Gaining a Global Perspective during the COVID-19 Pandemic

in Global Matters
October 7th, 2021

Study Abroad Delivered Popular Cross College Challenge Course

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of all in-person study abroad programs around the globe in spring 2021, BU Study Abroad brought parts of the world to students through the BU Hub’s Cross-College Challenge (XCC).

Three Study Abroad instructors from three different continents came together to create and teach a remote course titled XCC Worldwide: The Intersection of Gender, Race, Media and COVID-19. The course explored the impact of the pandemic through a social-economic and a racial/ethnic prism in Australia, the U.S., and Europe. Students examined how the pandemic has further exposed inequalities of race and gender across the globe, and they looked at media representations in each country, including key challenges created and exacerbated by the global health crisis.

“We were proud to offer this unique course to BU students,” said Willis G. Wang, Vice President and Associate Provost for Global Programs. “Our Instructors and Study Abroad Site Directors did a wonderful job exploring some of the most critical issues of the pandemic and delivering valuable insights from different corners of the world. As exciting, the course was likely a first for BU to teach our students from three different countries at one time.”

The instructors, who are all BU Study Abroad Site Directors, come from different backgrounds. Elisabetta Convento, Director of Boston University Italy Programs, has been working in various roles in Study Abroad since 1998 and has served as Director of Boston University Italy Programs since 2009. Charisse McGhee-Lazarou, Director of Boston University Los Angeles Programs, spent 15 years at NBC rising through the ranks, from Programming Associate to Vice President of Primetime Programming, before moving into higher education. Mark Connellan, Director of Boston University Sydney Programs, has been the Site Director since 2004. He has taught the Australian Culture and Society course to nearly 6,000 students.

Bringing current events – in this case the global COVID-19 pandemic – into the classroom and taking an interdisciplinary approach were important and valuable to the instructors and students alike.

“The Cross-College Challenge is intended to be a signature learning experience at BU and a capstone for juniors and seniors completing their general education through the Hub,” said David Carballo, Assistant Provost for General Education and Professor of Archaeology, Anthropology, and Latin American Studies. “We are thrilled that Global Programs was able to pivot during the crisis to leverage existing strengths of BU Study Abroad sites to create an interdisciplinary and multi-continent learning experience for students on these timely issues.”

“I think the students were particularly struck by COVID-19 and wanted to take a course that could offer them a broad perspective on what was happening not only in the U.S. but worldwide,” Convento said. “They also were aware that a discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on race, gender, society was extremely meaningful as we all witnessed how the pandemic made inequalities even bigger. The course offered students time and ways to reflect and discuss, and the format and the pedagogical approach was, I think, very inclusive.”

LA’s Director McGhee-Lazarou noted how Study Abroad is uniquely situated to give students access to three different countries and continents – and the issues that are unique to those areas.

“This was one of the times when we’re all having a similar experience of living through a pandemic in all parts of the world, yet inequalities are growing even more,” McGhee-Lazarou said. “We thought this was a tremendous learning opportunity.”

Despite having to manage vast time zone differences, the interdisciplinary team of instructors all taught, shaped the curriculum, and helped recruit community partners in Australia, Italy, and the U.S.  Boston-based Study Abroad executive staff members, Gareth McFeely, Executive Director of Study Abroad, and David Lamitie, Associate Director of Program Development and External Programs, helped in the development of the course as well.

“Our team of instructors came together despite time zone challenges to offer synchronous activity and learning,” Lamitie said. “Sometimes that meant teaching late into the evening or early at 6:30 a.m. The Site Directors’ dedication to making this successful was evident, and I think students enjoyed the intellectual engagement with scholars at our sites.”

Working with nonprofits that the Study Abroad directors had lined up as community partners in Sydney, Padua, and L.A., students created podcasts, videos, and other media that communicated key issues about vaccine access and equity, among other things. Students learned in real-time about issues while also experiencing the effects of the pandemic in their own ways.

“Our final project was a zine that showed how our community partner’s model of generative welfare would benefit society,” Briana Morgan (CAS ’22) said. “We also talked about how COVID-19 has impacted minority groups in Italy, such as the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to the zine, we created an informational cartoon or animation for the community partner that explained generally what generative welfare is and how it can be used to help society post-pandemic.”

Students had to conduct a needs assessment with their organizations and gain an understanding of what would be most valuable for them to deliver as a final project. This was done against the backdrop of gaining a solid understanding of what societal issues the pandemic has exacerbated and created in different countries and communities.

“Our students didn’t just drop into this; we gave them about five weeks of cultural prep, so to speak,” McGhee-Lazarou and Connellan explained. “We switched up our lectures; we broke it down into economics, we broke it down into race and gender, and how the various countries and cultures approach those sorts of things…mini lectures on our particular sites. The first weeks were filled with readings and learning about issues of race, gender, and ethnicity.”

“Some very thoughtful, bright, engaged students had their eyes opened,” McFeely said. “This course also allowed Study Abroad to deliver on some creative ideas that we’ve been wondering if we can do for some time. Reimagining what Study Abroad can offer students is exciting and connecting the academics to the wider University fully illustrates how the academic components of Study Abroad hold up completely.”

Reflecting on her time spent taking the course, Morgan said, “As someone who came out during the pandemic, I think talking about gender has stuck with me most while taking this course. Amongst my team members, we talked a lot about how the pandemic has forced us to look introspectively at ourselves more than we ever had before. We got to explore our sexualities and genders more intimately, and our time in quarantine was a very vital part of getting to know ourselves and who we are outside of the greater image of society.”

In addition to fostering more introspection, the course offered students a global perspective that can be used to consider future matters in less U.S.-centric ways.

“Learning that the same awful pandemic has an impact all over the world and how it affects various communities is truly mind-opening,” Convento said. “I hope that working in teams helped students be more tolerant and respectful and autonomous, as they all had to contribute to the final project using different skills.”

This type of cross-cultural and multidisciplinary work helps prepare students to face the global nature of modern work. It also provides the opportunity for students to engage with people whose experiences and perspectives may be different or lesser known.

“This is next-level work… it’s challenging, and it makes an impact,” Connellan added. “I think that was part of the draw of the experience. It involved working with students worldwide, across cultures and across disciplines. It challenged their intellect.”