As the Education Abroad sphere shifts to overcome and adapt to the current travel restrictions due to COVID-19, there has been a greater emergence of virtual international programming. We have seen this in a variety of ways, including programs for any given term at an international institution virtually for credit, international internship placements for full or part time, and/or internships or classes concurrent with home university course work in order to gain additional credits or experience.
A long standing example of these programs is the well known SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning or “COIL”. Established as a way to “provide innovative cost-effective internationalization strategies", this center’s framework was initially drafted in 2004 but has lived under the SUNY Global Center since 2010. COIL was established and continues to be a leader in the framework of internationalizing the campus through integrated coursework that allows professors and campuses from across the world to collaborate.
To stay relevant, and honestly, to stay afloat during a time of no travel, many program providers have rolled out their own virtual programs during this time. These have looked like virtual study abroad programs for short term and full semesters, internship programs for full and part time, and concurrent courses alongside regular home university courses. It is likely that whatever study abroad partners you work with have already communicated these program options to you.
Online international programs increase accessibility to students interested in international opportunities. More often than not, these programs are more affordable compared to physical study or internships abroad. That does not mean our work ends with adding virtual programs and this isn’t the catch all replacement for students being able to travel abroad regardless of any limitations, but it does open up other opportunities for students to learn and think with an international perspective.
Especially with internships, these programs often guarantee positions for students. This can be especially helpful for students looking for internship experience who may have limited real world experience related to their major. Guaranteed internships can be a great introduction for students to get the necessary experience needed to make their resume stand out as they will have already had some hands-on experience in their field.
With us living in a COVID-19 world currently many students also had their study abroad interrupted last spring which, for some students, may have resulted in being behind in their degree. Certain programs may also require an international experience to complete major requirements or qualify for graduation and these opportunities can provide options for students who are limited due to lack of mobility currently.
In my time working with virtual programs, I am consistently met with the same question: Is it a real abroad experience if the student isn’t in country? There is something to be said for students hands-on problem solving while abroad because they took the wrong train, or learning cultural differences like finding out the traditional length of paper in England is longer than they are accustomed to giving new definition to a “five page paper”. These experiences are incomparable and invaluable. Sure, students are able to learn academic differences, international business etiquette, cultural differences, and/or other academic and internship based skills, but can anything really compare to the process and experience of learning a new culture by being 100% immersed in it?
Online international programs are also not indicative of equity. These online programs are not a cover-all for low income students because they are more affordable. It is still our responsibility to look at low cost options, subsidizing programs, scholarship opportunities and much more to increase access. While they may provide a new group of students an opportunity to have an international experience, they are not meant to replace them.
Many universities have also asked the question: Does it fall under the career center or international office? And to that I say, why not both? This is a great opportunity to create collaboration between these offices. Look to career centers to provide content to students about business etiquette, resume and cover letter prep, and providing information working virtually. Lean on your own office to talk about cultural differences especially relating to business, liaise regarding finances, and provide follow up for feedback on these experiences.
So do virtual programs belong in your catalogue of options for students? Each campus is going to be different so you will have to see how these will fit into your campus culture and what type of connections and support your office will need to make these a success. My suggestion is that advisors do not write off all virtual programs and rather use this time in a COVID-19 world to look at what types of options can work best for their students now but also in the future once we’re in a post-COVID-19 time.
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