Samir Sefiane was originally planning to study abroad in Jordan this summer, but his program at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman was canceled because of the global pandemic. At the same time, an opportunity at NC State opened up when the Global Training Initiative converted its Developing Cultural Competence program into a virtual exchange program for students from across the globe. Sefiane, a history major with a minor in Middle East Studies, decided this program could also help him meet some of his goals.
“When I heard that there would be many students from the Middle East participating in the virtual exchange, I thought it would be a great way to broaden my horizons – via Zoom of course,” he said.
Sefiane is originally from Morocco but moved to the U.S. when he was 17. The topic of cultural competency was of particular interest to him on a personal level since he was adopted by American missionaries and raised in Morocco.
“Developing cultural competence allows me to contextualize my own history,” he added. “I grew up living as a child of both the American, evangelical Christian culture and Muslim, Moroccan culture. The more I learn about other cultures, the better I understand myself, where I come from, and where I may end up.”
Virtual Cultural Exchanges
Sefiane joined 30 other students in the GTI’s program last month, which shifted to a virtual format this summer because the university reduced operations in March and in-person classes, programs and camps were canceled for the summer. The virtual program builds on the success of the GTI’s Developing Cultural Competence student certificate program, in which 356 NC State students have enrolled since its inception in 2017. To date, 140 students have completed all the certificate requirements.
Being able to ask a student from India, the Philippines, or Saudi Arabia about their personal take on the academic material we were discussing was a valuable experience for me, and highlighted the need for such programs.
“I am delighted that we were able to adapt the DCC to provide an opportunity for virtual exchange in this truly unprecedented circumstance,” said Becky Cibulskis, the DCC program coordinator. “Adapting our curriculum to meet the demands of our students and the interest of our international partners proved to be a win-win-win in these uncertain times. I think we all felt more connected as a result of the program, especially since we all know the pain of having travel plans interrupted as a result of the pandemic.”
The undergraduate and graduate students who participated in the program represented 9 nationalities and additional multicultural identities. They are enrolled at 12 universities in Japan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., and represented more than 20 academic disciplines. The 4-day program included self-paced learning modules, forum discussions, daily assignments and reflections. There were also daily facilitated live Zoom sessions where all of the students met to share reflections about the course content as well as their own cultural identities and traditions. Cibulskis was impressed at how engaged the students were both in the online forum discussions as well as during the live Zoom sessions.
“It took some work to reformat the lecture-based curriculum into self-paced online learning modules, but the true challenge of this summer’s program was figuring out how to facilitate cultural exchange in the online environment,” she said. “In just four consecutive days, we had to consider cultural differences in teaching environments, establish common norms for our learning community, and build relationships so that participants could feel comfortable sharing and asking questions.”
Future Online Programs Planned
The success of this pilot virtual program also means the GTI is exploring the possibility of offering it again in the future.
The interactions of such a culturally diverse group of students allowed us to put into action in real-time the very lessons we were all there to learn.
“By converting some of our typical face-to-face programs to online format this summer, we’ve been able to expand our impact to new and different groups of students who weren’t able to participate in these programs before,” said Michael Bustle, associate vice provost of global engagement and director of the GTI. “Given the ongoing concerns related to COVID-19 this next academic year, we will likely have a mix of in-person and virtual programming for both students and professionals.”
Sefiane enjoyed the program and didn’t mind the online nature of his interactions with the students and instructors.
“I found the program to be stimulating, fun, and enlightening. I think that most of the participants had fun interacting with people from other cultures, but more importantly, I think that we all learned a great deal from one another,” he added. “In today’s social and political climate, being surrounded by people trying their best to see things from a different point of view was a breath of fresh air.”