How can we facilitate international exchange in a world where travel has come to an almost complete halt? At Cultural Vistas this is a question our teams grappled with again and again throughout 2020 and most likely will continue to contend with for years to come in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the devastating loss of life, the pandemic resulted in closed borders, grounded planes, and recommendations to stay at home, impacting many opportunities for educational experiences abroad. It has changed – and is still changing – the world as we know it, and the international exchange industry must also evolve.
Our team at Cultural Vistas Berlin was not spared. In March of 2020, we found ourselves confronted with the decision to either indefinitely postpone, cancel, or reinvent our programs and come up with new ideas. We chose to take an innovative approach and quickly pivoted to create new formats for international exchange programming online. Rethinking our traditional approach required a lot of creativity, flexibility, and patience (as well as some tech-savviness and trouble-shooting skills).
A key challenge we faced was participant engagement. With participants spending most of their time in front of computer screens, how could we get them excited about the opportunities virtual exchange experiences present? What worked for us was to diversify formats, make programming as interactive as possible, offer a wide range of subject areas, and alternate both the timing and communication channel for each of our get-togethers.
One example of such innovation is found with one of our flagship programs, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. For this program we will introduce a simulation game where our German participants will come together in small groups for political debates that supplement the more content-heavy seminars as part of their pre-departure training. While the simulation will certainly provide a platform to learn more about transatlantic relations, it does so in a more fun and engaging way, helping participants to get to know each other better and develop soft skills.
We also launched a new virtual internship program, the Virtual Internship Corps. This program provided 21 American students and young professionals with virtual internships at host companies in Germany, which could be completed from the comfort of their homes in the United States.
Host companies maintained continuous communication, scheduled multiple video calls per week, and had participants take part in weekly staff and team meetings to make the remote experience more “real.” Bi-weekly social gatherings provided a space to share experiences, develop networks, and address potential challenges.
Despite our initial skepticism, our team was surprised by how quickly we got used to new platforms, and participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as evidenced by the following two quotes:
“In spite of the turmoil and uncertainty of this year’s developments, I just wanted to say that I am thankful for the opportunity to meet and interact with so many people who are eminent in their scholarly fields.” (Samuel Jane-akson, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Berlin)
“With the framework of program activities presented in the Cultural Vistas program, I was able to deeply embrace and understand the capacity in which a cultural ambassador functions within the domestic and foreign representative spheres.” (Emily Ekshian, Women Engage for a Common Future Deutschland e.V.)
Virtual programming won’t be able to replace full-immersion, in-person exchange opportunities, especially in terms of the cultural context of a foreign country. There are some aspects that simply can’t be mimicked by a computer or through online interactions, like food, emotions, or daily encounters. These components do not translate well through the internet and can truly only be understood through close interaction and repetition.
However, we have now embraced virtual programming, especially its ability to give people the opportunity to have international experiences even if they are not able to travel. Until the pandemic has subsided, what would be the alternative? We learned that mobility is not necessary for meaningful connections and exchange across borders. Lockdowns, travel bans, and visa restrictions no longer limit exchange. In addition, virtual exchange opportunities make international education much more accessible by eliminating some barriers for international travel (financial, social, physical, or otherwise). And, of course, the carbon footprint and costs to the environment can be significantly reduced.
Given these unique benefits of online programs, we are convinced that they should be used to enhance in-person exchanges going forward, and we will continue to use the lessons learned during this challenging time to make our international encounters even more engaging for all of our participants.
Authors (in alphabetical order): Alina Burkholder, Alexandra Drexler, Matthias Neureither, Patricia Pahlke