They Skype with American college students who are studying abroad in places as diverse as India and Brazil, read their blogs and view pictures of things they might not otherwise see. The idea is to whet the students’ appetite for world travel at an early age so that as they aspire to higher education they also aspire to spend time overseas.
Such efforts are expected to become a more common feature of secondary education in the United States thanks to a campaign called Generation Study Abroad.
“This experience increases their ability to manage unfamiliar experiences, the sort that they will find on a routine basis once they leave the school setting”
Led by the New York-headquartered Institute of International Education, the campaign, which began last year, seeks to double the number of US students who study abroad by the year 2020 from 300,000 undergraduates per year, or less than 1 in 10 of all undergraduates, to 600,000.
As technology continues to make it easier to communicate across continents and cultures, experts say virtual hookups with elementary and middle schools, such as the one in Maisonet’s classroom in The Bronx, represent a welcome trend.
“Any time you’re able to link students up with (other students) who are doing interesting and exciting things, such as students who are going abroad, it is in fact a very laudable enterprise,” says Tracy Gray, managing researcher of the education programme at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, DC.
“Young people tend to learn from each other, and because we’ve got the technology, this is really an outstanding example of not just using technology to do the same old, same old, but to use technology to do something that is new and exciting and innovative,” Gray says.
IIE officials say exposure to life in other countries will better prepare them to live and work in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world.
“This experience increases their ability to manage unfamiliar experiences, the sort that they will find on a routine basis once they leave the school setting,” says Wagaye Johannes, project director for Generation Study Abroad at IIE.
“These experiences build personal characteristics, such as flexibility, resilience, tolerance for ambiguity and other key skills that are needed to be successful both inside and outside of the workplace today,” Johannes says.
Maisonet’s students in The Bronx are being connected to students such as Bismely Moreta (pictured), 22, a communications major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is spending the current semester studying abroad at Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.
“I include all that I can so they, too, can feel like they are living these experiences with me”
Moreta got connected to Maisonet’s class through Reach the World, a New York-based nonprofit that uses a digital platform to connect classrooms with study abroad students throughout the world. Reach the World is also a longstanding partner of IIE.
“I usually talk to the students through my Reach the World profile stories and have Skyped them once,” Moreta told The PIE News. “When I write to them I try and be as detailed as possible with my stories. I include all that I can so they, too, can feel like they are there living these experiences with me.”
“When I Skyped them I made sure I had artefacts, like a map, money, pictures and the Brazilian phone I am using here so they can have a visual of certain things,” she adds.
Moreta has shared colorful pictures of brigadeiros, a Brazilian dessert, hiking to Lagoinha do Leste, which she describes as “one of the toughest hikes in Brazil but also one of the most amazing views ever”; and a golden lion tamarin monkey, an endangered species that resides only in Brazil.
Reach the World is a New York-based nonprofit that uses a digital platform to connect classrooms with study abroad students. Photo: Reach the World/Bismely Moreta
Maisonet says she cherishes the time her students are able to spend with study abroad students such as Moreta because it exposes them to life outside their neighborhoods.
“I cannot tell you how phenomenal and fantastic this programme is for children, some of whom have never travelled in their life,” Maisonet says.
When other teachers ask how much time the effort takes away from instruction, Maisonet points out how she incorporates the study abroad students’ travels into the classroom learning. They talk about subjects that range from national holidays to political uprisings.
Brazil is a particularly interesting place to connect with now because the country is preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games. Maisonet says study abroad students help make fundamental learning activities, such as reading, more lively and engaging for the students they connect with.
“What better way to have them enjoy reading than to have someone thousands of miles away and have them be able to see them up close in Skype video, waiting to ask questions,” Maisonet says. “It can’t get any better than that.”
It costs schools in New York $3,500 per year to operate the Reach the World programme in a classroom, and involves three 12-week cycles with study abroad students throughout the world, plus weekly in-class assistance from the programme. An online version is available nationwide at a cost of $100 per 12-week cycle.
“Anything that can happen in formal and informal settings that engages students is something that’s worth pursuing”
This school year, the programme has 166 correspondents in 58 countries.
“Our mission is to build a pipeline of globally competent students and educators who will succeed in and steward the twenty first century global community,” says Colin Teague, regional programme manager at Reach the World.
Among other things, he says, the programme challenges students to discuss life in their traveller’s host country, and describe what it means to study abroad.
Outcomes are measured by having students draw a freehand world map at the beginning and end of each cycle, and surveying students’ interest in attending college and studying abroad, Teague says.
Reach the World’s evaluations suggest that most students who go through the programme express an interest in studying abroad afterwards and in attending college like the travellers they connect with virtually.
Gray, of AIR, says research on the effects of exposing students to study abroad is scarce, but that is no reason not to involve more students in such efforts.
“Anything that can happen in formal and informal settings that engages students is something that’s worth pursuing,” Gray says.
“With many interventions of these kind, you don’t necessarily know what the impact is going to be immediately. But it may have a longer term impact that you might see down the road.”