University of Maine at Farmington students Sam Wood and Grace McIntosh have been virtually interning — along with other students across the country such as Clair Clapp and Alyssa Schams — for the international nonprofit Lalafofofo, which helps youth in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. The interns meet with program manager Nicole Pires over Zoom. Sam Wood photo

FARMINGTON — Professors and students at the University of Maine at Farmington are engaging in virtual international exchanges that are paving the way for increased student accessibility to study-abroad opportunities.

Senior Sam Wood spends 10 hours a week managing and creating content for the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of Lalafofofo, an international nonprofit organization helping youth in rural Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, rise from poverty and grow their communities.

“It actually helps women and girls of the Maasai community in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania and one of our programs is a girls’ scholarship program where we send girls off to get educated at schools in Tanzania,” Wood said in a Zoom interview. “So they wouldn’t have had this opportunity otherwise beforehand which is really cool. There’s also free school meals so they provide free meals to all the children of this region and it’s over 1,000 students, it’s almost 1,500 students that they provide food to each year.” 

Wood’s virtual internship with Lalafofofo is part of her international and global studies major, which requires a study abroad or international experience. With less expensive study abroad programs ranging from $9,000 to $12,000 a semester, this can be a difficult requirement to meet.

This potential setback has been on the mind of Linda Beck, the associate dean at UMF’s Office of Experiential and Global Education. Even before COVID-19, Beck was brainstorming ways to make international experiences more accessible to UMF students.

Linda Beck, associate dean of the UMF Office of Experiential and Global Education, sees University of Maine at Farmington’s virtual international programs as an inclusively accessible opportunity for students to pursue an exchange opportunity. Contributed file photo

“Luckily we had been planning to pilot the Virtual Global Experiences, or VGE, courses before COVID hit in order to further the internationalization of our curriculum and encourage international and foreign language studies at UMF,” Beck wrote in an email. “We were so fortunate to receive the U.S. Department of Education grant last year to fund these pilots.”

Virtual Global Experiences offers a different type of international exchange by partnering individual courses at UMF with a similar course at an institution in another country. These partnerships last five to eight weeks, and there are three professors piloting this program.

Carole Lee’s elementary education students arrive for class at 7:30 a.m. in order to meet with their partner students at the Education University of Hong Kong. With a 13-hour time difference, the students in Hong Kong are attending the class at 8:30 in the evening. The two groups meet virtually and test the effectiveness of their developed lesson plans by teaching each other about their cultures.

Of course, sometimes the Chinese or Hong Kong students ask our students to speak a little bit slower,” Lee said in a phone interview. “So that’s why I told my students, ‘the way you learn, you think you speak slowly but in fact, to them, it’s really fast.’ I said, ‘if you’re a teacher and you have some nonnative speaker in your class then you really have to adjust the way, how you speak and what words or what vocabularies you would choose.'”

Learning to be inclusive teachers who may encounter students with diverse language and cultural backgrounds is one of the many benefits Lee is observing from the Virtual Global Experiences pilot program. She has also seen the worlds of her students — many of whom have never left the New England region — widen as they develop one-on-one relationships with students almost 7,000 miles away.

“Most of them said they never have been exposed to the Asian culture or Chinese culture,” Lee said. “At first, they find it very intimidating because they never have talked to any people in another culture.” 

Lee has been amused to hear her students report with surprise that their partners in Hong Kong have pets and talk about cats as obsessively as they do.

Wood is similarly learning about a new country and culture despite her very limited contact with those working for Lalafofofo in Tanzania. She said communication has been difficult with COVID-19 and Tanzania President John Magufuli denying the presence of the coronavirus until just last month.

“I didn’t know much about the COVID-19 situation in Tanzania beforehand, so I’ve learned a lot about the Maasai people as well as the current politicization of COVID-19 in Tanzania and how it’s affecting these rural communities,” Wood said.

Another opportunity for UMF students to learn about the effects of COVID-19 in another country will take place in Nicole Coffey Kellett’s anthropology course titled “Latin America: Cultures and Contexts.” During the last five weeks of the spring semester, Kellett’s students will partner with an anthropology class in Ayacucho, Peru, to exchange geographical experiences with the coronavirus.

The students will collaborate to make a photo voice project, an applied social science methodology in which visual imagery related to a research question is accompanied by an audio recording explanation, Kellett said. The project will be like a photography slideshow with different voices explaining their experiences with COVID-19.

Kellett explained that the photo voice method is a powerful tool used by grassroots researchers to advocate for social change.

“The idea is to then take those images and have them shared with decision-makers, policymakers, to be able to see this issue from another angle and to really think about how to best address it,” Kellett said in a Zoom interview. “So it’s kind of a way to bring voice to those in power.” 

The project will also provide Peru and Farmington students with an intimate connection traditionally only accessible by expensive, in-person exchanges.

The price tag of these exchanges is only one of many setbacks for international experiences. Wood described her own struggle with trying to study abroad in Switzerland last year after complications with her chronic illness almost caused her to cancel her trip.

“For people like me who have a chronic illness and it’s harder for us to travel because of medications and restrictions around health, (virtual exchanges) make it more accessible for people like us,” she said.

While inclusive accessibility for study abroad opportunities is certainly a topic among academia, the pandemic may very well be propelling these new virtual options.

“Our VGE pilot is NOT in response to COVID but has made us better equipped to respond to the lack of student mobility during the pandemic,” Beck wrote. “And I think all businesses and nonprofits as well as professional conferences will be rethinking what can be accomplished virtually, which is both financially and environmentally more sustainable. And UMF is already responding to this significant shift in the academic and professional contexts, already modifying our experiential education to respond to this.”

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