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Mohamed Abdel-Kader, Executive Director, Stevens Initiative, US

Prior to Inauguration Day 2017, Mohamed Abdel-Kader served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for International and Foreign Language Education. Today, his role as executive director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute means he is focused on building global competence for young people in the US, Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of ‘virtual exchange’. 

The PIE News: What first drew you to the international education sector?

Photo: The PIE News

"There are some significant barriers to physical student mobility"

Mohamed Abdel-Kader: My parents emigrated to the US in the mid-1970s from Egypt. I was born in the US but would spend my childhood going overseas to visit family members. When I would go overseas there were always questions about life in America what it was like to live there – if I had met Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan, and so on. I had to explain what life was like in the US. Also, when I would come back from those summers abroad, my classmates would ask me what life was like in Egypt, and I found myself in the role of being a cultural ambassador.

“Not every student is able to go abroad, not every student is able to leave a family behind”

Later on when I went to college I began to see the role that international education played in transforming the lives of people who didn’t have the opportunity to go abroad like I did. A lot of my peers were from rural parts of South Carolina and had not had that opportunity to travel abroad, but for those who had, it such a profound impact on them that when they came back to campus they were really transformed. And it was remarkable to see that.

The PIE: Can you explain what the goal of the Stevens Initiative is?

MAK: The Stevens initiative is a public-private partnership that is managed by the Aspen Institute and supported by the US Department of State, as well as the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of the UAE of Morocco. It exists to boost young people’s global competence through the use of virtual exchange.

The PIE: Why ‘virtual’ exchange?

MAK: If you think about what we would call ‘a traditional student on a college campus’, we would all hope that at some point in time during their career they would hop on a plane and go study abroad. They would go study in Egypt, China or Brazil and they would come back with more awareness of that other culture, and they would also have been an ambassador from the United States to that particular country.

But not every student is able to go abroad, not every student is able to leave a family behind or perhaps they face financial barriers or they can’t get a visa – there are some significant barriers to physical student mobility.

Virtual exchange, through the use of technology, is able to bridge some of those gaps and allow students to have an experience where they are connecting with peers and learning about peers in another country, but also learning with those peers in another country, and that’s a very powerful experience.

The PIE: How is the Stevens Initiative involved?

MAK: Our work falls into three particular categories: One is that we make investments and in promising virtual exchange that we believe can scale. Two, from those investments that we make there’s a lot to learn so we act as an aggregator of knowledge about virtual exchange, so best practices, promising practices, case studies, for instance. And then lastly, we act as an advocate for the field, trying to raise awareness about virtual exchange with policy makers at different levels.

“One of the fallacies that exists is that virtual exchange will somehow cannibalise in-person exchange”

We also work to mobilise additional funding into the field. So while we are a grant maker, we recognise the power of our positioning to be able to mobilise development teams on campuses, to be able to better talk about the virtual exchanges taking place on the campus and how they can mobilise alumni resources to help.

The PIE: When it first started up, was there push-back against the idea of ‘virtual’ exchange, or was it met with open arms?

MAK: I think one of the fallacies that exists out there that is that virtual exchange will somehow cannibalise in-person exchange. I would argue that we’re at a point now where one in 10 American students are going abroad, so we have a long way to go to get to a point where every student is having an international experience – in person or virtual – and they both complement one another.

The PIE: What are some of the benefits that you would hope young people gain from taking part in a virtual exchange?

MAK: We see it as a way to pique student interest in going abroad to make them more familiar with a country that they will hopefully go to. It is also a way that our young people can explore issues that humanity faces. If college is an exercise in problem-solving, there’s virtually no problem that our societies encounter today that are not global in nature. Whether these challenges are related to inclusive economies or whether they are related to security or climate change or energy, these are all things that are global in nature.

So for the students who in five,10,15 years will be out in the workforce and working on these challenges, they will have the mindset and the disposition and the tools to be able to interact and cooperate and collaborate with their peers around the world. And that’s what we enhance, that’s what we do.

The PIE: Can you give me an example of a virtual exchange that has resonated with you?

MAK: There are so many to brag about! One example: we have supported a project that is a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and the American University of Beirut where students are coming together using virtual exchange to think about health issues in a crisis situation, and what the students are doing is using virtual exchange to connect, learn about the context, and collaboratively develop solutions.

Now these biomedical engineers and public health students are very technical in nature, but the cross-cultural dialogue is used in many ways to diffuse the assumptions they have made, perhaps about the context in which refugees live, and it helps better inform their engineering practice in how they design solutions for that and use it for refugees, for instance.

That experience will prompt students to ask different questions about the cultural context, sometimes students forget about that. It’s a very powerful thing for that soon to be engineer to be able to say “Where does the end user live and what kind of context do they live? In what sort of resource context do they exist in? Is my product aligned with that reality for that user?”.

The PIE: But there must be limitations to what a virtual exchange can achieve, particularly when you are dealing with different time zones, internet speeds, language barriers…

MAK: Of course there are some challenges of implementation, and luckily some faculty members have found creative ways to get around them. Time zones are certainly something to navigate although not a barrier you can’t figure out. You know every now and then technology does drop, it certainly affects the experience but we have found for those who do virtual exchange – at least the ones that are the most successful – are the ones that have planned ahead.

“This is a new and emerging way of doing international education, and I think we’re constantly refining it”

The PIE: What do you think is the future of virtual exchange?

MAK: This is a new and emerging way of doing international education, and I think we’re constantly refining it. Practitioners in this community are getting better and sharing their promising practices and their tool-kits; that’s where the Stevens initiative really exists, to try and amplify those voices, to ask the tough questions about how do we do this better.

My vision for the future would entail a day where virtual exchange is incorporated into how we teach in K12 classrooms, post secondary classrooms… and that every student who steps onto a campus – even if they can’t hop on a flight and go abroad which I would certainly love to happen – is also being exposed to peers around the world through virtual exchange. We hopefully will do our part to make that happen.

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