Despite challenges including a ban on international travel, navigating different time zones, unstable internet connections, and other pandemic-related obstacles, 20 Western students were determined to collaborate on community projects and participate in an international learning experience – even if it meant connecting with organizations virtually from across the world.
Twenty students successfully completed remote internships with partners in East Africa and London, Ontario, this summer – double the number the program typically supports each year – demonstrating that opportunities for global engagement are still possible despite COVID-19 restrictions.
The pilot virtual internship program was offered by Western Heads East (WHE), a collaborative program between Western staff, students, faculty, and African partners using probiotic foods to contribute to health and sustainable development. WHE works with local partners to establish probiotic yogurt, cereal and juice kitchens in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, with the community kitchens being owned and operated by the local women and youth groups. The program is a model of social enterprise as vehicles for knowledge translation and also places interns with community partners for research and project implementation based on their organization needs.
Typically, interns with WHE travel to East Africa for three months to assist with health sustainability initiatives, practice sustainable business skills and collaborate on new kitchen facilities while earning course credit.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, program coordinators had to pivot quickly to offer an alternative for students enrolled in the program.
“After consulting with our East African partners, we all agreed that it was important to continue pursuing the 2020 internships on a remote basis, instead of cancelling them and risking project stagnation. We value the international learning opportunity for students to develop critical and ethical global engagement, and critical reflexive skills so we also did not want students, some whom were graduating this year, to miss out on participating in our program,” said Stephanie Huff, former coordinator of WHE.
When Eva Chang, then in her fourth year of Health Sciences, first learned she would no longer be able to travel to Rwanda for her internship because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions she was disappointed.
“I was really looking forward to being on the ground and working with our community partners in person,” she said. “When we found out we couldn’t travel I thought the internship would be cancelled, but then I heard about the remote option. My next thought was ‘how will that work?’”
Once she was able to talk to her fellow interns, partners in Rwanda and the program organizers, the idea of the remote internship felt “a little less daunting.” Interns were able to connect over Zoom and email with each other and with supervisors. Although the remote option didn’t offer as much of the cultural connection and focused slightly more on the tasks of the internship, it was a very worthwhile experience, Chang said, adding that she was happy her internship was able to move ahead when so many of her friends' summer plans had been cancelled due to COVID-19.
“I developed a lot of professional skills and I’m really proud of what I accomplished during my internship. I was also happy to be able to go home to Trinidad and Tobago for the summer to be with my family and still participate in the internship program. That was a comfort during the pandemic,” said Chang, an international student.
For Yasmina Gaber, a student in the Master of Management of Applied Science (MMASc) in Global Health Systems who had been planning to travel to Kenya, the change in how the program would be delivered left her feeling disheartened at first.
“I had joined the program for the experience of going abroad. The opportunity to go and work within the African context was something I had always wanted to do. I was quite nervous because at first the partners I was slated to work with didn’t think they could do it remotely, so they pulled back and it took time to connect with them,” said Gaber.
Ultimately, WHE program organizers offered increased remote supervision and support for interns to enable internships to proceed with East African supervisors being reassured that students would still have a positive experience despite not being able to meet in person.
“With help from [program organizers], we were able to convince them that my doing COVID-19 research would make me an asset and not a burden during this challenging time,” she said.
“There were a lot of personal achievements and realizations on my end – I’m pretty proud of how resilient I am. I was able to redefine the scope of the project and work with what I had. I was also able to see how resourceful and communicative I could be with my supervisors. It was a new milestone for me.”
In addition to learning new technology and adapting to changes to the program, Jasmine Wen, a fourth-year student in medical sciences and one of the interns assisting with establishing a new kitchen in Tanzania, wanted to ensure the experience would still provide the opportunity to connect with the community partners, despite being across the world.
“Through this remote experience, I hope to demonstrate that you don’t have to travel all over the world in order to become a globally-minded citizen,” she wrote on her internship blog. “For me, this internship means challenging my ingrained Western values and beliefs, learning how to learn from a different culture, listening to the advice of local community members, celebrating similarities and differences, and seeing the strength in diversity.”
With the uncertainty of future international travel, continuing to improve remote opportunities and providing students with options to participate in international learning from home will be important.
“So far we’ve had great success,” said Maria Rodriguez, WHE program coordinator. “Remote opportunities will definitely be part of our programs moving forward. This doesn’t mean that we will not be sending students to East Africa when travel becomes freely available again, however remote internships can work, and we plan to continue to offer them along with on-site options. It is very exciting to see the success the students have had adapting in this current state of the world.”
Although the shift to virtual meant a learning curve for supervisors as well as students, the experience was worth the additional challenges for partners and for students - especially during such challenging times.
“It was amazing to see this ‘learning at distance’ idea coming together, it felt encouraging and truly gave us hope in these times,” said Aimee Utuza, a partner in Rwanda. “I loved spending time with my colleagues and the students to achieve a harmonious, win-win collaboration.”