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Drexel English Language Center Connects International Scholars Amid Pandemic

By Thomas Henry Atkinson

Drexel English Language Center Connects International Scholars Amid Pandemic


September 25, 2020

Thomas Henry Atkinson is a communications and marketing major and the Communications Co-op for the Drexel English Language Center.

Dinner parties with US host families. Coffee hangouts at Ross Commons. Touring historic Philadelphia. Classes in One Drexel Plaza. For 12 years, Drexel’s English Language Center (ELC) has hosted international Fulbright Fellows from all over the world in rich summer pre-academic programs to prepare them for success in U.S. graduate schools and post-doctoral appointments. This year, everything had to change.

Fulbright scholarships are among the most prestigious in the world; among other initiatives, they grant graduate students from many disciplines and countries the opportunity to study in the United States. Before the global pandemic, the ELC had prepared to host approximately 40 international fellows. Deciding during the spring term to move the program online, the U.S. Department of State, in collaboration with the Institute for International Organization, opened the call for current U.S. host universities to develop a new program that would be conducted remotely.

In one week, ELC faculty and staff developed a proposal for a three-week, completely online, graduate school preparation program for 99 students scattered over four continents and multiple time zones from a wide variety of disciplines, many of whom were working full-time and have families to support.

While crafting the proposal, ELC faculty and staff were faced with a difficult question: How do you convert an in-person, six-week program into a three-week virtual program offered over multiple time zones — and make it meaningful? The development and implementation of the program centered on one goal: providing students with an experience online equivalent to the face-to-face experience.

After being selected as a host site, Drexel faculty worked to develop content, discussion boards, assignments, and assessments for two courses, “Communication Skills for Academic and Cultural Purposes” and “Research, Writing, and Technology,” that would be delivered both synchronously and asynchronously. They also worked with Steven Climer, PhD, from Drexel’s Instructional Design and Multimedia Services to build the online content. Rather than try to replicate the coursework and activities that they did face-to-face with prior cohorts, they created a new experience from the ground up that took full advantage of Drexel’s years of experience in online instruction.

A focus of the program was creating plenty of virtual collaboration among the fellows and their instructors.

“At the beginning, I was skeptical because it was a virtual course, and I didn’t know how much we would be able to interact with each other,” said Fulbright Scholar and PhD Candidate from Pakistan Maham Furquan. “But once we started, I realized how interactive and well-structured the program was. That was probably the most exciting thing about the program, how interactive it was — and almost everyone was from a different country.”

These interactions were dependent on different platforms like Zoom, Blackboard and shared documents, which lead to new technological challenges for some fellows.

According to Hilary Bonta, an ELC instructor, “Participants in my classes didn’t always have access to the Internet or even electricity. Some had never used a shared document. Some were using phones to access Zoom meetings, which meant they couldn’t see shared screens. One participant from Myanmar joined an activity while riding on a bus in the middle of the night since his job, responding to the COVID crisis, required him to constantly travel during the program. Another wasn’t able to actively participate during synchronous sessions after the explosion in her home city of Beirut.

“It made me consider how lucky we are to have access to reliable Internet and how difficult it must be for some. I was impressed with how persistent the Fulbright fellows are. They helped each other, and we remained flexible.”

Another challenge was how to expose international scholars to socio-cultural events, Philadelphia and uniquely American experiences. The goal of the Fulbright programs is not only to educate, but also to have participants experience American culture while sharing their own backgrounds and beliefs.

“Fulbright is not just an academically orientated scholarship; it is also designed to foster citizen diplomacy,” Program Lead Coordinator Benjamin Barnett said. “It helps introduce people to cultures that they would never be exposed to. If you take a group to NYC and to Staten Island, across the Brooklyn Bridge and to Central Park, that group will have bonded and created life-long memories. Those people will become important to each other, and therefore, those countries will become important to each other.”

The program coordinators explored different paths to create a sense of community and cultural interaction. There were networking sessions with past, current and prospective Fulbright recipients, workshops on topics like time management and health and wellness, and even virtual visits to the U.S. National Constitution Center and Wind Cave National Park.

The fellows were also matched with American families for virtual dinner parties. These dinners allowed the Fulbright students and Drexel students or faculty members to have cross-cultural interactions, share stories, and learn more about one another’s culture and community.

“One of the many highlights of the Drexel pre-academic training was the online meals with Americans,” said Fulbright Scholar Salome Chapeyama. “For the first time in my life, I was sitting at a dinner table in four different countries at the same time! I was in Malawi, my fellow Fulbrighters were in Colombia and Albania, and we were hosted by Americans. The dinner conversations were very enriching, and our American hosts from Philadelphia were absolutely wonderful!”

Drexel English Language Center Connects International Scholars Amid Pandemic
Fulbright Fellows smile as they connect with their U.S. hosts over a virtual dinner party across three different time zones. Pictured (clockwise from left): Areispine Dymussaga Sevilla Miraviori from Indonesia, Angie Marie Fermin Hernandez from the Dominican Republic, and Brian Smith and Catherine Oliver Smith from Colorado, USA.

In a time when many feel disconnected from others, this program allowed for global interactions and the sharing of knowledge.

“There is a huge impact for the Fulbright program at the local, national and international level,” said Rubie Ghazal, PhD, director of the English Language Center. “They are ambassadors for their countries and of the US when they go back to their countries. The scholars are cultural ambassadors bridging the gap, building diversity, sharing cultures, and sharing knowledge.”