Cultural Exchange Endures in a Virtual World

Unable to travel, students at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart used innovation to engage with peers across the globe.

After COVID, “virtual” is a word many educators will happily hear a lot less of going forward. But at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart the lessons of quarantine will live on in innovative programs that help students develop a global perspective.

As part of a worldwide network with more than 150 schools on six continents, Sacred Heart students have several unique opportunities to immerse themselves into another culture, be it on a trip or on an exchange to a sister school in Europe, Asia, North America, South America or Australia. Students at the Lake Forest campus of the Catholic college prep day and boarding school also learn about the world through the exchange students who visit from a host of countries.

“The real advantage,” explains Jessica Campbell, the school’s director for the Center of Global Studies, “is helping students think about their role as global citizens and understanding what is going on outside their bubble here in the United States.”

Innovative exchange

COVID, of course, impacted the program. How do you foster international experiences when the world is tightly shut down and travel is prohibited? With the help and ingenuity of sister schools across the world, Sacred Heart Schools like Woodlands pivoted to virtual exchanges.

While students were denied the chance to savor warm croissants in a Paris cafe, they still got to converse on a multitude of topics with their French peers. They talked with Australian students about how well that country coped with the coronavirus and answered questions about gun violence and social justice from fellow scholars throughout Asia and Europe.

Woodlands partnered with another Sacred Heart school, Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, Washington, to offer four integrated courses for students throughout Asia, with local students welcome to participate in real time. Another network-based program, Solidarity and Sustainability, joined students from the United States, Canada and Mexico to discuss hot-button topics like racism, ethics, the environment and female empowerment.

“Students lead different sessions once a month,” Campbell says. “The girls learn about different opportunities to be allies and advocates for people in the margins. They talk about how to take these ideas and create an action plan to work on in real life. They are intrinsically curious about international cultures, and they bring that knowledge back to this community in their conversations with each other and in classes and clubs.”

Enduring opportunities

Some of these sessions will go on even once worldwide travel is again the norm, Campbell says. “There is such a low barrier to entry with these virtual exchanges — you don’t need a passport or a plane ticket; you just click a button. This is especially good to give the ninth and 10th grades a taste of what global exchange is all about.

“We might require students to do a virtual class before going on a foreign exchange to help prepare them for other cultures,” she adds. “They can also start to form relationships virtually instead of meeting these people for the first time when they get off the plane. They’re getting knowledge about the world before they get plunged into it.”

Mastering the technology presented Campbell with challenges that just about any adult can relate to. “I have jumped on a meeting at the wrong time many times, and once managed to end a whole class when I just meant to just click myself out,” she admits. “This has been great to show students that that they don’t have to be perfect and that adults can also make mistakes.”

Learn more about Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart at woodlandsacademy.org.

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