German Fulbright Summer Institute Moved Online, Created Community Across the Sea

This image is a screenshot of a Zoom meeting. 25 people are arrayed in Zoom rectangles. All are wearing maroon Virginia Tech t-shirts.
To welcome the German students before the program began, Cranwell International Center staff assembled packages filled with gifts, including the Virginia Tech t-shirts on display here.

After 14 months of teaching and meeting on Zoom, we’d all gotten a lot better at navigating the platform. But last spring a request from the German-American Fulbright Commission for an online summer institute for a cohort of German undergraduate students definitely generated some disquietude. After all, right on the Fulbright website homepage it says, “Fulbrighters will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences.”

The Center for Communicating Science (CCS) and the Cranwell International Center have been collaborating with the German-American Fulbright Commission since 2017 to offer an innovative summer program to German undergraduates. The 2020 program was cancelled in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but it was back this year—unexpectedly in a fully online format—because we said “Yes! Let’s try it!”

The program, “Communicating Across Disciplines: New Approaches for Applied Sciences,” hosted 27 German undergraduate students July 19-August 13. CCS director Patty Raun, associate director Carrie Kroehler, and faculty fellows Daniel Bird Tobin and Rachel Fitzgerald, along with Cranwell Center director David Clubb and CCS graduate assistants Gabe Velazquez and Rachel Potter Nunn, put together a full slate of creative engagements for the students. Fitzgerald is associate director of Global Education at Virginia Tech, and Tobin is a theatre specialist in the English department at Saint Anselm College.

The in-person summer program is typically full of coursework, co-curricular activities, and extra-curricular activities, including scenic hikes in the areas surrounding Blacksburg, trips to the Homestead restaurant, and experiencing local events such as Steppin’ Out. Online, the students engaged in several hours of coursework three days a week; daily conversation hours with Virginia Tech peer mentors; and tours and talks to orient them to campus, town, regional, and Washington, D.C., sights and resources.

This year’s program focused on creating community among the German students, peer mentors, and faculty involved in the program. The success of that focus was evident at the end-of-program celebration, where participants and faculty alike were moved to tears by final presentations and farewells. As one student commented, “All these people on my computer screen are suddenly no longer strangers to me, but became people to whom I feel connected. . .I can’t wait for the day when we can all finally meet in person.”

The academic coursework, based on theatre improvisation exercises and games, encouraged students to share stories, develop communication skills, practice their English, improve their listening abilities, provide and receive useful feedback, and connect and collaborate across disciplinary and other differences.

One participant suggested extending the program to world leaders: “I think what made this Summer School so special is getting reminded every day, that all the differences we have as humans exist either way and we have to find ways to get along with each other anyways because we all are stuck here on this planet together for the unforeseeable future. Maybe some of our political leaders should go have a summer school with you guys and learn to communicate. . .”

The program also provided many opportunities to experience, from afar, campus life and local, regional, and American culture. Local and regional engagement included a welcome from Blacksburg mayor Leslie Hager-Smith and personalized tours of the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the Taubman Museum of Art, and the exhibit galleries at the Moss Arts Center. Students participated in teams in an online scavenger hunt on campus, were introduced to the campus Cultural and Community Centers by Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, and created product pitches in a workshop facilitated by Howard Haines from the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs.

Through a collaboration between the Center for Communicating Science and the Office of Undergraduate Research, the German students engaged online with several undergraduate students who were doing summer research at Virginia Tech. They also attended the online Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Fitzgerald provided additional asynchronous online resources that allowed students to explore the New River Valley, the Roanoke region, and Washington, D.C.

“I will cherish. . . all the wonderful experiences we have shared together over the past four weeks,” wrote one student. “It was truly an unforgettable time and I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of it. . . .Thank you so much for the incredibly wonderful program.”

Others commented specifically on the challenges of moving the program to an online format: “THANK YOU SO MUCH for giving us this opportunity even if there was and is Covid. Of course, I am sure it would have been so much better if we all would have come to the states but I really have to say that you came up with the best possible solution in the situation,” said one student, and another wrote, “I. . .want to thank everyone from Virginia Tech for their incredible engagement, their never-ending energy, and all the amazing ideas it took to create an online program like this.”

The decision to hold the program online this summer was made by the German Fulbright Commission in response to uncertainty about vaccination programs and “vaccine passports,” the safety of flights for the students, and other pandemic-related considerations.

We are grateful to all our partners, at Virginia Tech and beyond, for helping make this online experience meaningful. We’d like to extend special thanks to the Virginia Tech peer mentors, a group of undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, and recent graduates who participated in daily conversation hours during the four weeks. They are

  • Mrunali Amrutkar
  • Jennifer Appiah-Kubi
  • Eugene Choo
  • Kendall Daniels
  • Keren Duerksen
  • Alexis Hruby
  • Michelle Kim
  • Ryan Musselman
  • Anna Nagorniuk
  • Tristan Stoyanof
  • Leslie Ann Toney
  • Tyler Weiglein
  • Mackenzie Williams
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