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Western Washington University students explore virtual global programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic

A globe sits next to a laptop on a desk. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that some students are taking their study abroad courses from home. // Photo by Olivia Palmer

By Olivia Palmer

For many students, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant canceling study abroad plans. But for some, it has also meant rethinking what studying abroad can mean through virtual learning. 

Hannah Nevitt, education abroad program coordinator, said this year the Western education abroad department has 10 students who have completed or plan to complete virtual programs. Programs include international internships, intensive language study and study abroad courses. 

For students and faculty alike, that has meant navigating something entirely new.

 “A year ago, virtual internships had never even crossed my mind,”  said Ryan Larsen, director of the education abroad department. “[But] students are still meeting all the learning requirements that universities want out of an internship experience … So I suppose in one way, it’s pretty special that for something that didn’t really exist a year ago, we’ve had half a dozen students participate.” 

Last March, students were brought home and study abroad was put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic, Larsen said. Now, Western Washington University offers in-person study abroad programs in two different countries: Vietnam and Thailand. But for those who can’t go, virtual programs offer another option.

 “I do like that, from an accessibility standpoint, a student could still work for a global company from home and have that international experience for their resume,” Nevitt said.

Third-year student Adam Sorg said he never considered a virtual global internship until this school year.  

Sorg said he had to cancel plans to study in Spain this year due to the pandemic. But when his program offered him a scholarship to participate in a virtual internship, he took the opportunity. 

“It was a kind of an on-a-whim thing,” Sorg said. 

One plus of doing the program virtually was that he had the “whole globe to work with” and was able to get placed quickly. 

Sorg’s program placed him in a virtual internship with an entrepreneur in Ireland where he did research on international companies to help develop an online gift market. While it was not in person, it did clue him in on some cultural differences.

“In Ireland, people are more willing to shop local,” Sorg said. “While Amazon does exist there, people go to stores. They go to local places and are willing to search more options when they shop.”

Sorg’s virtual experience did have its drawbacks.

“I got little things from the research I was doing, but the fact of the matter was that I was speaking with one person.,” Sorg said. “I think I got a good enough idea for the reality of the situation, but it was definitely a little bit frustrating.”

Sorg said the program offered cultural learning opportunities that helped fill in some of the gaps. They included a website with video tours of cities, art museums and parks in addition to virtual group sessions that focused on a variety of topics, including Irish colloquialisms, Spanish culture and cooking. 

Western alumna Emmalene Madsen also studied abroad virtually this past year. Madsen said in 2018 she studied abroad in-person in Beijing, China. The experience helped broaden her perspective.

“There’s so much that you see on the news here about China and about Asia in general, and then you live there, and it’s so much different,” Madsen said. “I’m a huge advocate for international education as a means of bridging cross-cultural relationships.”

After graduating, Madsen participated in a virtual intensive Chinese language program, funded by the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship

Madsen echoed Sorg’s feeling toward virtual internships because she also missed out on some of the cultural exposure she would have gotten from an in-person program. 

“I really think that what you most miss out on the most is that human-to-human interaction,” Madsen said.  

The program did have its highlights, like connecting with a Taiwanese conversation partner and further developing her language skills, Madsen said. 

“I learned so much and I spoke more Chinese than I have in my daily life since I was in China,” Madsen said. 

Fourth-year international business student Jennifer Scott did both a study abroad course and an internship through Edith Cowan University in Australia.

Scott worked with the university’s marketing department to help create materials that advertised the college to different international audiences. They focused on five different countries: Sweden, the Philippines, United States, Kenya and Brazil.

Scott’s conversations with students from the five countries helped reveal different cultural dynamics. 

Scott found that in the Philippines and Brazil, the culture seemed to be family-oriented and stayed away from topics like politics that might offend others in conversation. In contrast, the Kenyan student said it was very common to have business and political conversations at the dinner table.

Scott said the virtual study abroad experience gave her plenty to adjust to. With a 16-hour time difference, it took effort to reschedule and make sure she got all her assignments in.

“Overall, while I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get the actual experience of study abroad, the professor and classmates I had, especially in regard to my internship, were so kind and helpful that I still felt like I got the actual experience,” Scott said. 

Before the start of the pandemic, virtual study-abroad was, for the most part, unheard of. Now, after almost a year, there’s still little quantifiable data on the impacts of these virtual experiences. 

Martin Tillman, retired associate director of career services at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said virtual study abroad is an opportunity for greater accessibility. 

“What virtual learning is doing is addressing a question that has been long plaguing the international education community, which is the great disparity of background of students who have always had access to international experiences versus those who have been left behind,” Tillman said.

According to Tillman, only a fraction of the students enrolled in universities in the United States study abroad each year. Traditionally, those students tend to be white, middle and upper-class women.

Nevitt said she sees a potential for greater accessibility for students with different levels of mobility because mobility restrictions are almost nonexistent in virtual learning settings. She said she is hopeful that virtual programs will give students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status and those who are caring for family members the opportunity to engage in international experiences that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible.

Many students want to go abroad and get the international experience that makes them stand out to employers. But Tillman said merely being abroad isn’t what’s important. 

“What employers value in an experience is not the idea by itself,” Tillman said. “The student needs to be able to effectively articulate what they learned while they were abroad.” 

For students like Sorg, Madsen and Scott, virtual experiences have been a chance to develop those skills from home.

“I think everyone should very seriously consider doing one of these programs, no matter what your major is,” Sorg said. “Being able to communicate with people from different cultures is not only a huge resume piece, but it’s also good for yourself and just helping you communicate and be a better listener and feel more confident and have more empathy for people.”

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