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30 Days of Giving 2020, Day 3: Virtual Engagement Goes International at University at Buffalo

UB student Dylan McCaffrey takes a selfie with local schoolchildren during a visit to Tanzania in 2017. Photo: Douglas Levere

This piece was originally authored by Gina Carbone, and can be found at buffalo.edu.

With UB’s study abroad programs being cancelled for the summer and fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one administrator has designed an alternative way for students to reap the benefits of studying abroad while staying at home.

Mara Huber, director of UB’s Experiential Learning Network, has transitioned the summer Tanzania study abroad program she co-developed and leads to an online setting, where students will complete mentored projects with Tanzanian partners and earn “digital badges.”

The program, which will incorporate photos and videos of activities and destinations from past trips, will take place during the fall semester and is open to all students.

Huber has been visiting the Mara region of Tanzania with members of the UB and broader Buffalo communities since 2009, engaging with partners on topics related to women’s empowerment and social innovation.

The study abroad program normally began with a week of classes on campus to help students lay a foundation for their two-week trip to Tanzania. The classes included an overview of Tanzanian culture, history, politics and geography, paired with individualized readings based on students’ interests. When students returned to UB after their two weeks abroad, they spent the remainder of the summer attending classes and working on their final projects and presentations.

And while transitioning to a virtual program means students won’t be able to visit Tanzania, Huber stresses they will still enjoy the benefits of studying abroad with the new structure of the program.

 Students talk with an official from the Children's Dignity Forum about the organization's mission to empower girls. Photo: Douglas Levere

Students talk with an official from the Children’s Dignity Forum about the organization’s mission to empower girls by educating families. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Having an entire semester will allow us to linger on different locations and topics, bringing in speakers ─ in person and remotely ─ and allowing students to explore areas of interest, both collective and individual,” she says.

“Rather than squeezing in presentations at the end, students work on their projects throughout (the semester) as a core component of the course.”

As the program shifts to an online platform, Huber explains that the ability to use Zoom for meetings and recordings, along with the ELN Project Portal that supports projects and digital badges, enables her to add evolving projects with Tanzania partners, as well as create new ones based on students’ interests and partners’ requests.

“I imagine that this will result in students getting a lot out of the course – the projects will be more involved as students will be working throughout the semester with ongoing collaboration and feedback from partners,” she says.

“It is funny that our study abroad students often end the trip wishing they had more ─ more engagement, more time to explore, more time together. In essence, this is what we’ll be giving them.”

Mary Odrzywolski, director of UB’s Study Abroad Programs, notes that Huber’s course is the only UB faculty-led program thus far that is being adapted to a virtual setting.

Huber’s virtual program has attracted the attention of CNBC, as well as SUNY, which enlisted her input in creating the SUNY Global COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) Commons model. The six-week, six-credit Global COIL program ran from July 6 through Aug. 15 this past summer and offered international education experiences to students via online learning.

The program aims to provide flexibility to students, faculty and institutions by designing core modules with focus areas presented in an integrated package of content videos, readings, activities and discussions, followed by projects monitored and supervised by faculty.

Students begin the program in the central square of the model, the Commons, where they participate in a module on intercultural storytelling and communications to set the context for their projects. Following a common introduction, students can direct their storytelling through the medium of their choice.

Students then move toward their selected United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) in partnership with a community-based or non-governmental organization.

As the program concludes, students complete small group projects with community-based and nonprofit organizations from around the world that are doing work in the area defined by students’ chosen SDG. These projects will be based on telling the story of the work or issues faced by the community or organization in relation to the SDG.

The creation of the SUNY Global COIL Commons program, as well as the transition of the Tanzania program to a virtual platform, underscores Huber’s belief that technology plays an important role in learning.

“Technology is a powerful tool and global partnerships become dynamic platforms,” she says.

“I think universities are especially poised to innovate in this arena ─ we have faculty expertise, we have global relationships, we have access to resources and technology platforms, and most of all we have students who are eager to get close and make a contribution, learning and growing as they pursue their own goals and dreams.”

University at Buffalo

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