Medevac: Travel Crisis Rx

Princeton student Callie Lefevre landed in Beirut last summer itching to study Arabic and prepared for "a totally wonderful experience." What she got instead was the second Lebanon war, with Israeli fighter planes dropping bombs near her campus, forcing an emergency evacuation through Syria. She got out with the help of a company called International SOS, which bundles evacuation insurance with overseas medical and security solutions. The Beirut crisis helped International SOS land 25 new clients as colleges rushed to sign up, says Laura Angelone, its director of scholastic programs. With more students passing on Paris and choosing to study abroad in locales where conflict, natural disaster and political strife are more commonplace, anxious schools are increasingly turning to a handful of risk-management companies that specialize in extricating kids from dangerous situations. Most colleges foot the bill themselves—about a dollar per day—in exchange for a menu of services that range from replacing lost passports to arranging serious medical care.

Most companies in this niche started out serving multinational corporations and government agencies. But they began tapping the college market in the 1990s, when programs abroad swelled in popularity. CMI Insurance has doubled its student enrollment in the past five years. International SOS now works with more than 120 schools, and Medex boasts an international network of 40,000 local health providers. Demand seems bound to increase: experts predict that the number of students in overseas programs could swell from 206,000 last year to 1 million annually within a decade.

Because they tend to be inexperienced world travelers, students depend on such services more than other clients. Pascaline Wolfermann, Medex's global crisis manager, says she often marvels at how students seem to attract disaster. She's helped a Japanese student who fell off a motorcycle in the United States and an American who fell off the Great Wall of China. "I'm not sure how you can fall off the wall," she says. "Perhaps trying to get a picture?" Kids these days. They can do anything if they put their minds to it.