When the coronavirus began its rapid spread across the globe last spring, one of SUNY’s first goals was to bring home students who were studying overseas. But even as COVID-19 persisted, SUNY was committed to giving its students a global experience this summer.
Enter the SUNY COIL Global Commons Program, a creation of the SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). The six-week, six-credit virtual study abroad program attracted nearly 140 students from 29 SUNY campuses. The program combined two courses into a single cross-cultural experience designed to enhance skills in storytelling and intercultural communications while advancing sustainable development goals set by the United Nations.
“This exciting new opportunity is an example of the type of groundbreaking innovation that can occur when we pool the tremendous talent resources of SUNY,” said Senior Vice Chancellor and Provost Dr. Tod Laursen. “It was a chance to offer a new vision for global learning that is much more equitable than traditional modes, which tend to rely heavily on student mobility. We made this experience accessible to all students through cross-campus collaborations and international partnerships.”
Given the program’s success, SUNY is planning to offer the program again in 2021, says Sally Crimmins Villela, Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs. “This pilot experience has shown us that it is possible for students to have a meaningful international exchange and service experience — one that changes how they see themselves and their place in the world — without even leaving their homes,” she says.
SUNY COIL, which is a unit of SUNY’s Office of Global Affairs, led a team of academic experts and instructional designers from seven SUNY campuses — SUNY Oneonta, Empire State College, Purchase College, SUNY New Paltz, Monroe Community College and the University at Buffalo, in creating this first-of-its-kind study abroad program for SUNY students throughout the system.
The curriculum was developed by 22 faculty from 14 SUNY campuses. Fifteen faculty members guided students through the coursework by providing content modules, and supervising student projects. SUNY Online provided the digital environment and technical support for the delivery of this program.
All students in the program took a course called Intercultural Storytelling for Sustainable Development course. They also chose an International Perspectives course focused on one of six United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: poverty, gender equity, climate action, sustainable cities and communities, reducing inequalities, or good health and well-being. All students worked in partnership with non-profit and community organizations to develop materials that the groups could later use to further sustainable development in their communities.
Kyla Meltzer, a senior sociology major at SUNY New Paltz, said the course fit perfectly in her plans to work for an international non-governmental organization. It also gave her a chance to pursue her passion for social justice. In keeping with her passion, she took a course focused on the SDG number 10: reduced inequalities. She worked with a non-profit organization called Inkulkuleko in South Africa that helps school-aged children advance their education and pursue their goals to achieve university-level studies.
Meltzer helped the organization edit promotional videos, which will be used to help them secure funding. In addition to learning about South Africa and developing video production skills, Meltzer says she was able to make a meaningful contribution to an important cause that may have real-life consequences.
“This was my first time working on something that feels truly meaningful and important, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to work on this project and for my NGO,” she says. “I think many students could find their passion through working with an international NGO and tackling these human rights issues.”
Gabrielle Lerner, a senior at Empire State College, worked with an NGO called Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO) and focused on SDG number 5: gender equality and women’s empowerment. The goal was to improve women’s lives by promoting equality, self-sufficiency and independence.
Lerner’s group produced a video that teaches women in Tanzania how to empower themselves. For her part, Lerner helped develop the story arch, write the script and organize the group.
Taking the course enabled Lerner to make a positive difference without leaving home. “Moving forward, I plan to establish a non-profit of my own that works with students in developing countries to advocate for gender equality, advance medical resources, and promote educational opportunities for undereducated groups,” says Lerner, a senior from Staten Island who has a double major in political science, and business, management, and economics.
Udelle Vargas, a senior in SUNY Plattsburgh’s RN to BS in nursing major, worked with an NGO called Primary Health Care and Health Management Centre (PriHEMAC), which promotes the health and well-being of susceptible members of communities in Ibadan, Nigeria, particularly mothers, children and the elderly. She worked on SDG number 3: good health and well-being.
Her group produced a pamphlet on how to prevent and manage the spread of COVID-19. “As a nursing student, the program enabled me to learn about community public health in a completely different setting than I normally would have encountered,” says Vargas, of New Paltz, NY, who worked as a cardiac night shift nurse in Oklahoma City while taking the course. “These study abroad classes, in-person or virtual, are excellent learning experiences that make you grow, personally and professionally.”
Winnie Yu is a writer in the Office of Communications at SUNY System Administration.