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  • Nancy Ruther, EdD

A Year of Reckoning: Resetting International Ed

In an April 2021 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer asks those who work in and care about international education an existential question: “What, after all, is study abroad without the abroad?”

In the last year, schools and programs got creative to answer this question. At the Global Learning in Agriculture 2021 conference, Jack Elliot and Tobin Redwine from Texas A&M shared a summary of their successful two-week Virtual Study Abroad High Impact Experience with Namibia. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which normally sends 43% of its undergraduate students abroad, offered grants to teachers to design 20 courses incorporating virtual exchanges with institutions in countries from Grenada to Ireland during the COVID-19 administration. Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin continued to place global knowledge and intercultural exchange at the forefront of their educational objectives this year as they adapted their global education programs to include CLICK virtual exchange projects with their current and future international partners in Mexico, the Netherlands, and the UK.

"What, after all, is study abroad without the abroad?" (Fischer)

The question that interests us here goes beyond the definition of study abroad. What will happen when international travel can begin anew? Will programs simply restart their study abroad programs, or, as Fischer suggests, is it time for a reset? Ogden and Hulse lament, “Alas, somewhere along the way, education abroad enrolment as a means to an end became the goal in and of itself. For some institutions, increasing the number of students who study abroad strangely became the metric of success.” They warn against a myopic view of our potential as international educators. Gazelle International agrees with them that we must move away from this model; we cannot merely restart and continue as things were before 2020. If one of the primary objectives of education abroad is global knowledge exchange, how should ed abroad programs adapt in the face of the changes brought about by the pandemic so that we continue to keep that goal as our focus?

We should continue to explore the new modalities for international learning and engagement with which we have experimented this year. Let’s take advantage of our new and greatly expanded repertoire of strategies and methodologies that do not rely solely on mobility. For Gazelle International, that looks like CLICK.

This moment is the perfect opportunity for a reset in how we think about study abroad programs and internationalization efforts. Conversations over the last year revealed that the year 2020 caused a reckoning in international ed in two major ways: both in how campuses impart global knowledge and intercultural skills, and to whom. Here we will review both sides of this coin and reflect on how Gazelle International’s CLICK virtual exchange modules contribute to the conversation.

Reevaluating modalities for international learning

COVID-19 forced a pause on traditional international ed programs requiring travel, allowing space for reflection on other modalities that could be utilized for international learning moving forward. Due to quarantines and restrictions on global travel, most travel programs were canceled. A few managed to redesign their programs with “virtual” study abroad components (see, for example, the Study Abroad Association’s 360° Global Learning program). Temple University allowed students to study abroad at campuses in Tokyo and Rome, with varying degrees of disruptions from two-week arrival quarantines to a major move online for extended periods. The changes in traditional ed abroad programs have been numerous and demanding.

More importantly, international educators are realizing that in a post-COVID world--whatever that may mean--students are not going to jump right back in to study abroad according to pre-COVID preferences and trends. There will be no restart, no return to the first square on the board game. Instead, it will be a new game altogether. Student participation in study abroad is going to look different. According to Fischer, here’re some reasons why:

  • A recent survey shows that 6 out of 10 students may be willing to skip a study abroad experience in order to enjoy the time on campus that they have missed during lockdowns.

  • In study abroad campuses that continued to offer courses, there have been complications due to quarantines or outbreaks which have required significant institutional infrastructure to navigate. This could cause student preference to switch toward traditional college- or provider-run programs and direct exchanges over short-term trips and smaller programs led by individual faculty members.

  • Students and parents have concerns about specific COVID-19 mutations in other regions of the world.

  • Stakeholders feel a higher general sense of worry regarding safety, liability, and risk management. Gazelle International often advertises CLICK as a way to mitigate risk, and this is even more important in the current climate.

  • Students may change where they were planning on attending a study abroad.

  • Students from the USA may not be welcome in certain places of the world if these countries disagree with the US’s management of the pandemic and vaccine distribution.

  • Most importantly, there are fundamental ethics questions surrounding vaccines. Holly Hudson, the executive director of education abroad at Texas A&M University (College Station) “said she would be cautious about advising students to go to countries where they could place out a demand on already-taxed health-care systems” (Fischer). These ethical questions become more complex as we consider how US students could be a burden on healthcare systems and what it means for vaccinated US students to study in places where vaccines have not been available widely to the local population.

If institutions value global knowledge exchange as a campus-wide objective, educators must talk about how else that can happen. One way this knowledge exchange across cultures and between nations can continue is through virtual exchange, or Gazelle International’s version CLICK. By incorporating international experiences into the day-to-day course syllabi and the overall campus curriculum, more students have more access to these life-changing opportunities. Students can take multiple classes that incorporate virtual exchange projects, working with a variety of people from around the world. These virtual modules would avoid all issues concerning travel, viral strains, vaccine passports, and international healthcare systems. Students would still be at home, close to their friends and family, with the possibility to participate fully in campus life.

Gazelle International’s services are a force-multiplier to achieve the full power of your internationalization strategy.

With CLICK, let's re-position global partners from research or mobility to classroom collaborations or build brand new partnerships! Let’s engage faculty who are newly-familiar with various techno-pedagogies and tools since the start of the pandemic to expand the realms of possibility of their classes to include virtual exchange! Utilize CLICK as an extender strategy to mobility programs; as students get to know other cultures and their international peers, they may feel encouraged and motivated to make travel happen for them and their schedule. Gazelle International’s services are a force-multiplier to achieve the full power of your internationalization strategy. As Fischer’s article wisely notes, “[I]t’s not enough to open up a joint Zoom link--effective virtual changes need to be intentionally designed and work in concert with the broader academic goals of a course.” Gazelle International’s extensive training--from exploring VE, to connecting with a partner, to designing the project--can aid you in your journey to create intentional international and intercultural learning experiences.

Diversity, Equity, and International Ed

The second way that international education has been brought to reckoning has been through the discussion of whom these programs are serving. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests following the murder of George Floyd played a major role in calling “newfound attention to study abroad’s struggles with diversity” (Fischer). Ogden and Hulse note, “For years, the typical education abroad student profile has been a white, female undergraduate majoring in the humanities, social science or business at a major college or university. She comes from a highly educated family, has little to no financial need and generally chooses to study in Europe on a programme of less than eight weeks.” International ed staff must ask themselves what students their programs have been serving, who they want to serve moving forward, and how to change their programs to do so.

So how should we respond to this second reason for a reset of international ed? There is no easy solution for greater equity, no easy fix. Keisha Abraham recently wrote in Social Justice and International Education: Research, Practice, and Perspectives about Afrophobia, or the fear of Blackness, in international ed. Succinctly but powerfully, Abraham explains, “Anywhere students go, it matters how Blackness has been there.” She suggests that study abroad advisors educate themselves on who their individual Black students are, how each destination’s people and culture interact with Blackness, recent discrimination, Europe’s role in the slave trade and colonization, postcolonial migration trends, causes of diaspora, and more. They should create a holistic pre-departure process that encourages insightful conversations that help students reflect and think critically about what to anticipate in their travels.

"Anywhere students go, it matters how Blackness has been there." (Abraham)

These concerns apply similarly to virtual exchange programs with no travel component. As students in CLICK modules work closely with one another to accomplish each step of a final project, it matters how Blackness shows up and is perceived in both class communities. Abraham explains that Black students may ask themselves these questions before traveling: “Will I be considered Black there? If not, how will I feel about that? Will I be welcomed?” These questions and their answers and the dynamics they create for group collaborations are fundamentally important for virtual interactions, as well.

The Longview Foundation held a recent webinar, “Virtual Exchange with a Lens on Equity: Implications for Teacher Education,” to brainstorm ways to combat inequity in virtual exchange. One particular pair of questions that stood out to me was: “Whose cultural competence is being valued in virtual exchange programs? How do we ensure all participants have their cultural capital affirmed or valued in virtual exchange programs?” The discussion raised more questions than answers, but this was welcomed as an opportunity to think deeply and critically.

The Stevens Initiative has authored a Virtual Exchange Guide to cover a number of topics, including equity in virtual exchange programs. The guide explains, “Real-world inequities can often manifest themselves in a virtual exchange program. Successful programs will be intentional in how they navigate issues that may contribute to inequities and imbalances between participants.” They give five recommendations to be intentional about equity in your virtual exchange:

  1. Design: Ensure that each country’s faculty members are involved in the design process. And bonus!: “Investing in genuine collaboration is not only more equitable, it also contributes to deeper, more sustainable partnerships.”

  2. Incentives: All faculty members involved should be offered equal incentives--from funding to resources--for their participation in the exchange.

  3. Translation: Communications and materials should be translated into both/all languages.

  4. Recognition: Research publications or presentations must recognize all participants and their institutions and countries.

  5. Expectations: Help faculty set their expectations from the beginning; be clear about the additional work, time, and effort needed to design and run the virtual exchange project. Of course, this work, time, and effort is worth it in our opinion, and is a great investment over time as faculty members build stronger networks, improve technological skills, and gain experience in collaborating and facilitating collaboration amongst their students.

These and those by Abraham are excellent recommendations for your program to put itself on the right track toward equitable international educational experiences for all students. When in doubt, reach out to experts, like the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office on your campus. This aspect of the international ed reset is surely challenging, but undeniably necessary!

Ready, Set…. Reset!

Virtual exchange projects are an excellent option to add to your international education toolbox. They are a sure fire way to begin the solution to the “how” of the ed abroad reset--the ways in which campuses impart global knowledge and intercultural skills. We must acknowledge that different methods work better for different students. Previously, teachers have felt hesitant toward virtual exchange because they are sometimes considered as less immersive than study abroad. Some believe that there are not as many opportunities to learn the language or about the culture. The recent Longview Foundation webinar discussed how to reach in different ways different students who respond to different types of experiences. Study abroad is not the best option for many students due to economic reasons, family reasons, or degree program. Also, some just don't respond to the study abroad experience in the way educators hope. If a student is not quite ready for the total immersive experience, if they are nervous to travel, or if they have more of a tourist perspective, their cultural learning will be impeded. Through virtual exchange, we can build potentially long-lasting relationships with people from another country, moving beyond the sometimes brief and fleeting study abroad experiences. Virtual exchange, especially in conjunction with study abroad, can help deepen intercultural competence development. If done well, it can also work in tandem with social, educational, and racial justice efforts on your campus and in your community.

Virtual exchange, especially in conjunction with study abroad, can help deepen intercultural competence development. It can also work in tandem with social, educational, and racial justice efforts on your campus and in your community.

Although demand for virtual exchange is increasing, budgets in many parts of the country are plummeting for international ed programs. If you believe in the need for an international ed reset that will reach more students more effectively, contact us so we can work together to convince your institution’s faculty members, administrators, and other stakeholders of the value of virtual exchange!

May 31, 2021


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