Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, January 28, 2010

U-M officials say now is not the time for students to travel to Haiti

Students who want to spend their winter break helping others have naturally wondered about traveling to Haiti to help in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

But U-M officials and others say it’s just too soon for student volunteers to travel to the island nation where buildings are unsafe, travel is almost impossible, people are living in tent cities, and access to food and water is unpredictable at best.

“The situation right now, and in the weeks to come, is not conducive to having any sort of student service trip,” says Athena Kolbe, a doctoral student in social work and political science who has lived and worked in Port-au-Prince off and on for years while conducting a national health study in Haiti.

University officials are underscoring Kolbe’s advice in an e-mail message being sent today to all students.

“Because of the severity of conditions in Haiti and in accordance with the university’s international travel policy, no undergraduate students may travel to Haiti with university resources or under university auspices until conditions improve,” says the message signed by Provost Teresa Sullivan and Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper.

That message is consistent with a travel advisory from the U.S. State Department that urges U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Haiti because of the extensive damage.

Instead, Sullivan and Harper encourage students to “volunteer with the many University of Michigan organizations and groups that are rallying to the aid of the Haitian people, and to contribute to organizations that already are working to relieve the suffering.”

Many of these organizations are listed on the U-M’s Haiti relief Web site at

The e-mail message also notes that graduate and professional students with specific experience and qualifications may be allowed to travel to Haiti under U-M auspices as part of an organized relief effort. But even those graduate students must submit travel information and plans for prior approval to the university’s International Travel Oversight Committee.

“If you listen to the news, every relief organization is saying now is not the time to come to Haiti,” explains John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education in the Rackham School of Graduate Studies. “What the relief effort needs from most of us right now is financial support.”

Kolbe says it is great that people want to help Haiti, “but it’s important to remember that Haitians need to guide how and when we respond to the crisis in their country.  

“Right now, if you don’t speak Creole and you don’t have some sort of needed skill like medicine or engineering, then perhaps it’s best to wait until the emergency is over and the rebuilding has begun in earnest to ask how you can be helpful,” Kolbe adds.