By Erica Quinones
The Global Education Office released their virtual exchange portfolio for spring and summer 2021 on Nov. 2 after the cancelation of in-person study abroad programs for Spring 2021.
The virtual global learning “aims to expand our study abroad options during these challenging times of restricted student mobility,” according to Associate Dean for International Education and Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Rebecca Moreno.
These virtual programs range from two-week experiences to semester-long courses and internships, all taught online. These partnerships include opportunities with the University of Vienna, Universidad Católica Argentina, Lingnan University in Hong Kong, and others.
In-person study abroad opportunities offer students a multitude of benefits, according to Dr. Moreno.
“By studying abroad, students will experience new countries, new languages, new cultures, and they will get an overall new outlook on life. The benefits of studying abroad are incalculable, but to number a few, we can say that when you study abroad, you have the opportunity to see the world, new terrains, new wonders,” she said.
Students garner a better understanding and appreciation for their host country’s people and culture; experience different styles of education; create lasting relationships with other students; and garner a global awareness that is attractive to future employers and graduate schools, according to Dr. Moreno.
Associate Professor of German Studies, Chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures, and Director of the Humanities Major and the European Studies Minor Dr. Nicole Grewling said study abroad ties directly into her department’s goals: critical thinking, intercultural competence, and foreign language skills.
Students create a stronger personal connection to the history and culture of the country in which they study, becoming mediators between the cultures, according to Dr. Grewling. They also increase their language proficiency both academically and colloquially.
During her Nov. 17 International Education Week talk, Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Director of the International Studies Program, and Curator of the Goldstein Program in Public Affairs Dr. Christine Wade spoke on her own experiences with study abroad.
Dr. Wade said her field research in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala is integral to her studies as a Central American specialist.
Dr. Wade experienced protests — including tear gas and rubber bullets — and shootings, as well as more positive experiences of interconnectivity like Guatemalan women opening their lives and experiences to her.
Seeing Latin American countries outside of the Caribbean basin, like Peru, helped her identify parts of her studies to further develop, expanding her mental image of Latin America from a Caribbean-centric perspective to a more holistic view.
Likewise, Dr. Grewling said study abroad programs played a major role in her being at WC.
While working on her master’s degree, Dr. Grewing decided to study in the United States. Initially, it was to learn more about the U.S., because she wanted to teach English in German schools.
However, while in the U.S., she found that American academicia interested her, and Dr. Grewling subsequently completed a doctorate in the U.S. and entered higher education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made such in-person study abroad experiences difficult.
Dr. Moreno cited the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, who reported that 94% of institutions with study abroad programs had cancelled or shortened their summer programs due to COVID-19.
After 23 WC students returned to the U.S. early in the Spring 2020 semester, GEO began exploring different options for virtual exchange opportunities over the summer.
Through collaboration with partner institutions, studying of materials regarding virtual exchange curriculums, and work with the Interim Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey and the International Education Committee, the GEO developed and launched “a customized program that incorporates a global dimension into a schedule of virtual learning experiences,” Dr. Moreno said.
According to Dr. Moreno, while virtual experiences cannot replace the benefits of in-person study abroad, they provide new environments where students can study alongside others from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and counties despite travel restrictions.
“At this moment, [the virtual programming] represents an alternative to overcome travel restrictions and closed borders. In the future, they can provide a platform of inclusion for those students who can’t go abroad for economic or health reasons but who are eager to connect with the world,” Dr. Moreno said.
Dr. Grewling agreed that virtual programs cannot replace in-person programs, but she said online courses are exciting because they help bring together resources and give students access to experts they would otherwise lack.
Dr. Moreno said WC is not currently offering virtual programs for international students. She said the logistics of coordinating those programs and developing agreements between partner institutions take time, so GEO prioritized the outbound portion of virtual study abroad.
This aspect, and the lack of in-person study abroad during the fall semester, affects Teaching Assistant positions within World Languages and Cultures courses.
Dr. Grewling said that TAs often teach language labs. For German courses, those labs focus on both language and cultural topics. Having a TA from Germany gives students another perspective on German culture. They also often become friends with WC students, promoting an intercultural exchange on a personal level.
Students who are interested in a virtual program should contact GEO to discuss the cost of the different options. Programs like that with the University of Vienna, which is not a WC partner institution, are priced differently. According to Dr. Moreno, scholarships for virtual study abroad programs are not offered; however, virtual experiences are generally more cost-effective, and students can apply financial aid to the programs.
“World citizenship requires learning about one another while gaining a well-rounded understanding of different disciplines from a variety of perspectives. Engaging in one of these offerings could be a valuable opportunity to collaborate with peers from different parts of the world,” Dr. Moreno said.