Medical issues, health & safety

Basic information

Off-Campus Programs Student Handbook


Travel health resources (including immunizations)

All students participating in the China, Ghana, Hungary, Peru and Thailand semester must be seen by Health Services prior to travel to make sure they are up-to-date with all necessary vaccinations (e.g. measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, influenza, and polio). This visit should take place ideally 4-6 weeks before travel, to get any additional vaccinations, medications, or information you may need to stay healthy while studying off-campus. Certain immunizations are required prior to travel (depending on program location).

Likewise, students participating in interims going to Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Central America, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Pacific Islands and South America need to be seen by health services prior to travel to make sure they are up-to-date with all necessary vaccinations. Health Services will bill the cost of any immunizations needed for both interim and semester program to the student's own insurance. 

In addition to immunizations, Health Services provides a number of other resources as you prepare for your time off-campus (especially if you are studying abroad). Research additional information about staying healthy while traveling, make an appointment as well as complete the Travel Health Module by reviewing the Travel website of Calvin’s Health Services.

Physical health (while traveling internationally)

During your semester or interim experience, students should do the following to reduce their risk of illness and injury:

  • In developing areas, boil your water or drink only bottled water or carbonated drinks from cans or bottles with intact seals. Do not drink tap water or fountain drinks or add ice to beverages. Avoid eating salads, fresh vegetables and fruits you cannot peel yourself, and unpasteurized dairy products. Eat only food that has been fully cooked and served hot.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand gel to clean your hands.
  • Avoid animal bites by not handling or petting animals, especially dogs and cats. If you are bitten or scratched, wash the wound immediately with soap and water and seek medical attention to determine if medication or anti-rabies vaccine is needed.
  • If visiting an area where there is risk of malaria, use insect repellent and a mosquito net for sleeping, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants outdoors between dusk and dawn, and make sure to take your malaria prevention medication before, during, and after your trip, as directed.
  • If you are visiting a country that has experienced an avian flu (bird flu) outbreak, avoid poultry farms, bird markets, and other places where live poultry is raised or kept. For more information, see the webpage from the Center for Disease Control "Guidelines and Recommendations: Interim Guidance about Avian Influenza A (H5N1) for U.S. Citizens Living Abroad."
  • Travel to high altitudes may result in altitude sickness. To minimize this potential, acclimate over a few days time. Avoid exertion and alcohol. Drink extra water. Symptoms usually resolve in 24-48 hours and can be helped with analgesics and anti-nausea medications.
  • Automobile accidents are the leading cause of preventable deaths in travelers. Wear your seat belt and follow the local customs and laws regarding pedestrian safety and vehicle speed. Avoid night travel if possible.
  • If visiting an area, which has risk of water-borne infections (i.e. schistosomiasis), do not swim in lakes or streams or other bodies of fresh water.
  • Keep feet clean and dry, and do not go barefoot, especially on beaches where there may be animal waste, to prevent fungal and parasitic infections.
  • Use sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection.

If you become sick while you are away, be sure to inform the program director, your host family, or some other responsible person on site. If things don’t improve in a day or two, get to a doctor. Your program director can help you get the treatment you need. In the case of accidents or injury, make sure you inform the program director about the accident or injury.

For specific health risks in the country you will be studying see the Calvin Health Center or the Center for Disease Control and/or see specific health information in the country appendices at the end of this handbook.

Mental health (while traveling internationally)

You are encouraged to be vigilant about your mental and emotional health while abroad. Suggestions for nurturing your mental health while traveling and studying off-campus include:

  • Be aware of the signs of culture shock so that you can identify symptoms in yourself.
  • Build supportive relationships with the people in your group.
  • Talk openly with others about how you are feeling, and ask for help when you need it.
  • When tensions arise with others, communicate openly and practice good listening skills.
  • Be intentional about the use of healthy coping skills, such as exercise, laughter, reading, relaxation, talking with others, artistic expression, listening to music, or prayer—figure out what has worked well for you to reduce stress in the past, and return to those copings skills.
  • Allow your mind to dwell on the good things in your experience abroad and in the people with whom you are spending your time.
  • Get enough sleep and eat regularly—be consistent in the timing of these routines.
  • Avoid the use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances that can reduce healthy coping abilities.
  • Maintain consistent spiritual practices.
  • Consider writing in a journal, with a focus in your writing on identifying your feelings, making helpful adjustments in your thinking, and problem-solving.
  • If applicable, stay consistent with prescribed mood medications.

For some, levels of emotional distress might go beyond the typical experiences of culture shock. If you find yourself in need of additional resources to manage your mental health, talk with your program director. Some of our off-campus sites have resources for on-site psychological counseling in English. These services are provided on a pay as you go basis and are the responsibility of the student.

If you know ahead of time that you are susceptible to emotional strain while abroad, consider talking with a counselor at the Broene Counseling Center prior to your departure. You are also advised to keep your program director informed of any struggles, and to work with them ahead of time to identify mental health resources at your off-campus site if needed. Referrals for mental health services can be sought through the US Embassy or through local organizations such as universities or churches.

Spiritual health (while traveling internationally)

Living abroad can be a time of great spiritual struggle, and growth. Before you leave think about how you will meet the challenge of living in a new environment, with new thorns and stumbling blocks, which will likely cast the state of your soul in a new light.

While you are off-campus, take the challenge of finding ways to nurture your spiritual health. Discuss with your fellow students and your program director how the group can hold one another spiritually accountable. In the past, students have organized Bible studies, attended church together, had weekly dinners with devotions, as well as had prayer partners while off-campus.


Carry all medications with you (in your carry-on) when you travel; make sure all medications are in their original, labeled containers. If possible bring enough of any prescribed medications to last the entire trip. In addition, bring copies of your prescriptions and the generic names for the drugs. If possible, carry a letter from your doctor attesting to your need to take the drug.

Safety tips

Calvin’s Off-Campus Programs (OCP) Office takes its responsibility seriously to do its utmost to provide a secure environment in which you can live and learn. Although no one can guarantee or assure the safety of participants or eliminate all risks from an off-campus study experience, our goal is to minimize risks and keep you and your parents aware of special situations as you make decisions about studying off-campus. While the OCP office and the program director will do everything possible to assure your safety while studying abroad, you must also recognize your responsibility for your security while studying off-campus.

Experience tells us that students who make themselves a "hard" target rather than a "easy" mark are much more likely to be safe while studying abroad. This means that you need to be constantly aware of your surrounding and make good decisions related to your behaviors. What follows are a number of personal checklists or tips that you can use to minimize the risks of travel wherever you find yourself.

Pre-departure checklist
  • Emergency contacts: Get emergency contact information from your Calvin instructor/director (check the contact info at the end of this handbook) to share with family and friends. Make sure the Calvin director and the Off-Campus Programs office has all your emergency family contacts.
  • Key travel documents: Photocopy key travel documents (passport, drivers license, itineraries, etc). Take one copy with you and leave one copy with your family or friends.
  • Health insurance: Learn how to access your health insurance coverage while abroad (know what your plan covers & how payments are made). Remember Calvin provides SUPPLEMENTAL travel insurance. This insurance includes: medical and political evacuation insurance and supplemental health insurance that will offer additional coverage when you have exhausted your primary insurance.
  • Practice language: Learning the language is important; start before you go. At the very least learn a number of survival phrases that will be useful in the places you will be traveling.
  • Local knowledge: Learn a bit about the culture in your host country. Review the US State Department Consular Information Sheets. In addition, inform yourself about local laws and customs in the country you are visiting before you leave.
In-Country Checklist
  • Air travel: In airports be attentive to your luggage and possessions. Keep possessions in your sight. Take care and look out for each other. While traveling on airplanes, keep yourself hydrated.
  • Situational awareness: Be constantly aware of your surroundings. Be alert for people or events that distract you from being attentive to your surroundings. Learn to trust "your gut" -- if something makes you uncomfortable get out of the situation into a more safe and secure location as quickly as possible. Whenever something unusual is happening, pay attention.
  • Keep a low profile: Remember that your accent, clothing, and mannerisms will indicate to others that you are not a local. There will be times that, for reasons of personal safety, you do not want to be marked as a tourist or otherwise be identified as an easy target for theft or assault. Learn how to do this at your site. Learn how the locals keep themselves safe and discuss with your program director and fellow students how to keep each other safe during your off-campus experience.
  • Presence: Develop a sense of confidence as you navigate new surroundings. When you walk as if you have no idea of where you are or what you are going to do next you are sending an immediate signal that you are a soft target to scam artists. Make use of maps to orient yourself prior to a trip.
  • Local knowledge: Understand where your resources within you host country are and how to get to these resources if needed. Where is the hospital? Police station? U.S. consulate or embassy? Program director’s home and office? What are the telephone contact numbers you need to carry? This should be addressed with your group upon arrival.
  • In case of a robbery: Carry a throw away wallet that you can give immediately if someone attempts to rob you. Carry a second wallet in a money belt or around your neck (under clothes, not in your back packet), which has an ID, some cash, credit card(s), a copy of your passport & a list of emergency phone numbers).
  • Key travel documents: Don’t carry your passport UNLESS you absolutely need it — a photocopy will do just fine for every day use
  • Emergency action plan: Understand the emergency action plan and discuss it with the director and fellow students in case of a natural disaster or traumatic world events;
  • Communication: Carry a cell phone with minutes for local calls (provided on most Calvin semester programs).
  • Money management: Think about how you will manage your money flow – banks, ATM machines, credit cards, etc. are all options depending where you are. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash, do not flash your cash. Have at least two sources of money (ATM card, credit card, debit card) in addition to cash, and keep them separately. If you lose or are robbed of one source, you will still have a way to get money.
  • Safety on the streets:
    • Avoid known high crime areas;
    • Don’t use short cuts, narrow alleys or poorly lit streets;
    • Try not to travel alone at night, and walk on well-lit and heavily travelled areas;
    • Avoid public demonstrations;
    • Beware of pickpockets and groups of vagrant children who could create a distraction to pick your pocket;
    • Wear the shoulder strap of any bags across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb. Don’t dangle purses or cameras from your wrist;
    • Avoid typically American establishments like McDonalds and Starbucks;
  • o Use only reputable transportation companies (taxis, etc.). Get the numbers of a company you trust that you can call to pick you up or cultivate 5 or 6 specific drivers you can call when you need a ride. Make sure to have these numbers available when you are out and about in the city; and
  • o If an incident happens, no matter how small, during an off-campus experience make sure to report it to the Calvin instructor/director. You are also encouraged to report it directly to the OCP office using the incident form found on the OCP website. You can fill this form in on-line and it will be sent directly to the OCP office.
  • Independent travel: When traveling independently, don’t stay in dives or couch surf or hitchhike. While this may be inexpensive, you are risking your personal well being by traveling or staying in housing with persons you do not know.
  • Stay informed: Stay informed about developments in your host city and country and in the world. U.S. foreign policy does affect how people overseas will treat you.

Replacing a lost passport

If you lose a passport, report it to your program director immediately. Report that the passport is lost or stolen immediately to the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and file a police report. Download and print Form DS-64, the Statement regarding lost or stolen passports (see link below). Go to the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate to receive a new passport. A copy of your passport page and being registered with Embassy or Consulate will help in the replacement process.

For students who are not American citizens, students and the program director will need to contact the nearest embassy or consulate of the country that issued your passport.

Avoiding and responding to sexual harassment and sexual assaults

Students on study abroad programs may find that other cultures and societies have a much different understanding of what might be considered sexual harassment than is typically the case in the United States. Likewise there can be great variation in the roles of men and women and also in their forms of social interaction. Part of the study abroad experience is to learn how another culture and society organizes everyday life. What might be perceived as sexual harassment at Calvin might be regarded by some as being socially acceptable in another country; albeit obnoxious and unsettling behavior.

While American laws do not extend beyond the borders of the United States, Calvin students studying abroad are bound by College policy regarding social behavior and sexual harassment presented in the student handbook. With regard to the actions of others, if you feel that you have been the subject of sexual harassment during a off-campus experience, you should first report this to the program director or instructor as well as the Off-Campus office. Calvin will do all that it can to provide resources to the student and deal with the situation in accordance to the procedures outlined in the student handbook. Resources for all involved are included below. If you need to contact the Off-Campus programs office or another office at Calvin use the contact sheet at the end of the handbook.

As you live and study off-campus (especially internationally) remember the following to try to avoid sexual harassment and assault:

  • Dress conservatively.
  • Avoid walking alone at night or in questionable neighborhoods.
  • Do not agree to meet a person whom you do not know.
  • Be aware that some men from other cultures tend to mistake the friendliness of North American women for romantic interest. Be serious and firm. Again, be straightforward and firm if propositioned; you may have to deny propositions multiple times.
  • Don’t be afraid to be "rude." Protect your own comfort and safety.
  • Avoid eye contact with unknown men.
  • Recognize that the stereotype that American women are morally loose and uninhibited about sex is quite prevalent in other countries.
  • Always remember that no one has the right to take sexual advantage of you. If you are victimized in this way, be sure to get help from your program director and/or another person in authority. This is important for your physical and mental well-being and to protect others from becoming victims in the future.

If you are assaulted:

  • Go to a safe place
  • Get help from a trusted person immediately.
  • Get to the medical and psychological support services you need immediately.
  • Inform your program director/instructor and/or the Off-Campus Programs Office as soon as possible.


Dealing with emergencies

As part of your orientation (after departure), program directors will review emergency procedures and how to respond to a crisis. At any time during the semester, if you (or your parents or families) have an emergency or crisis please contact Calvin’s Off-Campus Programs office.

Once the immediate emergency passes makes sure to complete an incident report for the Off-Campus Programs office. This will assure proper follow-up to whatever situation has occurred.



  • Course code:
  • Credits:
  • Semester:
  • Department: