International Study Abroad—At Home

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021
By Stephanie Fountain, Stephanie Schnicker
Photo by istock/NicoElNino
Virtual global experiences are a pandemic innovation that should—and will—remain in higher education.

With campuses closing and travel restrictions soaring in February 2020, countless University of Iowa students were forced to prematurely return home from studying abroad. With travel at a standstill, entire cohorts of students were at risk of losing the opportunity to study abroad. It was our responsibility to keep their learning on track by quickly rethinking our format for international education.  

In doing so, we first had to accept today’s reality: Virtual global experiences are not study abroad programs. We did not pretend that we could replicate a study abroad program from our students’ homes. Instead, we knew that the Tippie College of Business could create an experience that would pique students’ curiosity, deepen their global business understanding, and introduce a framework for cultural learning.

The experience we designed was a new course called International Business in a Time of Disruption: Protectionism, Pandemics, and Political Fragmentation. Finance majors could count this offering as an upper-level finance course, while other majors could count it as part of their general education credits. It also satisfied Tippie RISE, our experiential learning requirement, as well as part of our international business certificate.

Its structure allowed students to explore Italy virtually while examining the business, social, cultural, and political response to the pandemic. While the course was not a replacement for a true study abroad experience, we hope that it helped prepare students for the business world they are about to enter—and that it inspired them to want to explore the world in the future. 

Redefining International Programming

The class of 23 students met daily for three weeks over holiday break in December, incorporating live class discussions on Zoom, hands-on cultural activities, alumni and company guest speakers, and opportunities to engage with native Italians. The design of the program relied on Tippie’s longstanding partnership with CIMBA Italy, a company that organizes study abroad, MBA, and executive education programs in Italy. CIMBA Italy is accredited by the University of Iowa. That means that while it does serve students at other universities, the company is housed in the Tippie College of Business.

The class learned a basic history of the European continent to inform a conversation about the political, economic, and societal challenges facing Europe today, through the lens of the Italian culture, explains Bruce Kline, the CIMBA professor who led the course and a former HP executive with broad experience teaching global economics and finance. “Too often, I find we are caught up in a desire to make economics and finance exclusively about numbers,” he says. “It is about lives.”

He adds that the course discussions were particularly relevant given the pandemic’s impact on business. “How we respond to crises is shaped by the resources we have and the way in which we develop and distribute them. Seeing how others view and approach what is perhaps the largest challenge of our lifetimes can provide new insights.”

We did not pretend that we could replicate a study abroad program from our students’ homes. Instead, we created an experience that would pique students’ curiosity, deepen their global business understanding, and introduce a framework for cultural learning.

Global education is about fostering understanding, sparking curiosity, and expanding one’s comfort zone—and learning increases with hands-on interaction. With this in mind, we sent each student a curated travel box containing artifacts from Italy and supplies for our cultural experiences. These items included cheese local to a region in Italy discussed in the course, supplies for an Italian cooking class, an art kit, a guidebook, a postcard from the Italian instructors, and a traditional Italian holiday dessert. The travel box helped generate excitement as each activity in the class was revealed.

Students participated in cultural experiences throughout the class. These ranged from a lesson in basic Italian to a live, interactive tour of Venice. Students also attended a hands-on cooking class where they made risotto zucca e salsiccia; an art seminar where they painted while learning about Murano blown glass; and a “night at the cinema” where they watched a classic Italian film.

We also arranged for them to take part in small, informal group conversations with students from a variety of Italian universities. We connected with these students through our cultural guide, who knew them from her role of teaching English. Each group, which included two students from Italy and four students from Tippie, discussed university life and pandemic realities.

What We Learned

In designing this course, we discovered that several factors are critical to creating an enriching virtual international experience for students:

Collaboration and partnership. Finding an international partner with deep knowledge of the country, strong relationships with in-country faculty and companies, and the ability to deliver rich cultural experiences elevates the overall student experience. In our case, CIMBA Italy had experience in creating such courses and was responsive to our academic standards and expectations for cultural learning. We could trust that the programming it provided would align with our vision for student outcomes and contribute to a dynamic learning environment. 

Strong community guidelines. Students have had a variety of virtual classroom experiences, so early on we established expectations that would create trust and buy-in for the goals of the class. Students were told that they would have to have their video cameras and microphones on, and that the course would include extended question-and-answer sessions about academics and cultural topics.

Although we had anticipated that gaining students’ buy-in would be our biggest challenge, it turned out that students were eager to learn and engage with the content. The guidelines helped create the best possible environment for their virtual experience. For future courses, we also plan to begin with professional development on how to effectively use Zoom, so that we can ensure students are fluent in all its features.

Integration of international experiences with academic content. Students often are told that business environments are significantly impacted by the local geography and people who live there. This course provided a natural exploration of the ways in which cultural identities are inextricably linked to the business concepts we teach in the classroom.

For example, during our live tour of St. Mark’s Square, students transitioned fluidly between discussing Eurozone trade policies and discussing the impact of tourism on local Venetians. Because academics and culture were woven throughout all content, students developed a deep curiosity that extended beyond business fundamentals. 

Students often are told that business environments are significantly impacted by the local geography and people who live there. This course provided a natural exploration of the ways in which cultural identities are inextricably linked to the business concepts we teach in the classroom.

Personalization. The more students feel as if a learning experience has been designed for them, the greater their engagement will be with its content. By capping course size at 24 participants, we were able to remain nimble and responsive to each student’s learning needs.

Over the three weeks of the course, we made it clear that we would hear and respond to students’ feedback and questions. We frequently asked them for feedback and addressed topics that piqued their curiosity. We even added a seminar about international travel at a student’s request. This approach created a more immersive virtual learning environment, which reinforced students’ buy-in and participation.

Variety. We worked to make the classroom environment stimulating and engaging. Each day, students could expect multiple interactive question-and-answer sessions, academic content, and a cultural activity or guest speaker presentation. We were able to experiment with many different formats and types of activities to see what resonated with students most. However, to our surprise, the course evaluations showed that each student was most impacted by a different activity.

This demonstrated to us how critical it is to offer students a variety of experiences in virtual environments. Especially during the pandemic, a time marked by stagnant routines and social distancing, students were receptive to trying new activities.

Virtual Education in a Post-Pandemic World

We have certainly learned that virtual international experiences aren’t just for during a pandemic. They also can help us reach more students with global learning experiences.

Students might not study abroad for a variety of reasons. Data released by Open Doors and the U.S. Department of State indicate that only 11 percent of undergraduate students in the United States study abroad during their academic careers. Students reported barriers found within all universities, including financial constraints, family obligations, and work responsibilities. Others indicated they were not yet ready to travel internationally—especially younger students who were in the first or second years of their programs.

But virtual programming can help us break down those obstacles. In our course, for example, we saw higher participation from populations traditionally underrepresented in study abroad programs. Using virtual formats, we also could engage students from the first year of their programs, encouraging their interest and preparing them for future global education. One participant of our course exemplified this thinking, saying, “I viewed this course as a precursor of what is to come when I physically visit Italy in the future.”

We plan to welcome 20 students to the course for the summer session, when our goal is to create additional interactive cultural experiences using virtual reality. We will continue to work with CIMBA, including for our summer course. The college also works with other partners in different parts of the world for virtual programs focused on other geographical areas.

We believe virtual programming achieves several important objectives:

It makes international education more affordable. Because our course did not require travel and housing, we were able to offer students a program at a cost comparable to tuition at the University of Iowa. The program also provided them with additional access to scholarship funding, which we sourced from alumni and donors specifically for this program.

It enhances in-class opportunities. Free of the limits created by location and time zones, the virtual environment allows more people in our network of executives and alumni to participate. Our alumni from around the world were able to serve as guest speakers. In fact, the time differences often worked to our advantage because guest speakers were off work and available to present during daytime class meetings. Speakers included alumna Erin Brewer, an American who earned her Tippie MBA in Italy and now works for the United Nations in Switzerland; and alumnus Alessandro Rocchi, an Italian who now lives in the country and works as a general manager for the metal manufacturing company Minifaber.

It prepares more students for global study and work. Virtual international learning experiences can act as invaluable gateways to international education for a broader subset of our students. It not only encourages students to be curious and informed, but also prepares them for future travel, study abroad opportunities, and international work assignments.  

If the past year has demonstrated one thing, it is just how globalized and interconnected the world is. In business education, we cannot afford to reserve international experiences only for a select few. Rather, we must provide innovative new programming to prepare as many students as possible for the global challenges they’ll face in their future careers. 

Stephanie Fountain
Assistant Director of International Internships and Education, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business
Stephanie Schnicker
Director of CIMBA Italy, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business
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