Title IX Rights Abroad

It’s not too far-fetched to venture (or hope) that Title IX is now understood better than ever.

Perhaps as a result of the highly publicized string of sexual harassment cases that continue to plague college campuses across the U.S., public consciousness has begun to understand Title IX for what it actually is: not just a law giving women’s sports teams equal footing to men’s, but also a mandate banning sexual harassment and sexual assault in all universities receiving federal funding.

Students who go abroad (at Northeastern, that’s about 2,700 huskies each year) might have an additional Title IX- related question to ask: “Do students receive the same legally enforceable protection from sexual harassment abroad as they do on campus?”

The answer to that important question, as the NU Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI) explains, is yes.

“As with all resources and policies, Title IX provisions and resources apply to all Northeastern students regardless of their location,” said the OIDI’s Title IX Coordinator, Mary Ann Phillips. “Students participating in global experiential learning programs may report any concern, question or need for assistance to the appropriate university official on site or in Boston, may it be a faculty leader, co-op coordinator, Title IX coordinator or NUPD personnel.”

Phillips’ assertion is comforting to hear, especially when considering that students might be more likely to encounter sexual harassment abroad, where social and cultural norms are unfamiliar. A 2013 study published in the journal, “Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy”, shows that female undergraduates experience a “significantly increased risk” of rape and other forms of sexual assault while studying abroad.

Students might have the same Title IX rights abroad as they do on campus, but are they aware of those rights when boarding the plane?

Again, Phillips replied affirmatively: “All students embarking on a domestic or global experiential learning program are provided with information about available university resources.”  

Brian Gibson, Director of the Global Experience Office (GEO), helped explain how students might be getting that information.  

“I’ve been in Northeastern for a year and a half,” Gibson said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a sexual harassment module, a very clear protocol that we follow.”

The module lets students know what is “permissible and what isn’t” and spells out their Title IX rights, which “cover students everywhere during Northeastern-sponsored activities,” Gibson explained. Students get acquainted with the module during their freshman year orientation, and then again in the GEO-organized pre-departure orientations they must attend before traveling.

“[Title IX] is too narrowly understood,” said Gibson. “It actually covers much more than people think it does.”

Despite the university’s efforts, conversations with student-travellers show there is still a significant information gap to overcome when dealing with Title IX.

Both third-year Courtney Chowaniec, who completed a Dialogue in Argentina and is now studying abroad in Spain, and fourth-year Kenneth Rodriguez, whose international credentials include a Dialogue in India and a semester spent studying abroad in Australia, reported they were never talked to before leaving the country about either Title IX or sexual harassment issues.

Fourth-year Ana Tarbetsky completed an international co-op in Australia last semester. ”I had no idea Title IX applied abroad,” she said. “[It] was not mentioned in the pre-departure orientation. The only thing that was mentioned in the presentation regarding any kind of sexual behaviors abroad is that even the cute boys with accents have STDs.”

Having recently gotten back from an international co-op in China, where she also completed a Dialogue in the past, fourth-year Caroline Fried said she “didn’t know” Title IX covered both her programs. During her pre-departure orientation, she said only that “harassment was brought up under the umbrella of street harassment, but sexual harassment wasn’t really brought up as its own topic.” She added: “I think it’s very important to cover Title IX before students travel […] I feel that it would have been handy to fully understand its implications before going abroad.”

Few students have amassed as many miles traveled as fourth-year Kara Morgan. In anticipation of the many programs she has pursued, which include three Dialogues and two international co-ops, she attended at least three pre-departure orientations. While Morgan says sexual harassment was discussed at every instance, Title IX was only explicitly brought up once.  She echoed Fried’s call for increasing awareness about Title IX rights pre-departure.

“I think it is very important for [GEO] to educate students on Title IX and sexual harassment abroad. Part of the female traveling experience, at least for me, has been adjusting to different cultural norms and attitudes towards women (sometimes more progressive than in the United States; often less progressive). It is easy for a female student to feel powerless if they are confronted by sexual harassment or gender discrimination while outside of the US, and it’s important for NU and GEO to let students know that there are options and a support system in place for them,” she said.

When told about the student testimonies, Gibson identified two courses of action to take. “We are going to make sure that it’s emphasized early on during that [freshman] orientation that Title IX is institution specific and not territory specific,” he said. “For what I control [the GEO pre-departure orientations], we can reinforce that same message.”

Interestingly, pre-departure orientation sessions are not destination-specific. As such, a student headed to Latin America would receive the same information as a student headed to East Asia, even though they would encounter very different cultures while completing their programs (and might need more customized preparation when it comes to an issue like sexual harassment).

Although Gibson said that the pre-departure orientations are “nuanced in that we acknowledge the differences between the cultures,” he explained, “they are not meant to replace the [three] program-specific meetings” (which only students who will be participating in Dialogues have to attend).

As such, Dialogues’ faculty leaders also share part of the responsibility to educate students on Title IX and sexual harassment matters. The faculty leaders learn about these issues in orientations that they have to attend pre-departure, during which Title IX is discussed at length.

Professor Auroop Ganguly, as a two-time faculty leader for the India: Climate Change Science and Policy Dialogue, understands the importance of addressing Title IX matters with his students, especially in anticipation of the program’s visit to Delhi, where violence against women is a real concern. Yet Ganguly admitted this is still a conversation he finds challenging to have.

“I would not want to make the students unduly worried or get overwhelmed with negative stereotypes. I would want them to put things in context. Yet, safety issues are paramount, and in addition, the truth is the truth, however unpleasant,” he said. “This is indeed a difficult conversation to have and I for one am always looking for guidance in this regard.”

Looking forward, GEO is planning to convey the information from pre-departure orientation sessions in a different way. Instead of attending big, in-person meetings, students would be required to complete an online module, where information about all facets of life abroad – including sexual harassment –would be presented along with short quizzes to make sure the material is understood.

“This would ensure that the students pay attention and they can do it on their own time,” said Gibson. The online modules are currently close to being beta-tested and ideally will be ready by Fall 2016.

For now, students should remember that every single Title IX right they have on campus applies to any university program they take on, no matter the location. If any issue arises during their time abroad, they can reach out to OIDI, GEO staff, their co-op adviser and even NUPD (whomever they speak with will be bound by the same rules of confidentiality and they will all be required to report the complaint). Thorough investigations that are fair to all parties involved can and will be carried out from a distance.

“The letter of the law is about keeping students safe,” said Gibson. “There’s been a history in higher education about not taking concerns seriously and we want to make sure we’re better than that.”