International learning in the time of COVID-19

" I became more aware of my own global context and the differences between cultures," says CIL graduate Aislinn Makowski.

Ashley Rabinovitch - 02 October 2020

"People associate the Certificate in International Learning (CIL) with travelling the world, but it's really about understanding ourselves and our diverse community, wherever we are," reflects Nancy Hannemann, the Director of Global Education at the University of Alberta International office.

Under the umbrella of the Global Education Program, CIL helps undergraduate students adopt a global mindset through courses, workshops, and intercultural experiences. Though most choose to fulfill CIL's intercultural experience requirement through studying, working, or volunteering abroad, they may also live in the University of Alberta's International House for an academic year or volunteer with a local agency that works in a cross-cultural setting.

The travel restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 have prevented the nearly 400 students enrolled in CIL from travelling but not from learning in a real-world setting. Aislinn Makowski, a double major in psychology and sociology who will graduate in the fall of 2020, enrolled in CIL to broaden her view of the world after growing up in a small, homogenous community in Alberta. To meet the intercultural experience requirement for CIL, Aislinn volunteered more than 100 hours with Catholic Social Services to teach English as a second language at local libraries.

"Facilitating language classes pushed me far out of my comfort zone, but I eventually came out of my shell and realized that I could not only get through it, but I could succeed," says Aislinn. "As I interacted with people from Vietnam, Romania, Iran, and a number of other countries, I was able to apply the theoretical knowledge I had learned in CIL classes in intercultural communication. Through our conversations, I became more aware of my own global context and the differences between cultures, and I think I can say the same for the class participants."

While Aislinn volunteered with Catholic Social Services, CIL students worked in a diversity of settings, including schools and senior organizations with a multicultural population. "People come to Canada from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, so there are endless opportunities to make intercultural connections here at home," Nancy Hannemann affirms. "Wherever our students go after graduation, it will be important for them to be able to navigate cultural differences at home, work, and other spaces."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the form of experiential learning for a number of CIL students, it has also opened new doors for engagement. "Online learning, in particular, has created possibilities we might not have considered before COVID-19," says Dr. Cisneros, the Academic Director of the CIL. All around the world, for example, faculty members are making their courses available online to ensure access for students who can't travel to attend in person. CIL is also developing multicultural learning pods, an initiative that creates small groups of students, some international and some domestic, to meet virtually over a 10-week span before working together on a final project. "We initiated this new learning opportunity to confront the coronavirus challenge," explains Dr. Cisneros. "It will be exciting to see how the students adapt and learn from each other."