Although COVID-19 brought international travel to a grinding halt, that didn’t stop the University of Northern Iowa’s Study Abroad Center from offering students a chance to explore global cultures.

This past winter break, 42 UNI students spent two weeks virtually touring parts of Panama, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Chile, learning about the drivers of the economy and how COVID-19 has impacted Latin American’s daily lives.

“It’s a way to really open up students' eyes to what else is going on in the world,” said Charity Eckhardt, faculty-led program advisor for the Study Abroad Center. “The whole world is going through this pandemic together. So, when students are interacting with people who live abroad, they're able to ask questions about how COVID-19 is affecting them and their jobs and daily life.” 

Students took one of two capstone courses during the program, a socio-economic realities course taught by Christine Schrage, global opportunities coordinator for the College of Business Administration, and a global skills capstone taught by Nicholas Bailey, an assistant professor of management.

Both courses were business-focused and each day the students faced a variety of experiences. They would take a virtual tour of a city market in Brazil or speak with coffee farmers in Nicaragua. They spoke with the former Vice Minister of Commerce and Industry in Panama and a communications manager for a large Chilean timber company.

“Even though there's a pause on international travel, there are ways to still continue international experiences and collaborations and give students these really enriching and meaningful experiences as part of their academic career,” said Charity Eckhardt, faculty-led program advisor for the Study Abroad Center. “The virtual programs stepped in to meet that need.” 

Senior chemistry major Natalie Parker said one of the experiences that stood out was trying different percentages of cocoa that were delivered to the students.

“I am really happy that I took this class because it was fun, short and completely different from what I do in my day-to-day life,” Parker said. “I got to meet a lot of fun people and see a lot of exciting new things within a different culture. I saw how cocoa, jewelry and paper were made, to name a few.”

The Study Abroad Center started to conceive the virtual study abroad program when  the pandemic started impacting UNI in March, offering virtual options with partner universities abroad for summer and fall. It took months of connecting with the Study Abroad Center’s international contacts to plan the winter faculty-led capstones, but it also involved new complications – primarily with connectivity issues. How students would connect to a Zoom call with coffee farmers in rural Nicaragua was a new wrinkle for planning, but the program came together.

“This is an outside-the-box idea,” Eckhardt said. “We obviously can’t completely recreate the study abroad experience, but this is still a great way to have those international collaborations.”

The Study Abroad Center is currently offering other virtual study abroad programs this summer with partner universities in France, Italy and Costa Rica as well as a faculty-led capstone in Italy.Eckhardt said the winter program was such a success that the center would like to offer other virtual programs even after international travel returns to normal.

“We would like to continue this even after the pandemic is behind us,” Eckhardt said. “This offers such an accessible and affordable study abroad experience for students who may have home commitments that prevent them from taking several weeks off or cannot afford the plane ticket to travel abroad.”