Since August, Morgan Woodbeck has been working to spread information on menstrual health in rural Tanzania through one of UB’s study abroad programs.
But unlike in previous years, Woodbeck hasn’t needed to leave her house.
She is instead partaking in one of the many virtual study abroad programs UB has begun offering since the start of the pandemic.
“The term ‘virtual study abroad’ is being used for a range of programs and offerings,” Mara Huber, the associate dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, wrote in an email to The Spectrum. “Essentially anything that involves connecting remotely with individuals, organizations and places around the world can be viewed as a virtual study abroad. These types of experiences, while no substitute for travel-based courses, can provide students with meaningful opportunities for growth and learning.”
Woodbeck, a sophomore intended biomedical science major, is participating in a virtual study abroad program through UB’s Experiential Learning Network (ELN). The department was founded in 2017 with the goal of providing learning opportunities to students looking for a connection to the world outside of their textbooks and classrooms. These opportunities include Global Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Projects, where in a pre-COVID year, students would travel abroad and work with NGOs to help fulfill the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 objectives created by the UN General Assembly in 2015 meant to create a better future by 2030.
But since the pandemic began last March, the department has been forced to improvise and find new ways for students to obtain a virtual hands-on experience. Instead of physically traveling to rural Tanzania, Woodbeck has been interacting with UB’s main NGO partner in the area, Hope Revival Children’s Organization, by email and Zoom calls.
Woodbeck says the shift to remote learning has been a unique challenge.
“It’s especially difficult to work with international partners when the time zones are very different. I had a lot of early morning and late night Zoom calls so that it would work around their time schedule,” Woodbeck said.
Huber is the primary faculty member behind ELN’s Global NGO Projects. Since 2009, she has been visiting Tanzania and cultivating relationships with local NGOs while also helping students obtain opportunities in the area. In 2015, Huber created a study abroad course for students to help NGOs in Tanzania and receive course credits, and, when the Global NGO Project Portal was created in 2019, the course became one of the many study abroad options available.
Once UB went online, Huber began thinking about creating a virtual course offering so students could continue to connect with NGOs in Tanzania. The virtual course launched last summer.
“Because students work collaboratively with NGOs and the communities they serve, they build a deep understanding of cultural nuances and ways that context shapes needs and opportunities,” Huber wrote. “Global projects are co-curricular and result in digital badges, which give students an opportunity to reflect upon and showcase their work. They can be done as independent studies or in conjunction with departmental requirements or support. In this way they can function similarly to study abroad, or lay the foundation for future travel-based experiences.”
For her virtual study abroad, Woodbeck decided to focus on the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which calls for achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Woodbeck learned about how a previous UB student, Danielle Nerber, created a reusable pad project to help promote menstrual hygiene in the area. Because many women in rural Tanzania lack the resources and money to obtain pads and tampons, they use unsafe materials such as mattress stuffing, old shirts, dirty rags and plastic objects that can lead to infections and other sanitary issues. Nerber’s reusable pad project intended to solve this issue by giving local women a cost-effective and safe alternative.
But, after a Zoom discussion, Woodbeck realized these women lacked the knowledge necessary to properly use and maintain these pads.
“I assumed that health class was just something that everyone was put through in primary and secondary education levels, which is just not the case in some places,” Woodbeck said. “It made me realize that we take for granted a lot of the knowledge we’re allotted when we sit in health class and complain about how awkward and annoying it is.”
To tackle this problem, Woodbeck spent many hours researching the menstrual cycle and hygiene. She also surveyed women in Tanzania and asked them what information they would like to know. Then, she created a poster with details on what the menstrual cycle is, what period symptoms are normal, how to maintain proper hygiene and how to use the pads properly. Once she completed the poster, she sent it to Hope Revival Children’s Organization, which translated it into Swahili. HRCO is currently sharing the poster with the community, and Woodbeck is planning to do more work for the region.
Woodbeck discovered this study abroad program by accident. One day, she was walking around campus when she noticed a flyer advertising a voluntary sexual harassment research study. In the study, students were paid to provide feedback on the scripts for sexual harassment and alcohol abuse videos the university planned to show to incoming freshmen. Students would read the scripts and point out which parts seemed unrealistic compared to how students behaved in real life, and they would share more accurate scenarios students might find themselves in.
After participating in the study over Zoom, Woodbeck wondered if there were any other virtual research opportunities at UB. Through her searches online, she found ELN’s Global Project Portal.
“[All of this] kind of made me realize that, wow, there’s a lot of research opportunities that nobody knows about unless it’s posted somewhere or you get an email about it,” Woodbeck said. “I know that sometimes with emails it’s from someone higher-up in the university, so I just figure it might not be applicable to me so I delete it.”
Woodbeck says she fears many students may think research opportunities only apply to STEM majors, and that contributes to students not knowing about possible projects.
“I know several people who are very intimidated by the word ‘research’ because they think, ‘I don’t want to work in a lab or with chemicals.’ I think it kind of gets bad rep for that,” Woodbeck said. “[For example,] one girl I worked with was an English major who wanted to make the pamphlets and packets that teachers hand out more accessible to students.”
Most of UB’s virtual study abroad programs were born during the pandemic, but a few of these programs existed even before COVID-19.
“Many universities have been developing virtual global engagement for quite some time,” Huber wrote. “For example, SUNY COIL has a long history of connecting US-based classes with faculty and students from distant countries and cultures as a way to develop global and culture competencies.”
SUNY COIL Global Commons is a six-credit remote learning program offered to students from any SUNY campus. Amanda Hart, a social policy and sociology pending graduate student, has participated in this learning program since last year. She says the program is “the platform on which students get together to help countries abroad.”
“If you’re like me and you can’t travel, because I had a stroke, I have an autoimmune disorder and I’m also kind of anti-social, this opened up a whole lot of doors for me,” Hart said. “And now I can talk to you on Zoom and have no problems doing that because I had a whole bunch of experience talking to people in other countries and leading teams on Zoom.”
Through this platform, Hart was able to connect with people in Nigeria and create the Global Women’s Empowerment Magazine. Each issue of the magazine has about 25 to 50 pages of digital written content focusing on women’s empowerment within all global communities. There have been two issues so far, and Hart is currently working on a third issue.
“I have not had a lot of opportunities throughout my life. It took me until I was 27 to get to college. So, the fact that for the first time ever I was able to talk to someone in Nigeria, which I had never had access to before outside of a scam email, totally changed my perception of things,” Hart said. “Or, for instance, I could never afford a Broadway play. But I was able to purchase a ticket to see a Broadway play for the first time from home. So, there’s a lot of things that a virtual platform can do just so long as we learn the balance of not being completely virtual.”
After Woodbeck’s experience with the virtual study abroad program, she says she would love to partake in more virtual programs even after the return of in-person study abroad.
“I’ve made so many connections and learned so much about different cultures, education and secondary education in another country,” Woodbeck said. “I also just really enjoyed it. It didn’t feel like school or homework, it felt like something that I really wanted to do.”
Anastasia Wilds is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AnastasiaWilds
Anastasia Wilds is the senior arts editor. She has been writing for newspapers since her junior year of high school, and she has appreciated all forms of art for even longer. When she’s not writing, she is either reading, listening to music, hanging out with her friends on discord or streaming on Twitch.