When study abroad ends in death, US parents find few answers

This March 25, 2017 photo shows a view of Munsiyari, a small town in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, India. In 2011, Minnesota resident, Thomas Plotkin, was on a hiking study abroad trip close to this town, when he fell off a hiking trail, never to be seen again. More than five years later, his mother Elizabeth Brenner, travelled through the town and hiked to the spot where he fell. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this April 13, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, who is following the last footsteps of her son in India, enters the Gangasagar beach in West Bengal state, where the Ganges river flows into the Bay of Bengal. Brenner's son Thomas Plotkin, died during a study abroad trip to the mountains of India more than five-years-ago. His body was never found. Brenner spent two months tracing the 1,037 mile path along the Ganges River as she believes this is the path taken by her son's remains. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 26, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner rests on a rock on the Milam Glacier Trail near the town of Munsiyari, in the mountains of north India. Brenner was on a "pilgrimage" following the last footsteps of her son, Thomas Plotkin, who slipped and fell more than 300 feet down a steep gorge while on a study abroad trip to the mountains of India in September 2011. His body was never found. Hundreds of thousands of American students study abroad each year, but no one can say exactly how many are injured or die.(AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 27, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, third right, and her family sit at the spot on the Milam Glacier Trail where Brenner's son, Thomas Plotkin, slipped and fell more than 300 feet down a steep gorge and into the raging Goriganga river in 2011. Plotkin, a University of Iowa student at the time, was on an outdoor learning study abroad trip to India, and was on his way out of the mountains in north India when he fell. His body was never found. Hundreds of thousands of American students study abroad each year, but no one can say exactly how many are injured or die. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
This March 23, 2017 photo shows the view from a balcony at the India headquarters of Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. In 2011, Minnesota resident, Thomas Plotkin, was enrolled in the Semester in India program through the school when he fell off a hiking trail, never to be seen again. According to his mother, Plotkin loved this view and spent a lot of time gazing out from this balcony. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 26, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, wearing white, and her partner Barry Knight hike through a rocky trail on their way to the spot where Brenner's son slipped and fell more than 300 feet down a steep gorge in 2011 in the mountains of north India. Hundreds of thousands of American students study abroad each year, but no one can say exactly how many are injured or die. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this April 15, 2017 photo, River Ganga or the Ganges is seen from a tourist spot in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Elizabeth Brenner is on a pilgrimage following the last footsteps of her son who was studying abroad in India in 2011. She believes that part of her son's remains flowed across India through the Ganga river into the Bay of Bengal. Hundreds of thousands of American students study abroad each year, but no one can say exactly how many are injured or die. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this April 13, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, 62, in green dress, sits on a crowded steamer boat along with her partner Barry Knight near Gangasagar, West Bengal, India. Brenner's son died during a study abroad trip to the mountains of India more than five-years-ago. His body was never found. Brenner spent two months tracing the 1,037 mile path along the Ganges River to where it empties into the Bay of Bengal as she believes this is the path taken by her son's remains. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this April 13, 2017 photo, a local woman helps Elizabeth Brenner, left, a mother from Minnesota, take a dip in the waters of Gangasagar in West Bengal, India, where the Ganges river flows into the ocean. Brenner was on a pilgrimage following the last footsteps of her son who died while studying abroad in India. She believes that part of her son's remains flowed across India through the Ganges river into the Bay of Bengal. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 28, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, right, gazes skywards during her meeting with locals in Lilam village in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in north India. Brenner's son Thomas Plotkin fell off a hiking trail near the village while on a study abroad trip in 2011. His body was never found. Brenner is on a journey through India tracing the last footsteps of her son and talking to locals who were involved in the rescue efforts more than five-years-ago. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this April 13, 2017 photo, Sara Mickman, sitting second right, and her daughter Sophia Mickman, right, travel on a steamer boat in West Bengal state, India. The mother and daughter are accompanying Elizabeth Brenner, not in picture, on a "pilgrimage" following the last footsteps of Brenner's son, Thomas Plotkin who died while studying abroad in the mountains of north India in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of American students study abroad each year, but no one can say exactly how many are injured or die. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 25, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, left, talks to her sister Sara Mickman, and her niece Sophia, at a restaurant in the town of Munsiyari in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, India. Brenner was discussing her journey a day before they set off on a hike through narrow, rocky trails that lead to the spot where Brenner's son died in 2011. They were accompanied by Elizabeth's partner Barry Knight, right, and Knight's son Max, second right. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 25, 2017 photo, Elizabeth Brenner, left, and her family go through an emotional moment at a cafe in Munsiyari in the mountains of north India. They were finalizing the path they would take to hike to the spot where her son, Thomas Plotkin had a fatal fall in 2011. Under their hands is a local map that details the Milam Glacier Trail, the same trail that Plotkin was hiking on while on a study abroad trip in 2011. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)
In this March 27, 2017 photo, a bell with the name "Thomas" inscribed on it that was hung by Elizabeth Brenner on the Milam Glacier Trail in Uttarakhand state of North India. Thomas Plotkin, a University of Iowa student at the time, was on an outdoor learning study abroad trip to India, when he fell more than 300 feet down a steep gorge. A similar bell hung by his classmates in 2011 had washed away by the seasons, so Plotkin's mother Brenner replaced it with this one. (AP Photo/Rishabh R. Jain)

NEW DELHI — Nearly six years after her son slipped and fell around 100 meters (yards) into a raging mountain river in India, never to be seen again, Elizabeth Brenner is still wondering how such an accident could have happened.

Brenner's son, Thomas Plotkin, was one of the millions of American students who have studied abroad on university-sponsored programs in the last decade — part of a growing global youth travel industry estimated to be worth $183 billion a year.

He wanted to experience another culture, "unlike anything that he'd ever known," Brenner said.

Others want to study a new language or learn about different political systems. Universities generally encourage study abroad because they believe it improves leadership skills and employment prospects.

When her son died, Brenner began looking into how many other students died overseas, and who might be keeping track of the deaths.

"The answer was that nobody was keeping track of this at all," she said.

The number of American students studying abroad each year has doubled in the last decade. But while U.S. colleges and universities must report deaths on their campuses, they are not required to disclose most student deaths that occur abroad, and data collected by industry organizations are incomplete.

More than 313,400 American students earned academic credit for studying abroad in 2014-15, according to the Institute of International Education, which creates study-abroad programs and manages U.S. government study-abroad scholarships.

Most student deaths or injuries overseas are only briefly discussed or mentioned in local newspaper reports. The U.S. Department of Education keeps no such statistics.

A group called the Forum on Education Abroad has attempted to gather such data for 2014 from two insurance companies, which together cover half of the U.S. study-abroad market. The group — with about 100 study-abroad companies and 570 schools as members — used the partial data from only one year to argue in a 2016 report that students are less likely to die overseas than on a U.S. campus, and "to understand more about the student experience, so that programs can be improved and risk can be mitigated," its chief, Brian Whalen, told The Associated Press.

It calculated a mortality rate of 13.5 deaths for every 100,000 college students studying abroad, versus 29.4 deaths on campus, to argue that studying overseas was actually safer.

Brenner and other parents slammed the report , saying the findings are misleading because a full half of the study-abroad market was ignored, giving parents the idea that programs are safer than they may actually be.

The Forum on Education Abroad has since expanded its study to cover the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, and will be releasing a new report in the fall. A preliminary analysis of that report was presented in June and showed a mortality rate for college students studying abroad of 18.1 deaths per 100,000. However, the report will still cover only half the number of students studying abroad.

Whalen said his group tried to get the exact number of student deaths overseas from the U.S. State Department, but it was not available.

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Ros Thackurdeen hasn't been able to sleep through the night since her youngest son, Ravi, drowned while on a school-sponsored excursion to a beach in Costa Rica in 2012.

"I began searching the internet," Thackurdeen said. Within five years, she amassed seven binders of newspaper articles and travel alerts counting 3,200 other students who had died or been kidnapped, drugged, injured or assaulted abroad over the last few decades.

For 2014, she counted 14 student deaths — far higher than the four listed by the Forum on Education Abroad among the nearly 150,000 students it was able to track that year. The forum calculated a mortality rate of 13.5 per 100,000 from those four deaths in an effort to compare on-campus deaths with those during study-abroad programs, which often last less than a full school year.

"What I discovered about study-abroad safety was disturbing," Thackurdeen said from her home in Newburgh, New York. "The numbers of incidents and deaths on study abroad are overwhelming."

She and other grieving mothers began demanding more transparency about what happens when students go overseas.

"Coffee beans and bowling balls have more rules than any program, school, professor or teacher escorting our kids into foreign countries," said Sheryl Hill, who has built a business called Depart Smart around providing safety advice to students going abroad after her 16-year-old son, Tyler, fell ill and died while studying in Japan in 2007. She said he had Type-1 diabetes and died from dehydration when he did not receive medical attention in time.

Grieving parents successfully lobbied for legislation in Minnesota in 2014 and in Virginia two years later to regulate the study-abroad industry. A similar measure has been introduced in New York, and one member of Congress is now pushing a nationwide bill.

"Knowing which areas are hotspots for violent crime is important information for kids and parents to know when they're making decisions on where they'll study abroad," said Rep. Sean Maloney, a Democrat from New York, who first introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act in Congress in 2014. The bill failed to pass in the Republican-led House of Representatives, and Maloney plans to reintroduce it in September.

"If our kids are consistently getting hurt in a particular city or at a particular university, American families have a right to know that information so they can make informed choices about where to study," Maloney said.

Gregory Malveaux, study-abroad coordinator at Montgomery College in Maryland, published a 2016 book titled "Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities, and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education," covering study-abroad risks and preventative measures that could offset them.

Malveaux backs the idea of mandating institutions to release data on student deaths and injuries while studying abroad.

"If this data exists on-campuses, it needs to also cover off-campuses," Malveaux said. "Study abroad is no more dangerous for students than on-campus activities and occurrences. But it is beneficial to know the level of safety, and safety measures available, for the entire institution, including study abroad."

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The lure of studying abroad is as strong as ever, and universities are eager to accommodate. At least 1,000 American universities and colleges currently offer credit for studying overseas, up from 700 a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education. In addition, "many campuses" with fewer than 10 students studying abroad aren't on the list, institute spokeswoman Sharon Witherell said.

Last year, new federal legislation was introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, to make studying abroad an integral part of higher education by creating more university grants and incentives. The goal of the bill is to increase the number of Americans studying overseas to 1 million a year.

Educators believe the experience increases students' chances of landing management-level employment.

"Study abroad is a priority" at the University of Iowa, said Downing Thomas, the dean of international programs at the school, which sends more students to India than any other U.S. institution. "Far too few executives have the skills to be truly successful in unfamiliar cultural waters."

But the benefits of study abroad are not limited to landing good jobs.

"It contributes to personal growth through greater independence, deeper self-knowledge and greater tolerance for ambiguity," said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education. "There is evidence that study abroad is a high-impact practice that contributes to overall academic success."

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There is much about study-abroad programs that parents may not know — including that their child's university may not actually be overseeing the program. Many American universities and colleges find it too expensive or difficult to manage such programs. Instead, they refer students to independent, third-party operators such as the Institute for the International Education of Students, the Council on International Educational Exchange or Semester at Sea.

These independent program operators are not authorized to give college credits. So they partner with accredited institutions, often different from the school where the student is enrolled.

Thackurdeen said the setup was duplicitous. "These universities offer these programs as if it's theirs," she said.

Her 19-year-old son had been studying chemistry and pre-med at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but his tropical medicine course in Costa Rica was being accredited through Duke University. "They give you a sense that they have done their due diligence," she said.

After Ravi Thackurdeen died, Swarthmore stopped backing the program he'd been on, offered by the Organization of Tropical Studies, but continued backing others offered through that same nonprofit consortium.

When Plotkin died on his 2011 trip to the Indian Himalayas, the University of Iowa, where he had been enrolled, cut off all ties with the National Outdoor Leadership School and stopped accepting academic credits earned from its courses.

Thackurdeen and Brenner both sued the program providers for negligence, and their cases were moved to courts in the states where the programs were based. Thackurdeen's case is pending in North Carolina, while Brenner was forced to settle after a court ordered mediation.

"It is as if the state itself doesn't want you to prevail," Brenner said. "Safety will come from transparency."

Earlier this year, Brenner spent two months tracing the winding, 1,670-kilometer (1,037-mile) trail along the Goriganga and Ganges rivers to where the water empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Brenner said she believed this was the path her 20-year-old son's body traveled after he fell more than 90 meters (300 feet) from the trail in September 2011.

"He lived 30 days after I put him on the plane and sent him to India," said Brenner, from Minnetonka, Minnesota. Now fatigued and unsure of what she was searching for, she said she was trying to gain any knowledge she can about those 30 days leading up to his death.

"Did he suffer? Was he awake when he hit the river? That part breaks my heart over and over again, thinking about him being alone during those last few seconds," said Brenner.

"I still feel a tremendous amount of grief. I'll have to figure out how to carry that for the rest of my life."

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Follow Rishabh R. Jain on Twitter at twitter.com/RishabhRJain1

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This story has been corrected to change Plotkin's age to 20 instead of 21.

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