Virtual Exchange Takes Students Abroad during PandemicBy Timothy Jacob, Director, Traveler Program, and Mara Ohorodnik, Program Associate, Reach the World
For everything the COVID-19 pandemic took away from the global education community, it also gave U.S. students a few things in return. One of these unexpected benefits was a proliferation of gripping traveler stories. Another – and perhaps more important – benefit was the free time to share them.
Some of the best stories come from the immersive experiences of travelers. More than 100 U.S. Fulbright Program and Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship recipient travelers went into 2020 prepared to share tales of discovery abroad through Reach the World (RTW) virtual exchanges.
Within a few short weeks, however, the pandemic canceled study abroad programs, and U.S. colleges, universities and K-12 institutions began closing. What began as an opportunity to expand U.S. students’ worldviews quickly became a tale of quarantines, social distancing, and isolation. How do young learners in the United States explore the world alongside RTW travelers when they’re both stuck at home?
In a matter of days, RTW built a new website and completely revamped its programming to put travelers, educators, students, and families back in control of their global narratives. RTW rapidly developed a series of educator professional development livestreams to both train educators in using videoconferencing software and share evolving best practices from RTW’s innovative educator community. They threw open their archive of more than 300 published virtual exchanges, providing educators with as many resources as possible during the torturous transition to at-home learning.
At the same time, Fulbright and Gilman travelers who quarantined abroad became frontline reporters for how this global pandemic impacted learners big and small. They served as positive, personal examples of the need for travelers to adapt and learn from all experiences. They published weekly articles on our website and answered student questions through livestream events. Educators held watch parties on Google Classrooms and shared their students’ questions with travelers in real time. Additionally, many Fulbright and Gilman alumni volunteered to revisit their experiences abroad, giving teachers, students and families 18 open virtual exchanges in 18 countries to choose from.
RTW also launched the Show & Tell series, inviting former travelers, corporate volunteers, and partners from across RTW’s global community to tell a story from their journey or show a travel artifact during free 30-minute livestream events. Students got up close and personal with arctic polar bears, learned what it’s like to work in a U.S. embassy, walked with orangutans in Indonesia, and helped set up a camera trap in the Costa Rican rainforest. With Show & Tell events, learners had access to new, different global adventures every week.
As the country became more comfortable with online learning, RTW took the opportunity to collect and promote stories around several themes. During RTW’s STEM Week in early May, students tracked animals in Panama, journeyed to the bottom of the ocean with the NASA scientists leading the effort to find life on other planets, and explored Madagascar’s "Lost Forest." During Fulbright Week in late May, classes across the United States forged friendships with Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants in Kenya, the Philippines, and Morocco, all while learning more about those unique cultures. And during World Oceans Week in mid-June, members of the Explorers Club took learners with them to the Galapagos Islands, the resting site of the Titanic, and swimming with sperm whales off Dominica. Students learned about the importance of protecting our planet from climate change and asked questions like, "How can we protect sea turtles?" and "When doing underwater research, how do you minimize your impact on the environment?"
After more than 16 weeks of adapted COVID-19 programming, RTW’s global community had a lot to celebrate in June. Together, the RTW community traveled to all seven continents and more than 50 different countries. The 76 livestream events with explorers, travelers, educators, and partners had been viewed more than 8,800 times on YouTube. More than 30 Fulbright and Gilman travelers had shared personal stories of language, culture, traditions, and exploration. While most of the world stayed home, the stories of motivated volunteers inspired the next generation of global citizens without interruption.