Travel with Peace of Mind

Depart Smart targets unsafe tourism, from study-abroad programs to Costa Rican vacations, with better ways to prepare.
Sheryl Hill founded nonprofit Depart Smart for safer travel abroad.

On the University of Minnesota campus, standing at a street corner, a woman stops students walking by with an offer. “I’ll give you $5 if you can tell me what this means,” she says. She shows them a picture of a red flag on her iPad.

They guess. “The wind is blowing that way?” “Tack left?”

She corrects them: It means, “Don’t go in the water.” It means rip currents, or bacteria. Red flags on ocean beaches mean the same thing. Minnesota doesn’t have ocean beaches, so it’s not in our vocabulary. But the University ranks high among study-abroad programs, and in 2015, around 2,700 students left the country, some of them to ocean beaches. No small number, as students are more likely to die abroad than in a car accident, according to the Forum on Education Abroad.

The woman on campus, Sheryl Hill, gave away no $5 bills that day. She wasn’t surprised. As co-founder of Depart Smart with husband Allen, the St. Louis Park-based nonprofit that educates travelers, especially students and faculty, as well as parents about traveling safely, she is used to hearing wrong answers.

Hill suggests that part of the reason for general ignorance is government regulations that lag behind tourism. The $7 trillion travel industry runs without standards for safety, she notes, adding that people don’t know what they need before they fly because no laws hold booking companies and study-abroad programs accountable for shipping clients and students off to dangerous countries.

A question on a Depart Smart travel preparedness quiz (see end note), for example,  asks whether the traveler knows the country’s emergency phone number. In Japan, that number is not 911, but 119. This fact forces Sheryl and Allen to reflect on their son Tyler, who 10 years ago died of complications of extreme dehydration, caused by heavy vomiting after climbing Mt. Fuji during a student ambassador trip to Japan. “Not only did our son die, but there was nowhere for us to turn for an investigation, for due process, for justice,” Sheryl says.

In 2016, she spearheaded the Tyler Hill Sunshine Bill, the first bill in the world to require K-12 student-abroad programs to publicly report illnesses, injuries and deaths. But when the Hills met then-President Barack Obama last year, an official with Public Engagement told Sheryl something she already knew: Legislation alone is inadequate: “You have to enforce it.” Without the resources to enforce, Depart Smart shifted focus, from reactive legislation to preventive education.

“We’ve gotten the word out,” says Robin Kocina, chairman of the board for Depart Smart. “Now we’re working on a solution.” That solution involves preemptively changing people’s behavior. The nonprofit is also working on implementing an online certification course that goes something like this: “You are being encouraged to go to an exotic land, far away, where you have never been before, during times of civil unrest, with terrorism, natural disasters, dangerous animals and crime. You’ll need a plan to get back to your homeland safely. Will you accept the mission?”

“So it’s Star Wars,” Sheryl says. She has learned to speak the language of her audience and her collaborators. For example, a safety course means loyalty-building customer service for the travel insurance companies that could offer discounts to travelers who get certified.

Of course, it’s also life-saving.

“It’s simply this,” Sheryl says: “No whitewashing. No filtering. We tell the truth, even if it hurts us, because the deepest pain is a death.”  

See departsmart.org/st-louis-park-magazine/ for Sheryl Hill’s travel-preparedness quiz.

Check departsmart.org for updates and join the team May 18, the anniversary of Tyler Hill’s death, for a Japanese-themed event called “Around the World Safely” at the Minneapolis Event Center.