Two families whose sons died while studying abroad have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the universities running the programs, and they're working with a U.S. congressman on a bill to require more transparency for college study abroad programs, which they say are poorly regulated given the number of students who participate in them each year.
Ravi Thackurdeen had his sights set on a career in public health when he left his home in Newburgh to study abroad in Costa Rica in 2012. The 19-year-old Swarthmore University sophomore's dreams came to a sudden end when he was swept out to sea in a rip tide days before he was set to come home.
"We got a phone call. Ravi had gone missing," said his mother, Ros Thackurdeen. "That's all they would tell us. He was missing."
Experts say dozens of students like Ravi Thackurdeen die each year while taking part in study abroad programs. In the past two months, at least five students have died while traveling abroad, according to published reports.
For a $17 billion private industry that attracts more than 270,000 students each year, study abroad programs are largely unregulated.
“We have laws here about safe campuses and those same laws should apply when you’re escorting students abroad,” said Sheryl Hill, who founded Clear Cause, an organization devoted to improving transparency and safety standards for study abroad programs."These students are our best and brightest, and one death is one too many."
Hill’s son Tyler son died during a 2007 study abroad trip to Japan. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyler’s People to People Ambassador program; it was settled in 2009.
Ravi Thackurdeen was studying with Duke University's Global Health program when he died and his mother filed a wrongful death suit against the school. She believes the school acted irresponsibly by taking students to a dangerous beach known for rip currents, and allowing them to swim when lifeguards were not posted.
A spokeswoman for Duke said the university cannot comment on open cases. The college has not filed an answer to the lawsuit or made a motion to dismiss it, according to a federal database.
Though they have both lost children, Ros Thackurdeen and Hill believe the problem with study abroad programs is bigger than any individual case. To date, Hill says she has assisted 30 families who have lost children abroad.
The women are working with U.S. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney to require schools to report their safety records abroad and establish a "parents’ bill of rights."
"The goal is not to penalize schools," Maloney said. "I believe this legislation will make everyone stronger. Schools and parents will be on the same page ... something that has proven difficult to achieve without intervention."
Ros Thackurdeen says if she can’t bring her son back, her best hope is to help others avoid similar situations.
"The only thing that gives me purpose is to make sure that other parents and other families don’t share the pain that we have," she said.