Global Travel Oversight Committee makes the impossible possible
Imagine you are studying or conducting research in a foreign country when you discover you have lost your passport, or protesters have blocked major roads, or you’ve tested positive for COVID. What do you do? Whom do you call?
For Virginia Tech students and faculty members, that person is Allie Oberoi, assistant director for global safety and risk management in the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs. She maintains a list of every university-supported traveler and watches for potential crises that could arise anywhere a Hokie is staying. Through her vigilance, Oberoi helps guide university decision-makers by alerting them to upcoming situations or potential crises that could make travel unsafe.
For example, in January 2020 — weeks before most of the world had heard of COVID-19 — Oberoi was already carefully monitoring the situation as cases jumped from country to country. When it became clear that borders were about to close and the situation was becoming unnavigable, she coordinated with offices across campus to help implement 259 individual evacuation plans and bring every Virginia Tech traveler safely home.
“Allie Oberoi is an exceptional resource and a wealth of knowledge in the area of risk management and mitigation,” said Associate Vice President for International Affairs Don Hempson. “She is actually better than any news feed I follow — my first indication a major world event has transpired usually comes in the form of a ‘we have no Hokies in X’ text from Allie. When a concerning situation occurs in another corner of the world, she has already checked her database of travelers for potentially impacted Hokies and alerted associated campus personnel before many of us have even seen the event on the news.”
Oberoi brings a unique set of experiences to her role. After earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Virginia Tech and graduating from the Corps of Cadets, she served as a military police officer in the Army — an experience she said helped her become familiar with emergency planning and response. Later, she worked as the executive officer for the Corps of Cadets, where she gained experience handling case management for students in crisis.
“I could not custom design a job that I enjoy more,” Oberoi said of her current role. “When a student or faculty member comes into my office, they’re about to do something really cool. Our work enables them to embark on the phenomenal opportunities that they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.”
To make travel possible, Oberoi works closely with the Global Travel Oversite Committee (GTOC), of which she is a member. This committee assesses destinations for health and safety risks and develops guidance to help university-supported travelers remain informed and aware.
The make-it-possible committee
How dangerous is too dangerous? In 2014, Virginia Tech established Policy 1070 to answer this question. Under this policy, the university cannot support travel to any region that has been flagged as high risk by either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the U.S. Department of State. This one-size-fits-most policy does not account for specific situations, though, where risks may be much lower than nationwide averages.
For instance, picture experienced travelers returning to a remote region of a country. They are unlikely to encounter any violent protests happening in urban locations many miles away. Even if this country is flagged as too dangerous according to Policy 1070 and the Department of State advisory level, are these researchers really at significant risk?
Addressing such questions is one of GTOC’s responsibilities. The committee has the authority to approve university-supported travel to otherwise off-limits locations if it is deemed that the travelers have appropriate mitigations in place to reasonably assure their safety.
“GTOC works with individuals to support and encourage safe travel, not prevent travel,” said Virginia Tech police Chief Mac Babb, who’s also a member of the committee. “We are committed to the safety of our community and work diligently to ensure travel to areas with elevated travel warnings can be done as safely as possible. This helps to ensure all participants have a positive experience.”
Led by Hempson, GTOC is made up of 16 members from across the university. In addition to Oberoi and Babb, this diverse group includes legal counsel, academic leadership, emergency management, and representatives from various international-related departments. From COVID to cartels, the committee must take into consideration any possible threat that could make travel unwise or even unwarranted.
“It can be some really rewarding work when people expect a hard ‘no’ but we can respond instead with ‘Let's see what we can come up with’ and then eventually be able to tell them their goals are actually feasible,” Oberoi said.
An exceptional circumstance
No other time in the university’s history would test the mettle of GTOC and Oberoi more than the pandemic. For months, every country sat at the highest CDC advisory level. University policy would have prevented anyone from traveling anywhere unless GTOC members were willing to review every single travel request. So they did exactly that.
Committee members examined hundreds of requests that year. Each traveler’s proposed mitigations were reviewed to ensure the safety of the traveler and the communities they would be entering could be reasonably maintained. In addition, Oberoi personally worked with each traveler, coaching them through the travel request process and helping them craft appropriate mitigation strategies. When a group of 30 students flew to Europe in January 2021, Virginia Tech became one of the first universities in the nation to restart study abroad programs.
During the pandemic, GTOC and Oberoi’s focus was to minimize the loss of learning and service opportunities as much as possible without compromising safety. Today, crises and turmoil continue to make some international travel challenging, but Oberoi and GTOC are still hard at work making opportunities possible.