“Working hard and burning the midnight oil 😊,” read a message sent on Slack with a picture taken from a call between Diego Dulanto, Alana Madina, and a student from an Iraqi university, three college students collaborating in the wee hours of the night to submit a final project. What the messages and pictures don’t reveal is that the students are located in Iraq and Florida, U.S.
These students are putting the final touches on a business concept to submit to the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge. They are part of a larger binational team, representing one of 12 binational teams and 235 students participating in a 10-week Stevens Initiative supported virtual exchange, implemented by IREX.
Their concept is a waste-to-compost machine for college campuses to convert food waste into compost sold to farmers for local use. It was developed in response to a challenge prompt created in collaboration with industry partner La Terza Coffee.
Global Solutions provides community colleges in the United States alternatives to study abroad programs which are typically expensive and time-intensive, resulting in only 3% of students from community colleges participating in study abroad and in-person exchanges. Through virtual exchange, these students develop cross-cultural collaboration skills needed for the modern workforce.
“I’m studying at a community college and you don’t always have opportunities like this. It’s nice to be able to talk to students halfway across the world. Things I thought were different [about the culture] turned out to be not as different as I talked with my partners in Iraq,” said Elijah Tison, team manager for Hillsborough Community College.
This year, Global Solutions expanded to Iraq, responding to needs identified in a 2017 IREX labor market report in Iraq. The research identified a skills gap for Iraqi college graduates in English language, technology, and soft skills. Global Solutions is providing access to learning opportunities that provide these critical skills.
Reflecting on her experience as a college student, a student participant from an Iraqi university said, “We live in a place where we don’t always have hope, but how beautiful it is when we hold on to our dreams and make it a reality. In our Iraqi community, it almost sounds impossible when you say you have a project about food recycling. We never thought about that because we live in a box and don’t think outside of it. The program opened our eyes and minds to think more globally. It gave us courage to act ambitious.”
Not only did the Global Solutions program energize individual students, it inspired an entire school community at Hillsborough Community College, sparking interest and engagement on different levels from the president and dean to an honors club. Both the US and Iraq facilitators of the teams were impressed with how the program provided an authentic opportunity for students to develop workforce skills such as critical problem solving, adaptability, and empathy.
“As these young people grapple with local ground level issues, they are also forming a world view that emphasizes similarity and common goals over conflict and self-protection,” said Dr. Allen Witt, Campus President of Hillsborough Community College.
The hard work of these students and their entire team led them to place as finalists in the challenge with the opportunity to present at the Virtual Global Business Expo, where six finalist teams presented their pitch to a panel of judges comprised of industry experts, and the top three finalists were selected. However, the impact of this virtual exchange will extend beyond the Expo.
The Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge provided an authentic learning opportunity, energized by human-to-human connections abroad. Students expanded their worldview, challenged stereotypes, and developed critical thinking skills needed for the modern workforce. Students’ lives were changed as they impacted their communities and made new friendships with students in another country. On a larger scale, the program contributed to developing a pipeline of equipped youth ready to contribute to their society’s ever changing modern global workforce.