For nearly 15 years, I managed in-person educational and professional development exchange programs at the University of Michigan. These programs were funded by the US Department of State or the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The opportunity to experience another country — including its educational environment, business culture and local community — is powerful and often even life changing for participants.
I am currently serving as an advisor on a William Davidson Institute led virtual exchange program supported by the Stevens Initiative for undergraduate students from Michigan and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with goals similar to those of the in-person exchanges I directed in the past: to build marketable global competencies of participants through project-based, cross-cultural learning and action; to promote mutual understanding; and, to build lasting networks and partnerships. The challenge for virtual exchanges is to generate the same or similar impacts as in-person programs, without the day-to-day in-person contact.
The success of any exchange program is all about the contact — maximizing opportunities to exchange experiences and views. In an in-person exchange, this occurs throughout the day with social/cultural activities. This constant contact leads naturally to the sharing of experiences, which is critical to understanding “the other.” Virtual exchanges have to be much more creative and intentional about how to encourage contact, especially social contact.
Virtual exchanges can’t provide constant face-time, but they do offer much greater accessibility, offering many more people an exchange opportunity. In the MENA-Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship program (M²GATE), for example, WDI recruited approximately190 participants per cohort, versus an average of 16 per cohort in an average in-person exchange. Participants also come from more remote areas of their countries — such as the southeast of Morocco, and the interior regions of Tunisia — and may have disabilities or language constraints that would make travel difficult.
My husband often tells me that to experience a new country and culture, you have to smell it. In-person exchanges allow participants to experience sights, sounds and smells. I can’t tell you how many times I had participants tell me that America smells differently from the Middle East. Also, many participants observe how quiet Ann Arbor is. One participant noted how clean our streets, parks and beaches are compared with her hometown in Iraq. These experiences have great impact that stay with participants in the long-term. How can virtual exchange programs capture the experience of local sights, smells and sounds?
Virtual exchanges compensate for the inability to stimulate the senses by providing a greater diversity of thought on both the issues to be addressed and potential solutions. One of the most popular issues addressed by teams in the M²GATE program is education. I was surprised by how many different issues arise under the broader heading of “education,” and have been even more surprised by the innovativeness of the proposed solutions. Having exposure to such diversity in thought undoubtedly opens minds and develops creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
Finally, the most important resource of any country is its people. In-person exchanges provide an opportunity to interact with the people of a host community in a range of contexts. Almost everyone is surprised by how different the people are in a given country from what they expected. At the same time, they are equally surprised by how much they have in common.
Everyone traveling in both directions realizes how much the people of the host country value family, food and having fun on weekends. These values are universal.
Can virtual exchanges have a lasting impact on participants? Given how in tune students are to the digital world, I believe that virtual exchanges can indeed have a strong impact. The accessibility and scalability are attractive. Providing an opportunity to those who are unable to participate in in-person exchanges is critical, especially since fewer than one percent of students throughout the world are able to study abroad.
The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.