Traveling in the Style of Safety

The ClearCause Foundation helps families mitigate the risks of international student travel.
Elizabeth Brenner, whose son Thomas Plotkin died on a student tour in India, along with Minnesota secretary of state Mark Ritchie and ClearCause founder Sheryl Hill at the organization's inaugural fundraiser.

More than 260,000 American students study abroad each year at the college level. Most are enriched by their multicultural experiences and exposure to international diversity, but these trips are not without risks. That’s where the ClearCause Foundation comes in: to ensure that parents and the kids are fully educated and prepared before sending their sons and daughters overseas.

The ClearCause Foundation was founded by Sheryl Hill and her husband, Allen, of Mound after her 16-year-old son Tyler died during what was supposed to be the international trip of a lifetime. Hill says, “I was a host mom for eight international students over 12 years. I loved them all. And I wanted my son to have a wonderful and rewarding trip abroad. But we were naïve, and Tyler’s death was preventable. We didn’t know that there is no federal oversight of these study abroad programs, and no minimum standards or sanctions for those who take our kids overseas.”

Hill now engages experts on global experiences and youth travel. People like Patti Weber, Neil Huotari, Dr. Stephen Ferst, Dr. Gary Rhodes and Dr. Stacy Tsantir are working to help keep kids safe on programs abroad.

She also seeks to inform people and the media to encourage legislation and oversight. “I asked a federal agent in Washington, D.C., which study abroad program is the best role model for safety,” Hill says. “He told me the University of Minnesota is one of the best, and it’s right in our own backyard. They are the first organization ever to have a health and safety director to supervise kids abroad.”

Hill adds, “There is a statute in Minnesota that gives the Minnesota Secretary of State the power to sanction programs that place foreign exchange students who travel here into harm’s way. When I asked Secretary of State deputy director Jim Gelbmann to expand the law to include Minnesota students going abroad, he said, ‘That makes sense.’ ” This is one of the many ways ClearCause is trying to protect student travelers.

The foundation also details steps on their website that families should take to prepare their student for overseas travel. “People assume that every place is like the U.S.,” Hill says, “but it’s not. There are often not similar regulations regarding balcony heights, smoke alarms, fire extinguishers or fire escapes. And students shouldn’t assume that calling 911 is the appropriate way to contact emergency services in another country.” 

Some basic things to consider when sending a student abroad are the skills and safety records of chaperones. Hill recommends asking the following questions:

  • Are chaperones first-responder certified?
  • Have they had background checks?
  • What is the student-to-chaperone ratio?
  • What are the guidelines for dealing with bad behavior?

ClearCause also encourages families to review the rules and limits on their insurance, health care and medications. Don’t assume that your health care coverage extends to illness or injuries incurred abroad. Hill says, “It’s extremely important for families to have a disaster plan. If your child is injured or hospitalized overseas, be sure you have a valid passport in case you need to get to them. Consider having legal counsel at the ready should your student encounter legal trouble. And saving enough money just for your child’s plane ticket may not be enough.”

She recommends creating a family crisis fund in case you need to make an emergency trip overseas. If your child is hospitalized, you may even need to stay in that country for an extended period of time. “That can be costly,” Hill stresses.

For more information or to donate emergency crisis funds to families in need, visit the foundation’s website at