Elizabeth Byrnes didn’t want the “average” undergraduate experience and sought out ways to challenge her worldview. 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, which connected Nebraska students with peers around the world in courses that included real-time, virtual exchange video-conferencing sessions as a key component.
When Byrnes was preparing her class schedule for the fall 2018 semester, she told her adviser 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 adviser recommended the “Immigration and Multiculturalism” sociology course as part of the UNL Global Virtual Project. This course, paired with an English Literature course taught at the University of Jordan, investigated various aspects of multiculturalism and immigration from the perspective of both communities.
“This experience was nothing less than eye-opening. It was a constant process of building these connections and being comfortable enough to just ask each other, ‘What do you mean by that?’” explained Byrnes. “There are things that I learned about my fellow classmates that I wouldn’t expect at first glance, so it really helped me to look past surface-level judgments.”
Byrnes says she continues to remain in close contact with some of her classmates in Jordan, including the cheerful Nadine. Their friendship after the virtual exchange experience has 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.”
Byrnes (in red) helping her UNL classmate.
As she begins the 2019 school year, Byrnes agrees that her virtual exchange experience has helped her prepare for today’s globalized and interconnected world. In her professional career, Byrnes aims to work in healthcare 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-cultural communication skills have greatly improved, along with her ability to recognize that all people have a unique background that feeds their perspectives.
“Speaking to and working with the students in Jordan really showed me that no matter what culture or country you come from, young people want to have a voice,” Byrnes said. “And this class showed me that I have my own voice that I wasn’t completely aware of before. I want to use it more often to look past mundane differences, to work in minority health care administration.”
Given her increased confidence in communication skills, Byrnes considers the sociology course to be both a personal and professional success. In addition to learning how to better communicate with those from different backgrounds, Byrnes says the class structure helped her further develop teamwork skills, especially in understanding how to leverage individual strengths in a team setting. Ultimately, however, Byrnes 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.”
A previous version of this story is posted here. 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.