During the spring 2015 semester, American University students at the School of International Service participated in the State Department’s very first Student-Led Virtual Exchange Program. These freshman students designed and piloted their own virtual exchanges with counterparts around the world. This pilot dramatically increased mutual understanding between the American University students and youth from the other countries to promote peaceful relations.
The American University students each chose a region they were interested in, a country to collaborate with, and then began to reach out via email to universities or youth organizations as potential partners. They based their partner selection on the school or organization’s schedule, and if they had English language capacity. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Collaboratory provided the students with strategic priorities for those countries as well as guidance and best practices on how to conduct their virtual exchanges. From June-April 2015, these American students discussed and compared culture, politics, and everyday life with their counterparts in Brazil, Czech Republic, India, Japan, Kenya and Morocco. The students collectively talked about everything from political systems, to academic curriculums, and even social stereotypes in their countries. They scheduled weekly Skype sessions to discuss current events, shared photos and videos of spring breaks, as well as established Facebook groups to connect synchronously and asynchronously with students in universities and youth groups across all six regions.
While presenting the results of their virtual exchanges at the State Department in April, the American students displayed the type of connection and understanding to youth from the other countries that helps promote peaceful relations. When the student shooting occurred at Garissa University in Kenya last April, Corina Chao, who was part of the group conducting a virtual exchange with Kenyan students, said she was not only concerned about the students she worked with during her virtual exchange, but the whole country during the tragic event. “It didn't feel like a news story about a far-away country like events like those often feel, but it felt like it was happening next door,” she said. “The exchange made something that once would have been just another story on my Twitter feed into something personal.”
Similarly, American University student John Levandofsky who was in the Japan group, found that despite being half way across the world, there were parallels in their everyday life. “Reflecting on our project I think we were able to empathize with our partners in Japan because we found similarities in our differences. Being students at the University level we bonded over that similarity and from there looked at the cultural differences in classes, campus living, etc.,” he said.
This Student-Led Virtual Exchange Program is part of the ECA Collaboratory’s broader efforts to research and understand how virtual exchanges can best complement our in-person exchange programs.