Bringing Virtual Study Abroad to Students

Faculty create international partnerships to bring global experiences into their virtual classrooms
In the class Sustaining Your Drink, Nina Gerassi-Navarro and Colin Orians partnered with universities in Chile (pictured) and other countries to explore the sustainability of coffee, yerba mate, and wine. Photo: Ingimage
January 15, 2021

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Study abroad programs may be paused amid COVID-19, but students can still get a taste of international cultures and advance their language studies almost as if they were living abroad.

That’s thanks to faculty across Tufts who have formed global partnerships to create experiential learning opportunities that are virtual, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary. From collaborating on sustainable agriculture with students in Latin America to examining U.S.-Russia relations with students in Moscow, a range of courses are enhancing students’ capacities to engage in complex problems with their peers around the world.

Through the Global Integrated Learning & Design (GILD) program, an initiative of the Office of the Provost, Tufts Global Education, and the Center for Learning and Teaching, faculty here can team up with other faculty or staff at universities or organizations abroad. The partnership can be deep, with students at Tufts and those in other countries working together on projects, or it can be more informal, such as having class guest speakers from around the world.

Tufts Now spoke with a handful of faculty members who have worked with the GILD program to bring a virtual study abroad to Tufts students.

Agriculture in Latin America

In the class Sustaining Your Drink last semester, directors Nina Gerassi-Navarro of Latin American Studies and Colin Orians of Environmental Studies explored the sustainability of coffee, yerba mate, and wine. They partnered with universities in Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica to offer students an interdisciplinary course on the culture and science of sustainability while creating a platform for cross-cultural learning.

“We wanted to connect students not just to other students, but to practitioners, academics, farmers, and anybody working in the space of these three beverages,” said Orians. “We were able to pull together an outstanding group of outside speakers that gave talks to help students understand that knowledge comes packed in different ways.”

Students worked in groups, speaking both English and Spanish, to design and complete a final project. In addition to class time, students met for virtual cafes each week, where they switched between English and Spanish. Students offered language corrections for their peers as they discussed a range of topics, including COVID-19, elections in the United States and Argentina, and their majors.

“You need to connect with the person that you’re working with,” said Gerassi-Navarro. “You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to establish a rapport with them. That took some time, because it’s hard communicating virtually, but the focus of the final project made them bond and figure it out.”

In their reflections on the course, many students noted that the group work was challenging, but they found value in working collaboratively with students abroad and felt a sense of accomplishment.

“You have to be able to learn how to learn from each other,” added Orians, “as opposed to assuming that you have something to offer. It’s a two-way dialogue, and the students really internalized that.”

Exchanging Languages

“Amid the pandemic, joint classes online are an excellent way to continue normal international academic exchanges," said Fletcher School assistant professor Christopher Miller, who partners with a university in Moscow to teach Contemporary Issues in U.S. Russian Relations. Pictured: Moscow, Russia. Photo: Ingimage

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, both Christopher Miller, a Fletcher School assistant professor of international politics, and Rana Abdul-Aziz, a senior lecturer of Arabic in the School of Arts and Sciences, worked to virtually connect their Tufts students with overseas universities.

Miller regularly partners with MGIMO University in Moscow to teach Contemporary Issues in U.S. Russian Relations, a graduate course for Fletcher School students. Students work together to prepare written and oral reports on issues in U.S.-Russia relations, which are analyzed and debated in the connected classroom.

The partnership normally includes an annual conference in Moscow and an exchange program in which Tufts students spend a semester in Moscow and MGIMO students spend a semester at Fletcher. While the course is being offered this spring, the travel portion is canceled due to COVID-19.

“My experience is that students learn a lot from being able to interact with colleagues at a university in a different country. They get the opportunity to become familiar with academic cultures of other countries and understand how students at MGIMO approach issues in different ways,” said Miller. “Amid the pandemic, joint classes online are an excellent way to continue normal international academic exchanges.”

For the Tufts Arabic program, Abdul-Aziz takes advantage of online platforms to provide a language exchange for students. Her students use NaTakallam, a social enterprise started by Aline Sara, A06, that matches Syrian refugee conversation partners and tutors with Arabic language students via an online portal, bringing real-life conversations, language learning, and cultural exchange into the classroom.

“Sometimes in a language class, it becomes so focused on grammar and structure and you forget what the goal is, which is to connect with people,” she said. “Students are face-to-face with their language partners and can see their reactions to the conversation. With languages, it’s sink or swim, and this experience gives them confidence in their real-world communicative abilities.”

Students must contribute to the discussions, which often begin with sharing a recipe, translating a literary text, or examining an article to see how their cultural reactions may be different.

Migration is a common topic in Arabic classes. Many of the Syrian refugee language partners are in Lebanon, which “is going through a crisis,” said Abdul-Aziz, and some have migrated from Lebanon to countries such as Italy or Germany. Sometimes she invites guest speakers to share their personal stories of migration. Students are welcome to share their own stories of immigration, or stories from their family history, but it’s not required.

“It makes the situation real and tangible for the student,” she said. “They have to prep their conversational answers. They need to be able to sustain a 60-minute conversation with someone four or five times over the course of the semester.”

On European Art and Politics

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts students could apply for in-person study abroad programs in Madrid and Paris. While students may not be able to travel to Europe this spring, the Global Integrated Learning & Design program is encouraging students to take virtual classes through the Tufts-in-Madrid and Tufts-in-Paris programs.

For example, every spring semester in Paris, Anne Bruneau teaches the course French Impressionist Art, which covers the evolution of French art from the second half of the 19th century until 1914. Students analyze masterpieces from artists of the period both aesthetically and through historical and cultural context.

The course covers the emergence of Impressionism and ends with two major artists of the 20th century, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. It’s taught in French to third- and fourth-year students, who must be able to write a paper and make an oral presentation in French.

“My wish is that students will take a liking to works of art and want to decipher them more and more,” said Bruneau, who has taught for Tufts since 1999. “The course should arouse the desire of students to come to Paris to enjoy everything they have discovered. When they do visit, their experience should be even better since they will have already knowledge of French cultural history.”

A course taught through Tufts-in-Madrid will lead students through an investigation of the political and social effects of COVID-19 in Spain. In Life in the Time of the Pandemic with Josep Lobera Serrano, who also teaches at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, students will work in small groups to develop a research project for the course. They’ll analyze this topic from the theoretical framework of risk society, which is a perspective in sociology about risk in uncertain times.

“We are going to use this framework to understand what is going on with COVID-19, why governments have difficulties coping with the crisis, and why we don’t know how to work with uncertainty,” said Lobera Serrano, who has taught at Tufts for eight years.

Lobera Serrano’s course normally focuses on recent social and political changes in Spain, so adapting it to COVID-19 was a natural fit—and it capitalizes on student interest, he said.

“We have the tools to empower our students to orient themselves so they can know what is going on around them,” he said. “These tools of sociology are useful to understand the situation and the relationship—the social trust—between people, governments, and science.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.