning to around 8:40 a.m. that day, when President Trump tweeted that he had signed a bill that would allow the government to reopen.
Bernier-Toth, who said she has worked for various overseas services for 17 years, began by saying that in the 2015–2016 academic year, more than 325,000 U.S. students went abroad.
“A fundamental responsibility of the State Department is taking care of U.S. citizens abroad,” Bernier-Toth said. “Students are a key part of that.”
Bernier-Toth said the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the State Department works closely with the ECA and Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) to disseminate important security information to U.S. citizens abroad.
She talked about the four steps of a traveler’s checklist: getting informed, getting required documents, getting enrolled in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and getting insured. STEP is a program that allows travelers to register their trips with the government so they can receive pertinent information while abroad.
Bernier-Toth showed the audience the newly redesigned, mobile-friendly Consular Information Program website, which details the levels of risk for traveling to any given country. She said that Level 1 is associated with low-risk countries like Canada, whereas a Level 4 travel advisory is given to Syria because of terrorism and armed conflict.
There are travel advisories assigned to every country, detailing the specific risks and regions to avoid, according to Bernier-Toth.
“We will be very specific about what those risks are and specific steps we want people to take to mitigate the risks to themselves if they choose to travel,” she said.
Bernier-Toth said that if a place is not safe for embassy officials to travel to, then the State Department will warn U.S. citizens against traveling to that region as well.
“Under the ‘No Double Standard Policy,’ these are places that we tell our embassy staff to not go, and so therefore we’re going to tell the public that too,” she said.
Bernier-Toth listed the variety of services the State Department provides to U.S. citizens abroad, including aid with emergency passports, medical emergencies, crisis response, voting assistance and ensuring fair process for arrests.
She encouraged the advisors present to inform students of the tools at their disposal. She added that OSAC would provide consulting support and risk analysis of countries.
Following a quick round of clarifying questions from the audience for Bernier-Toth, Gagnon stepped in for her part of the talk.
Gagnon continued where Bernier-Toth left off and described resources and program options for students. Gagnon works for the U.S. study abroad branch of the ECA.
“Our mission, essentially, is to send more diverse Americans to more diverse destinations abroad,” she said.
She said this is accomplished primarily through two exchange programs: the Critical Language Scholarship and the Gilman Scholarship. Gilman Scholarships are awards of up to $5000 given to students who are receiving the Pell Grant to pay for college and would not otherwise have the opportunity to go abroad.
Students studying one of many “critical need languages,” seen as essential for U.S. national security, can further earn $3,000 to put towards their travel, Gagnon said.
Gagnon went on to discuss the Fulbright Programs available to young graduates and young professionals. She said there are a variety of options for students and teachers, both in the U.S. and abroad, to travel for educational or teaching purposes, all of which can be found on their website.
Gagnon encouraged advisors to inform their students about the opportunities available to them and welcomed any critical feedback.