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A Resource for Harvard's Travelers

"Crossing a street in Vietnam is the craziest thing I've ever done." So says Elizabeth Esparza, a former diplomatic security special agent who served under three former Secretaries of State and who now advises Harvard’s travelers and program staff on international safety and security, with a focus on gender and identity-based risks. Esparza also completed assignments as an assistant regional security officer with the U.S. Embassy in Guinea and U.S. Consulate General in Mexico, so while crossing a street amidst a whirl of tuk-tuks, cars, cyclists, pedestrians, and blinking lights in Vietnam is an amazing feat, she’s managed to triage a plethora of high-stakes incidents abroad.

And she’s not alone.

A pedestrian's view of the cars, cyclists, and tuk-tuks to dodge while crossing the street in Vietnam

Tim Brokmeier, a program manager for the international safety and security team, joined Global Support Services (GSS) in January 2016 and brought with him a 25-year career spanning the U.S. Navy and corporate security.

Among the three teams in GSS, staff proactively support and enable international projects, travel, and operations; mitigate risks to individuals and the University; and respond to overseas emergencies. In 2011, Harvard was among the first 10 universities in the country to create such an office. GSS also created and leads the University's International Emergency Management Team (IEMT), which plays an integral role in the University's response to overseas incidents. Now there are 60 to 70 such offices at universities across the country, and Harvard continues to lead the way and develop a model that many people aspire to in the industry.

Evolving with the Needs of Travelers

Esparza recently traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia to meet with regional security officers. Here, she tours Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The world has become more accessible yet more complex. Not that long ago, study abroad meant traveling with a group of classmates and teachers on a structured program. While that still happens, there are also many lone travelers, as Esparza notes. "It's now the one researcher going out and studying refugee flows between two war-torn countries and immersing herself in the community to get that real-time information on the ground. She's going to have the same concerns that a journalist, a peace worker, or an NGO worker in the field may face. That's the reality of what university travel abroad is becoming, and we have to manage those expectations."

While safety is the team's top priority, they work with Harvard's travelers to explore and vet options that enable continuity of academic programming. "Students, faculty, and staff come to us with options,” says Brokmeier. "We're not telling them, 'You have to do this. You can’t do that.' Our job is to support and enable travel and academic pursuits abroad. We're not here to say no."

Esparza adds, "If someone is researching a controversial thesis topic—LGBTQ issues in Uganda, for example—we'll talk with them about the concerns, risks, and alternatives. What steps can we take to help you reach your goals safely in this country? Could you reach the same goals in a different country with less risk? Or, maybe we can connect you with a LGBTQ group that's operating on the ground already so you can talk with them and understand what it means to do that type of research there."

"The question needs to be asked: How can we help you? We're here to be a resource. And it's important that travelers have this information from the beginning. Every time I talk to a student I learn something new. That's an opportunity that I never take for granted. Our experiences living, working, and studying abroad are not entirely reflective of what the experience is like today. So hearing students voice their concerns is an extremely important part of our job."

It Takes a Village

Growing a vast network of reliable security sources is another key component of the safety and security team’s proactive work. They’re in contact with former colleagues at the U.S. State Department and the private sector, as well as peer institutions and experts among Harvard’s faculty and international centers, on a weekly basis.

"Networking is so important," notes Esparza. "Among the team, we've lived in or traveled to more than 60 countries, but we haven't been everywhere. In 2016, Harvard travelers went to 168 countries, so while we’re all well-traveled, things change quickly, and it's important to be able to pick up the phone and call someone. Just the other morning I was talking to a former State Department colleague about neighborhoods in New Delhi. We go straight to the source and say, 'What do you think about this area? What are you seeing?'"

Capitalizing on Resources Here and Abroad

The team's focus is on empowering travelers to mitigate risks and letting them know which resources are at their disposal should they find themselves in a jam. The goal is to decrease incidents abroad. To that end, the team is working toward a better balance between their proactive and reactive work by collaborating more with Schools and departments across the University on pre-departure training, guidance, and education. "It's about getting the right information to the right people at the right time," says Brokmeier, "which isn't easy when your audience ranges from 18-year-old undergraduates to program staff and tenured faculty members, but we're working on building those relationships."

Esparza recalls a recent conversation with a student who returned from a highly conservative destination. "He said, 'I wish I had someone to call.' You always have someone to call. We're here, and Harvard Travel Assist is available 24-7-365. And that's the primary message that we're trying to get out there. There are resources here before you leave and while you're away."

The team's goal is to get information out to not only Harvard's travelers, but to the people who directly support Harvard's travelers—the program managers, departments, and Schools—so that they can become informed and empowered. Many of the same resources that are available on campus are also available abroad. "Just because you leave Harvard for a semester or a summer doesn't mean you're on your own. Whether it's mental health, medical care, security concerns, or sexual violence, we'll get you the help you need," says Brokmeier.

All Hands on Deck

Tim Brokmeier aboard the USS Reuben James in the early 90's

Of course, some incidents are a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the team must be ready at a moment's notice. Over the past few years, they've responded to the Ebola virus in West Africa, MERS CoV in South Korea, Zika virus in multiple regions, a political coup and evacuation in Burkina Faso, earthquakes in Mexico, Nepal, Myanmar, and Ecuador, and terrorist attacks in London, Brussels, Paris, Mali, Istanbul, and Jakarta, to name a few. At least one Harvard affiliate—and in many cases, multiple affiliates—were registered and known to be in each of those regions or to be resuming activities in those regions, and it's the team's job, along with the IEMT, to manage each incident response.

Brokmeier cautions that those are the extreme examples. "You also have your everyday illnesses, road traffic accidents, lost passports, and crime, all of which have the potential to be exacerbated in a foreign environment. So it's important to be aware of the entire spectrum of risks—whether there are obstacles to medical care, a proclivity for unrest, pervasive racism and discrimination, on-going violence, and so forth. It really comes down to knowing your country, understanding its culture, and identifying spaces that are safe, or at least less risky, and knowing how to operate within those spaces."

"Our door is open and we hope that more people walk through it. And we may sound like a broken record, but remember to register your travel before you leave and contact Harvard Travel Assist in an emergency."

"It's like the bat phone," quips Brokmeier.