Cultural experiences through virtual study abroad
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire world last year, international travel came to a halt. Global study abroads at universities across the country were put on hold, including at Texas A&M.
That did not stop Dr. Jay Woodward, clinical associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Dr. Michelle Kwok, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture from finding a way to immerse their students in another culture.
Thanks to a Presidential Transformational Teaching Grant program through Texas A&M, Woodward and Kwok took their students on a virtual study abroad experience to Russia. We sat down with them to learn more about the experience and their plans for future virtual study abroad activities.
Q: What prompted you to create a virtual study abroad?
Woodward: I sit on the International Programs Committee at Texas A&M. We received an email from an entrepreneur in Russia who, during the pandemic and COVID lockdowns, used both his entrepreneurial skills and his technological acumen to reconceive the notion of what a study abroad could be. It was an interactive, fully immersive online experience that could be built from scratch. At that point, my wheels started turning. I’ve led a lot of study abroads and I’ve seen the power and the transformational learning that occurs. I immediately reached out to Michelle.
Kwok: One thing that struck me about the potential for this course was, despite the fact it was online and a lot of us already have Zoom fatigue, we would be fully immersed in these intercultural activities. We would be learning about Russian culture, but at the same time learning a lot about ourselves and about the diversity here in BCS. One of the reasons why Jay asked me to come along is to really push students’ self-reflection of their own culture. We don’t have to leave BCS to experience diversity of thought, to experience diversity of culture and to practice these intercultural communication skills.
Q: How did you both decide “where” students would go in this experience?
Woodward: The destination was really predetermined. The experience was facilitated through Virtual Experiences Abroad, a Moscow-based company. All of the content and recordings we commissioned were done with people on the ground. This all happened during the lockdown and quarantines, so we needed a company based in Russia to get us the content. I will also say, Russia is unique because it is one of the very few countries with really strict visa requirements. We made Russia accessible without the need for visas and government sponsorships.
Q: Talk about a few specific activities students were able to participate in.
Woodward: The one thing that Michelle and I were both intentional about is wanting this to be experiential learning. We didn’t want this to be a passive-type course in which students were mainly doing things by staring at a computer monitor. The most impactful experiences were those that had the tactile experiences, those that took learning beyond just the visual and beyond the auditory and really involved the senses. One of the things that I’ve always seen when I travel is that nothing bonds students more than food and being able to try new things. We partnered with a chef in Russia and Chef Tai in College Station. We divided students into cooking teams and they made a recipe from scratch with the help of a virtual cooking instruction. The chef in Russia gave a history of the dishes as the students were cooking and the unique nature of what the dishes meant.
Kwok: Coming together as a class for these experiences requires vulnerability on the part of the student. They have to be open and willing to try out new things. Ballet was one of those experiences where they really had to get out of their comfort zone. It brought us together, not just as a class but we really became more of a community.
Q: What part of this program do you think was most impactful?
Kwok: I really do feel the assignments actually made our course the thought-provoking course that it was. You don’t necessarily have to go outside of your physical parameters to do really deep cultural reflection.
Woodward: The assignments these students participated in were real, authentic and meaningful. It allowed the students to immerse themselves and then share about themselves.
Q: Do you feel this virtual study abroad experience was as impactful as an in-person study abroad experience?
Woodward: One of the things that Michelle and I really wanted to do is quantitatively and qualitatively demonstrate the impact this experience could have. There is a lot of data out there that talks about the effectiveness of study abroad and how it can facilitate intercultural awareness. A lot of literature exists for the traditional programs but no one has really studied an innovative virtual study abroad. We want to determine if students are able to move the needle in their growth in intercultural awareness. While we don’t have the hard data yet, the reality is that we have students from this virtual study abroad that have been able to change their perspectives and grow as part of this experience.
Kwok: I feel strongly that the students learned a lot about Russia but also learned about their own culture as well as the diversity of US cultures more broadly. I want to empower our students to take this experience and run with it, to keep pursuing intercultural awareness as they move into their future careers. Our students told us they have plans to continue their intercultural journeys after this course. They have explicitly laid out their next steps. I think that’s something that was purposeful for us, that this journey doesn’t stop here. You continue to work on this as a lifelong endeavor.
Q: Do you have plans to continue this virtual study abroad in the future?
Woodward: We will be offering this experience again in the fall. We are also exploring other avenues of partnership to grow the program. Right now, our focus is on students in our college. But we have a vision. We’ve written a global engagement grant that would expand this program to other colleges. Our goal is to get a greater understanding and knowledge of some of the uniqueness of what these students are seeing.
Kwok: This is a unique experience in that it breaks down barriers to traditional study abroad programs. Because it is virtual, students who might have had challenges with traveling get to experience these other cultures. Thanks to the grant funding, we do not have to charge additional fees, so students who had financial barriers can now participate.
Kwok and Woodward shared reflections from their students:
“Seeking out unique and challenging activities to spur my development was really great, especially outside the classroom environment. However, taking the time to really reflect on what I participated in, examine the impact it left on me, and how I can take that moving forward was something I was truly appreciative of.”
“I have never experienced something like this in my college career that went in depth and beyond a picture on a slide show. I will remember this experience until I can’t remember anything anymore!”
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