by Kaydee Free, ’21
With the global pandemic shutting down international educational programs of all kinds, the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is leading the way for a new model of international education and experience.
The College of Agriculture and Life Science recently received the Stevens Initiative Grant to develop a virtual international exchange program with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University’s School of Agriculture, Fertilization and Environmental Science located in Morocco. This virtual program will be the first-of-its-kind experience for students in both universities to gain cultural competency skills and global education in the classroom.
Dr. Jack Elliot, Regional Director for Africa at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, explained that students who have international experiences are better equipped to succeed outside of college.
“International experience gives students a better sense of the world around them,” Elliot said. “Not only do they learn about global issues and cultures, they learn about themselves and develop into culturally competent individuals.”
While the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reported that more than 700 students took part in some kind of international experience in 2019, that is a very small number. “Even though we have lots of students who participate in international programs, there’s still over 90% of students in the College who haven’t,” Elliot said.
Kerri Vance, Coordinator for International Academic Programs for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences said that the two biggest reasons more students don’t take advantage of international programs is cost and fear.
“The number one concern I hear from students is that they can’t afford to participate in an international education program,” Vance said. Vance also mentioned that students who have never traveled abroad or only speak English tend to be more nervous about international programs.
“I recognized these obstacles even before the pandemic,” Vance said. “And I wanted to start something like a virtual exchange to allow more students the opportunity to engage with their international peers.”
The launch of the ALEC 350 – Global Agricultural Issues course mitigates all of those concerns. Students will be able to interact with Mohammed VI Polytechnic students without a language barrier, as the course being taught in English. As it is part of the course – and virtual – there are no additional costs associated with the experience.
“There are a lot of these barriers that students come across when trying to participate in an international experience,” Vance said. “The virtual exchange basically eliminates those barriers.”
While this is the first exchange program of its kind, this is not the first virtual international experience the College of Agriculture and Life Science has conducted. Last Spring, with all international programs being cancelled due to COVID-19, the Namibia Photojournalism and International Development program created a unique virtual experience for their students.
Led by Elliot and Instructional Assistant Professor Dr. Tobin Redwine, students connected with multiple Namibian experts via Zoom to learn about African agriculture. Elliot said that the Namibia program was the only international program to still take place after the lockdown.
“The key thing we learned from the Namibia virtual study abroad was that we can absolutely create a wonderful experience,” Elliot said. “The fact that students were still getting to interact with international experts during the pandemic proved that this model works.”
Creating a new virtual international experience comes with some challenges. From navigating time differences, connecting two classrooms and planning the curriculum, Elliot and Vance had their work cut out for them.
Vance explained one of the obstacles she faced while planning was wireless Internet accessibility in Morocco. The internet connection at Mohammed VI Polytechnic is relatively stable, but off-campus the ability to access wireless Internet service dwindles, creating a challenge when connecting the classrooms.
“Both institutions are in uncharted territories,” Vance said. “We are managing these challenges by not only having synchronous class, but asynchronous classwork as well.”
Students will work on team projects with international classmates and have to work around the time differences and connection capabilities, while building skills of effective communication and learning about each other’s cultures, Elliot said.
“This gives students the opportunity to connect with others they would have never met,” Elliot said. “The students are going to learn that we have more similarities than we have differences.”
ALEC 350 begins September 29, with a virtual kickoff event featuring speakers from Texas A&M and Mohammed VI Polytechnic. Elliot and Vance plan to continue the Morocco Virtual Exchange and grow the program so that more students can participate in the future. For the Spring semester they plan to have multiple course in several different departments.
“The pandemic made this model of international programs relevant,” Vance said. “The college and the university are going to be leaders in providing this type of international education.”