Gary Rhodes: Preventative Education Gives Last Call for Alcohol Abuse While Studying Abroad

Rhodes is director of the of The Center for Global Education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Over the past year, Gary Rhodes presented at a variety of higher education conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  As director of the of The Center for Global Education at UCLA, his areas of focus include health and safety during study abroad. The Center hosts the Safety Abroad First – Educational Travel Information Clearinghouse, used by many U.S. and international colleges and universities to support their study abroad programs along with other student and parent-centered resources for study abroad.

One of the workshops he helped coordinate and spoke at was the International Study Abroad Health and Safety Workshop presented by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) of the U.S. Department of State in Mexico City last August. More than 100 speakers and attendees included representatives from universities throughout the United States and Mexico, as well as representatives of the U.S. and Mexican governments and the International Education Association of Mexico.  The one-day conference was hosted by the University of California’s Education Abroad Program at its Casa de California facility.

Gary Rhodes represented the University of California at OSAC in Mexico. Courtesy of Gary Rhodes
Gary Rhodes represented the University of California at a workshop hosted by the Overseas Security Council of the U.S. Department of State in Mexico City. Courtesy of Gary Rhodes

Topics discussed included critical issues facing education abroad professionals including students’ physical and mental health, personal security, crisis management, regional security, and substance abuse. At this and other conferences he has presented at recently (the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, NAFSA:  the Association of International Educators, Association of International Education Administrators, etc.), the issue of alcohol use and abuse by U.S. students is of critical concern.

Rhodes recently co-authored an article titled, “Alcohol Reduction Programs for Students Studying Abroad,” in The Addictions Newsletter of the American Psychological Association. He says that U.S. institutions need to be more proactive about preparing U.S. study abroad students, who are underage before departure and after exiting the plane, for their stay in countries where alcohol is legally accessible to them.

“Students who are 18, 19, and 20-years-old and can’t legally drink in the U.S. hear stories from other study abroad students about all the partying that goes on abroad,” says Rhodes. “They get on a plane and ten hours later, the bar is open.

“Alcohol is going to be out there. There’s a question whether it should be made available during program activities and whether students are provided with guidance about how to be responsible about it. But I think that a significant amount of that responsibility falls to the students themselves, because they are officially adults.  On a U.S. campus, although many underage students drink, it is difficult to have an open dialogue while it is illegal.  However, in study abroad, students are of legal drinking age and faculty and staff can talk about legal and responsible alcohol use.”

Rhodes says that 329,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2011/12 academic year, with more than 283,000 as a part of a U.S. university degree program, and over 46,000 gaining degrees at universities abroad. He says that with the legal drinking age being 18 in many countries where great numbers of U.S. students travel, there is a need to prepare students to use alcohol responsibly. When the Center for Global Education was housed at Loyola Marymount University from 2004 to 2010, Rhodes and colleagues in the LMU “Heads-Up!” alcohol research and awareness project created an “Alcohol Awareness for Study Abroad” video, which is still being used, with some updates, by study abroad programs to support responsible use of alcohol. The instructional video features former study-abroad students who share their experiences with alcohol and substance abuse. Rhodes also created guides for study abroad faculty and staff to use in preparing students to deal with these issues.

“In many cases, study abroad directors connect many behavior problems and health and safety issues to alcohol use and abuse by students when abroad,” says Rhodes. “The [challenge] is how to provide students with information to help them think about it more responsibly so that it doesn’t become the disaster that it can possibly be.”

Along with orientation, highlighting deeper meanings of the study abroad experience can also make a difference. Including a community service component in study abroad programs, according to Rhodes, can be an effective way to illustrate that heavy partying and alcohol abuse is inconsistent with the mission of the program.

“Institutions have found that if you integrate community service within a study abroad program, it elevates the meaning behind it,” Rhodes says. “Students do connect to international learning and personal growth. But, like the realities on a U.S. campus, part of the experience is social and students want to have a good time.

“Community service adds a theme to the program that goes beyond the experience of the individual, focusing students on how they can help others during their program abroad. That would be true on a [home] campus too. When students engage in activities that are more service-oriented, that would take time away from activities that are more self-indulgent.”

To obtain additional background on Rhodes’ Alcohol Awareness for Study Abroad video and orientation resources, click here. Other health and safety and study abroad resources can be found at www.globaled.us.