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Study abroad is inherently experiential; that is, before the pandemic hit.
In the 2018–2019 academic year, Drexel University’s Office of Global Engagement sent nearly 1,000 students abroad through full-term programs, shorter intensive courses, or other international experiences. Then, in March 2020, study abroad was one of the first University offerings to be taken offline due to border closures and isolation and quarantine requirements, along with international co-op placements, which Drexel boasts in nearly 20 countries.
But travel restrictions did not stop Drexel students, faculty and collaborators from thinking globally, and maintaining a zeal for experiential learning unbound by borders. Out of the pandemic, the concept of “virtual study abroad” emmerged as a creative way to incorporate global experiences from a distance.
An example of this came from Drexel’s long-standing partner, the International Center for Development Studies (ICDS) in Costa Rica, which adapted courses from their Health Care in Latin America program to a virtual experience.
One such course taught remotely during winter term by Guillermo Fernández-Aguilar, MD, a medical coordinator at Hospital Clínica Bíblica Santa Ana near San José, encompassed health disparities among vulnerable populations. Fernández addressed significant, real-world examples of such disparities, such as the international aid response following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and those he has helped address in his Central American country. As a final project, students designed an initiative to address health challenges in their own communities at home.
“Community involvement is a must in a well-designed social project,” Fernández said.
One of his key pieces of advice to guarantee the success of the students’ final project, and really any public health initiative, was, “Don’t design from your office” — an interesting directive given the state of things at the time of the lecture in late February and during the pandemic, which prevented the students from joining Fernández onsite in San José as planned.
The virtual study abroad experience was challenging, Fernández said, given that the normal in-person field trips and hospital rotations had to be transmitted through pictures, video, and lecture. Despite these circumstances, the lessons — even in different modalities and across international borders — are valuable and important.
For Lily Huynh, a third-year nursing student in Fernández’ class, the opportunity to study in Costa Rica remotely still allowed her to become immersed in another culture.
“It's definitely different than being in person and getting the first-hand experience, but learning through professors that are Costa Rican natives is the next best thing,” she said. “Overall, I enjoy my classes and it has been a very educational and mind-opening experience to learn about varying healthcare systems and cultural differences. … There's always so much to learn and I am trying my best to soak everything up in such a limited amount of time.”
Providing the next best thing in a limited amount of time also echoes amongst Drexel faculty who shifted their scheduled Intensive Courses Abroad (ICAs) from on-site to online over the last year. In essence, they too were forced to “design from their office” and chose to make the most of it.
Associate Teaching Professor of Architecture Rachel Schade, Professor of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Sean O’Donnell, PhD, and Clinical Professor of Business Dana D’Angelo each designed virtual reimaginations of the ICAs they had spent months planning — working through ways to maintain engagement and still teach the content and cultural lessons they aimed for.
Student work created as part of the “Virtually Venice” remote intensive course abroad in architecture offered over summer term.
For Schade, that became her “Virtually Venice” course offered over summer term. She was discouraged by not being able to take students to the fabled Italian city, having led previous ICAs to Florence and Rome and she herself having spent a “life-changing” semester in Florence in her own college days. But in the end, Schade channeled her research, passion and personal connections into the virtual course, where her 22 students sketched and drew historic buildings and scenes through photos from the comfort of home, rather than from the narrow, bustling Venetian streets.
“I think the students might have learned more about Venice than they would have had they been there in person,” Schade said. “… A couple of them in their follow up even said, ‘You know, I'm not so sure I want to go now because we learned how overrun the city is with cruise ship tourists.’ So, I thought that was an important lesson in the end.”
D’Angelo’s ICA was also pulled last year, just four days before departure to The Netherlands. At that time, she was able to scramble and pull together a Global Classroom opportunity for the nearly 30 students expecting a global, for-credit class. This past term, she taught another virtual ICA through and funded by the Pennoni Honors College called “Exploring Leadership Through Cinema and Sites in Prague/Czechia.” In the course, a cross-curricular group of honors students enjoyed such virtual experiences as a proprietary city tour and Q&A with a local tour guide, screenings of films set or shot in Prague, and a group breakfast with a box of imported Czech goodies, as well as numerous sessions with Czech leadership leaders and entrepreneurs.
“The adaptation has been really, really nice,” D’Angelo said of the course, which she originally taught on campus with mainly domestic films. “The students are just loving it. … We're looking at the characters and the storyline and the dialog and the events and activities, and we're looking at the leaders and talking about, ‘Well, what did you see, what were the actions, what were the motivations?’ That is all then connected to the leadership theories studied and the guest lectures.”
O’Donnell was set to lead students to a research site for his “Fall Break in Ecuador” ICA, which he then postponed to winter break in hopes that travel would resume. Ultimately O’Donnell offered his eager students an intensive online course after fall finals week, with marathon daily Zoom sessions, viewing of a documentary filmed at the research site, and an exam to assess learning.
“I thought, you know what, it would be fun to just all get together and pretend we're in the tropics,” he said. “I knew it wasn't going to be any kind of replacement, but I just wanted to give the students something because I felt like there was this batch of eight students who were so dedicated and so excited. I wanted to give them something to whet their appetite.”
The decision and ability to still offer meaningful global opportunities despite the pandemic means a lot to students like Julianna Rudnick, a fourth-year global studies major who took D’Angelo’s leadership course set in Prague. She said she was thrilled to learn the ICA she spent months anticipating and planning for would still be offered remotely.
Julianna Rudnick, a fourth-year global studies major who took D’Angelo’s leadership course set in Prague, created visual representations of weekly journal assignments.
“The ability to gain a deeper understanding of the world from inside your own home is remarkable,” she said.
Rudnick added that D’Angelo’s approach to translating the modality of the course ensured that students still participated in a number of activities they would have if they were in the international city, as well as exposed them to its social, political and geographic makeup.
“While this past year has been challenging for many reasons, it has also taught me the importance of accepting the present reality and doing everything I can to make the best of every situation,” she said. “Studying abroad virtually in Prague has proven to be such a rewarding experience and encourage anyone wishing to learn more about the world to seek out any and every global opportunity they find.”
D’Angelo said the interest in and the outcomes from the virtual programs showcase and promote the idea of student global engagement without ever having to move their feet.
“It showed the students have so much interest in connecting with the outside world in all of our disciplines today,” she said. “I always say in whatever position in your career — and career as both professional and personal — the idea of global is just extremely important. So, any experience that a student can get that’s global, I just fully support it and I acknowledge that not all students have the means or the interest or the availability to [study abroad in person].”
For Schade, she thinks the virtual offerings give students the opportunity to take an in-depth look at a place, and then hopefully when they are able to travel, they will have a much deeper perspective and a more enriching learning experience.
“We are so myopic in this country. We think everything's so perfect and great,” she said. “Going to see another place … and then realizing how lucky you are to return and appreciate what you have; that's priceless. To be able to see from someone else's perspective, to see how they do basic, everyday things, and understand and develop empathy, is what it's all about.”
O’Donnell is excited to someday soon lead a new group of dedicated students abroad, and he thinks it’s important that faculty remain just as dedicated to creating these types of opportunities abroad for students. Having one virtual iteration of his Ecuadorian class down, if he had to teach it remotely again, he has ideas for ways he’d change it and what he’d keep the same.
(O'Donnell showed this episode of "Wild Things With Dominic Monaghan" in the course as it was filmed at Tiputini, one of his main research sites in Ecuador. O'Donnell also makes a prominent guest appearance in the episode!)
But hopefully, O’Donnell will soon be able to leave “designing from the desk” in the past. The Office of Global Engagement and various other Drexel departments were involved in ensuring the first study abroad program reinstated since March 2020 — a cohort of eight students who are studying in South Korea for spring term — kicked off on a safe and healthy note. The lead-up to their sendoff included many hours of researching the protocols and safety measures implemented by partner universities, by the South Korean government, and additional measures needed by Drexel.
Additionally, Drexel’s fall study abroad application cycle is currently in progress with hopes that international travel will be feasible at that time. In the interim, virtual study abroad opportunities like the courses offered through ICDS will continue to be offered.
While virtual study abroad isn’t intended to substitute for the real thing, it has given faculty a new way of embedding global into their curriculum while providing students with a sneak peek into other parts of the world.
“To be honest, I hope I won’t have to do this again,” O’Donnell said.