Byrnes credits “eye-opening” virtual exchange class with building cross-cultural communication skills

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Byrnes credits “eye-opening” virtual exchange class with building cross-cultural communication skills

VIRTUAL EXCHANGE COURSE IS MOST IMPACTFUL SO FAR
by Courtney Van Hoosen | Office of Global Strategies
Elizabeth Byrnes, a junior sociology and communication studies double major, describes her experience with the UNL Global Virtual Project as “nothing less than eye-opening.
Courtesy photo
Elizabeth Byrnes (standing), a junior sociology and communication studies double major, describes her experience with the UNL Global Virtual Project as “nothing less than eye-opening.

A native of small-town Ralston, Nebraska, Elizabeth Byrnes arrived at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) with the goal of exploring new opportunities and understanding what life was like outside of her hometown.

The junior sociology and communication studies double major says one of the most impactful experiences so far has been her “Immigration and Multiculturalism” sociology course in fall 2018. The course included a virtual exchange component with the University of Jordan as part of the UNL Global Virtual Project.

“This virtual exchange experience showed me that there are similarities between me and other young people around the world,” Byrnes said. “I realized that although we communicate differently, although we may speak different languages—this class made me want to build more connections.”

Byrnes was one of more than 280 students who participated in the first year of the UNL Global Virtual Project, an initiative that connected Nebraska students with peers around the world in courses that included real-time, virtual exchange video-conferencing sessions as a key component. The project, launched in 2018 with support from a Stevens Initiative grant, offered six courses across three colleges in disciplines ranging from communication and hospitality, to computer science and foreign language.

The Stevens Initiative, administered by The Aspen Institute and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the U.S. and the Middle East and North Africa region. The 2019-2020 iteration of the Nebraska project will expand virtual exchange offerings in academic discipline and geographic scope through the internally-funded Global Virtual Classrooms Grant, coordinated by the Office of Global Strategies.

Byrnes (in red) helps her classmates with the Zoom video conferencing technology as they connect with peers in Jordan.
Office of Global Strategies
Byrnes (in red) helps her classmates with the Zoom video conferencing technology as they connect with peers in Jordan.

When Byrnes was preparing her class schedule for the fall 2018 semester, she told her advisor she wanted a course option that was not based on a textbook, but was instead “hands-on” and extended beyond the classrooms setting. Thus, her advisor recommended the “Immigration and Multiculturalism” sociology course because of its inclusion in the UNL Global Virtual Project.

The Sociology 398 course led by Nebraska’s Dr. Lory Dance was paired with an English literature course at the University of Jordan, taught by Dr. Deema Ammari. Throughout the 12 in-class synchronous virtual exchange sessions, students completed group projects and received feedback from their peers on topics that ranged from hegemony to diversity and beyond. By the conclusion of the final project presentations, both students and professors were moved to tears due to the close bonds formed throughout the semester. 

“This experience was nothing less than eye-opening.”

—Elizabeth Byrnes, University of Nebraska-Lincoln student

Byrnes says she continues to remain in close contact with some of her classmates in Jordan. The friendships formed after the virtual exchange experience have even extended so far as to planning potential trips to visit each other in Nebraska and Jordan.

“I definitely recommend students to take a virtual exchange course,” Byrnes said. “If you can’t study abroad for time or financial reasons, then this is absolutely the best way to connect with people from different perspectives.”

As she begins her junior year this fall 2019, Byrnes agrees that her virtual exchange experience has helped her prepare for today’s globalized world. In her professional career, Byrnes aims to work in health care administration with the specific mission to create a more communicative dialogue between patients and doctors, especially patients who are minorities or from underrepresented groups. After learning about and discussing cultural differences with peers in Jordan, she feels her cross-communication skills have greatly improved, along with her ability to recognize that all people have a unique background that feeds their perspectives.

Given her increased confidence in communication skills, Byrnes considers the sociology course to be both a personal and professional success. She is most proud of her accomplishment to identify and move beyond her comfort zone.

“This class really forced me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to understand other people’s perspectives,” Byrnes said. “I would do another virtual exchange course in a heartbeat.”

The 2018 UNL Global Virtual Project included six virtual exchange courses across three colleges and four countries as part of a Stevens Initiative award. The Stevens Initiative is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Aspen Institute. The Initiative is an international effort to build global competence and career readiness for young people in the U.S. and the Middle East and North Africa while growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange: online, international, and collaborative learning. 

The 2019 iteration of the UNL Global Virtual Project will build on the success and geographic scope of the previous year with the internally-funded Global Virtual Classrooms grant. For more information about the Project, please contact the Office of Global Strategies at globalstrategies@unl.edu