By Crystal Lamb, Western Communications
An international travel ban due to COVID-19 did not stop 20 Western students from collaborating on community projects and participating in an international learning experience – even if it meant connecting with organizations virtually from across the world. In fact, the number of participants in Western Heads East (WHE) was double the usual when the program moved online this summer.
WHE’s pilot virtual internship program, a collaboration between Western staff, students, faculty and African partners, saw student interns working with community organizations on furthering research projects, developing business tools and helping to establish community kitchens to make probiotic yogurt, cereal and juices in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.
Normally, WHE interns travel to East Africa for three months to assist with health sustainability initiatives, to practice sustainable-business skills and to collaborate on new kitchen facilities while earning course credit.
This year, the pandemic required program coordinators to pivot quickly.
“After consulting with our East African partners, we all agreed it was important to continue pursuing the 2020 internships on a remote basis instead of cancelling them and risking project stagnation,” said Stephanie Huff, former coordinator of WHE. “We value the international learning opportunity for students to develop critical and ethical global engagement, and critical reflexive skills, so we also did not want students, some who were graduating this year, to miss out on participating.”
When Eva Chang, then in her fourth year of health sciences, first learned she would not be able to travel to Rwanda for her internship she was disappointed. “I was really looking forward to being on the ground and working with our community partners in person,” she said. “When we found out we couldn’t travel I thought the internship would be cancelled, but then I heard about the remote option. My next thought was, ‘how will that work?’”
After talking on Zoom with her fellow interns, partners in Rwanda and the program organizers, the idea of a remote internship felt “a little less daunting,” said Chang, an international student. Although the remote option didn’t offer as much cultural connection and focused slightly more on tasks of the internship, it was a worthwhile experience. And she was happy her internship could move ahead when so many of her friends’ summer plans had been cancelled. “I developed a lot of professional skills and I’m really proud of what I accomplished during my internship. I was also happy to be able to go home to Trinidad and Tobago for the summer to be with my family and still participate in the internship program.”
For Yasmina Gaber, a student in the Master of Management of Applied Science in Global Health Systems, the loss of travel to Kenya was disheartening at first. “I had joined the program for the experience of going abroad,” she said. “The opportunity to go and work within the African context was something I had always wanted to do. I was quite nervous because at first the partners I was slated to work with didn’t think they could do it remotely, so they pulled back and it took time to connect with them.”
Ultimately, WHE organizers offered increased remote supervision and support for interns and reassured East African supervisors the experience would still be positive despite not being able to meet in person.
“With help from [the organizers], we were able to convince them that my doing COVID-19 research would make me an asset and not a burden during this challenging time,” Gaber said. “There were a lot of personal achievements and realizations on my end – I’m pretty proud of how resilient I am. I was able to redefine the scope of the project and work with what I had. I was also able to see how resourceful and communicative I could be with my supervisors. It was a new milestone for me.”
Jasmine Wen, a fourth-year student in Medical Sciences who helped establish a kitchen in Tanzania, wanted to ensure the virtual program would still provide the opportunity to connect with community partners. “Through this remote experience, I hope to demonstrate that you don’t have to travel all over the world in order to become a globally-minded citizen,” she wrote on her internship blog. “For me, this internship means challenging my ingrained Western values and beliefs, learning how to learn from a different culture, listening to the advice of local community members, celebrating similarities and differences, and seeing the strength in diversity.”
Aimee Utuza, a partner in Rwanda, said the challenges of switching the program to virtual were worth it. “It was amazing to see this ‘learning at distance’ idea coming together; it felt encouraging and truly gave us hope in these times,” Utuza said. “I loved spending time with my colleagues and the students to achieve a harmonious, win-win collaboration.”
With the uncertainty of future travel, WHE will be continuing to improve remote opportunities for international learning, said program coordinator Maria Rodriguez. “This doesn’t mean that we will not be sending students to East Africa when travel becomes freely available again; however, remote internships can work, and we plan to continue to offer them along with on-site options.”