February 8, 2022


How the pandemic expanded access to global learning opportunities

Through the global virtual internship program, one DePaul student assisted a Spanish film company in producing a documentary about the pandemic. Another helped an Irish nonprofit analyze social and emotional support needs for the refugees they serve. They did this without having to fly around the world. GianMario Besana, associate provost for global engagement, joins DePaul Download to discuss how new programs born out of expediency during the pandemic have expanded access and transformed global learning opportunities.



​​GIANMARIO BESANA: All of them also always tell us how exciting and formative the experience of being embedded in a team that has a different cultural background ends up being for them and for their professional growth.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host Linda Blakley.

Several DePaul students are interning with companies abroad this quarter from the comfort of their Chicago dorm rooms or apartments. The virtual internship program was born out of necessity, in light of the international travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joining me today to talk about these innovations in international learning is GianMario Besana, associate provost for global engagement at DePaul. Welcome, GianMario.

GIANMARIO BESANA: Thank you, Linda. It's a pleasure to be here with you to discuss things that are very, very dear to my heart.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, we've talked a lot on the podcast about how the pandemic has made life more difficult. But there have been some helpful innovations as well. Tell me about how the pandemic has changed international education for the better.

GIANMARIO BESANA: Certainly. The pandemic has had a great influence, positive influence actually on international education and global learning. And when I say global learning, I mean, the set of opportunities for students to actively engage with content, with people, with organizations, companies and communities with an international, intercultural component. And global learning, traditionally, pre-pandemic, was linked to travel primarily through traditional study abroad experiences.

But for many reasons, that model ended up serving only a very small portion of the student population. And at DePaul, we've always very intentionally tried to ensure that the population that we send abroad, our globally mobile students always reflect the same racial, ethnic and socio-economic profile of the population at large of our students, of our student population at large. Because we use a targeted approach to scholarship for first gen and underrepresented groups.

But still, even after all those efforts, in pre-pandemic days, we were sending abroad roughly 1,000 students a year. And the question was, and still is, what about the other 21,000 students? And that's where technology came to the rescue.

At Global Engagement at DePaul, we understood that very early on many years pre-pandemic, back in 2013, we started the Global Learning Experience program, what is known at DePaul as GLE, way ahead of many other institutions globally. In these classes, in GLE classes, students work in groups with students from partnering institutions around the world on concrete projects.

The pandemic -- to go back to your specific questions -- the pandemic has then accelerated innovation and creativity in developing other forms of opportunities for virtual global learning, like virtual global internships that you have mentioned, and in other formats. And I'm really excited to be here to talk about these other opportunities that have increased access significantly for our students to some of these fantastic international experiences.

LINDA BLAKLEY: This period has served as an access accelerator as well as an experience accelerator. Can we talk a bit more about how virtual internships work? What kinds of projects are students working on with these companies?

GIANMARIO BESANA: We had one film and television major, who was paired with an audio visual company production in Spain. This company was producing a documentary on the impact of COVID. And they needed on one hand some help in editing the footage they already had, but they also wanted to expand their coverage to a more international perspective. And so the student ended up, beside doing the editing job that was the initial focus of the project, but the student ended up also doing some shooting in Chicago and then incorporate the shooting into the final product.

We had an international student major who was paired with an NGO in Ireland. This NGO provides services to refugees and asylum seekers and the student project was to do so some benchmarking and comparing the kind of psychosocial support services that that particular organization provides in Ireland with the kind of psychosocial support that similar agencies provide in the United States. So it was a research and comparative project. And this student actually ended up writing a blog that that is available on the Global Engagement website, in which they narrate the experience noting how immersive their experience was and how much a part of the team they felt.

And for the students are relatively simple. They apply online, the program is run by our study abroad team. The experiences are eight weeks long. Projects varies, you've heard but all the students who have participated indicate very clearly that as a result of this experience, in virtual global internship, they learn content, so they learn something new. If they're marketing majors, they knew some new marketing technique. If they are, you know, the international students major learned different way of handling the support to refugees.

And all of them acquire virtual global collaboration skills, particularly in dealing with their assigned supervisor because they have to deal with this person at the company or the organization who's your boss for these eight weeks virtually, in an intercultural setting. And all of them also, always tell us how exciting and formative the experience of being embedded in a team that has a different cultural background ends up being for them and for their professional growth.

LINDA BLAKLEY: How have you seen participation in these virtual internships change or grow in the last year?

GIANMARIO BESANA: We had about 55 students taking advantage of this experiences since we started. And when we started, we started just with two or three. This is probably the first example of a program that was born out of expediency in the pandemic, that is turning out to be a great asset for our portfolio of global learning offerings to the student.

And the students are honestly, really taking advantage of this because they realize the great potential for the acquisition of skills that are indeed marketable in this changed, new, almost post-pandemic world.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I have another question for you about the internships. Can the students get the same cross cultural experiences when working with companies via zoom and email, rather than being there in person?

GIANMARIO BESANA: This is a very important question. There is a difference between being embedded in person in a different cultural environment, and being embedded virtually. But the difference doesn't result into a qualitative difference, meaning one experience is better than the other. The two experiences are different.

Certainly, if I'm on site, and I'm embedded in the local environment, I experience the cuisine and the rhythm of the day, you know. The example I gave you before of the students who work with the, with the Spanish organization, if the students were actually living in Spain probably would have to get adjusted to having dinner at 10 p.m., according to Spanish custom. So these things obviously do not happen. It is a part of the experience that is not duplicated in the virtual experience.

But on the other hand, in the virtual experience, there are other things that happen, that could not happen in person. We are all now experiencing this new way of working virtually remotely, that require a different set of skills. And the virtual global internship helps the students acquiring this set of skills that are helpful and marketable, and they could not be necessarily acquired by being in person.

So again, I don't think it's a matter of making a comparison and deciding which experience is better, because the two types of experiences address different learning outcomes, and allow the students to gain different sets of skills.

LINDA BLAKLEY: In March of 2020, Global Engagement launched global conversations, 90-minute virtual conversations, facilitated by faculty that bring together several hundred students from around the world. The groups have discussed various topics, including the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, culture, and more. Our producer talk with a DePaul student has participated in several conversations. The student is studying abroad in Merida, Mexico right now. Here's what she had to say.

TEA PRERADOVIC: My name is Tea Preradovic. I'm studying Spanish and Communication Studies. So I'm a double major. And I'm a senior currently in my last quarter at DePaul University.

I've participated in, I believe, about nine to 10 global conversations, if not more. There was one session about refugees, which was really fascinating to me because that's in general, something that I hadn't thought of is​, 'oh, how is that situation going to be treated now? What are refugees going to have to go through now?'

I really appreciated that people were willing to express how things were affecting them and affecting their families. It's just, it's a place where I get to learn from others not from a professor, but from others real experiences in one format about one topic. So I think that it's really unique in the way that everyone that is their gets to share their side of the story and like what's happening where they are.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Have you heard similar reaction from other students and faculty?

GIANMARIO BESANA: Yes, this is a common reaction of participants to the Global Conversation either on the faculty side, but particularly on the student side.

This is something that my team is very proud of. This came up of a crazy idea tossed around on a Monday morning, right after everything closed down. And we were sitting in Zoom meetings, thinking, ‘okay, what can we do to foster a sense of global community, for students who are right now, all around the world, locked in their bedrooms, trying to learn and facing this new situation and new reality?’ And, and we came up with this at the time crazy idea: well, why don't we just offer a container? A container of a, an hour, an hour and a half of an opportunity for students to share? Then, you know, we build the structure a little bit around it.

There's always a DePaul faculty, and then faculty who across the four cycles of this conversation that we've done since the spring of 2020 came from 40 different universities around the world, pretty much everywhere around the world. They get together, they make a plan, and then they facilitate the conversation. These are not lectures. These are not presentations of the faculty, but they are opportunities for students to share global perspectives around certain themes.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Why do the online global conversations continue to be a popular venue for cross cultural exchange?

GIANMARIO BESANA: It's the opportunity of hearing and sharing different perspectives from directly from the students. You mentioned some of our conversation, the one that you mentioned on Black Lives Matter was actually... slightly broader. The conversation was do Black, indigenous, and Dalit lives matter? It included indigenous populations in various parts of the world, the Dalit, particularly coming from India.

And we had more than 90 students in that conversation from the U.S., from Nigeria, from India, bringing radically different experiences, but of the same phenomenon of traditionally oppressed minorities, and how the students relate to this and how the movements that are developing in each respective country have affected their own lives and their own learning experience. And I'm part of the team that is facilitating having this conversation. And I tell you, sometimes I get goosebumps being in the room and hearing students sharing like deeply, deeply personal stories.

We like to describe the global conversation rooms as brave spaces because students find the safety but also the courage to share things in this container. We don't record them. Anything that happens there, happens there and stays there. And students feel empowered by the braveness of the space and by being surrounded by so many different perspectives at the same time. And so many of them have the same reaction that Tea has. We offer the space. We offer the logistical support. And our faculty, our students just simply love it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I can see why it would be popular, and a great way to engage. So what are some of the upcoming conversation topics?

GIANMARIO BESANA: So we have a cycle, a new cycle upcoming from April 28 until May 5. And I can't tell you what the topics are because we're in right now in the process of making decisions. And we have the proposals, but it's still, there's still a little bit of top secret around the conversation. But they will be published on the website soon.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's exciting to hear how DePaul students and faculty are exploring the world and making new connections. Thank you so much for joining us today, GianMario.

GIANMARIO BESANA: It's been such a pleasure, Linda. You know that I'm very passionate about these things and talking about them is always a pleasure, with you in particular.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I hear the passion in your voice. Thank you again. For more about international learning opportunities, visit abroad.depaul.edu.

I'm your host, Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.