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International Programs: Opportunities on the Horizon

by Ashley Lawrence / Dec 8, 2020

International Programs team

Election drama, pandemic news, remote learning, virtual conferences—it’s been awhile since we considered the prospects of travel—much less, international travel. We recently checked in with the College of Education’s Office of International Programs to find out where things stand. Allison Witt, director of International Programs, and Wei Lui, associate director, shared helpful information for Education students and alumni to start planning their next global education adventure.

With large-scale vaccinations for COVID-19 finally in sight, what’s the current timetable for students to participate in Study Abroad programs?

Allison Witt: “We’re really imagining, at this point, the most realistic time for Study Abroad to get back up and going again is Winter Break a year from now, 2021-2022. Because of things like buying plane tickets, planning with partners. To get somewhere and be engaged in a program by summer 2021 doesn’t feel realistic, especially because in education we work in schools. We have to be aware that those schools are also very disrupted around the world, and we can’t just drop in on teachers that are reintroducing students to the classroom after this huge upheaval, globally.

“If you say it like “next winter break” it doesn’t feel so far away, right? We keep talking with our international partners and looking ahead, and we really want to be sensitive to what it means for them to host our students, when everybody’s ready.”

Are there alternative opportunities in the works for current students to get international practice and exposure as part of their Illinois experience?

AW: “We are doing some things virtually, in the meantime. And in the spring semester, we want to take advantage of the mid-week days off that are taking the place of Spring Break, and give students opportunities to work with schools around the world. We’ll be announcing chances for students to volunteer globally on these days, because we thought it would be a really fun way—almost like a mini Spring Break—to get to “visit” another classroom virtually, and get to meet students and teachers in another country and have a fun sort of adventure online by talking with students in classrooms.

“Spring Break is a big time for us—we’re usually traveling—so we have to travel on the 2021 Spring Break days. We’ll just travel virtually and hopefully get our students excited to then go back in person, when they can. It’s better than an information session, because our students will actually get to meet teachers and kids, showing them the value of a study abroad experience—and also what we share. Teachers are the same, all over the world; we’re the same tribe. Once our students realize that, it makes traveling abroad a lot easier.”

What are upcoming opportunities for visiting or international scholars coming to U of I? What is the plan?

Wei Liu: As you know, we can’t host visiting scholars in person right now. Those who had planned on being here for the 2020-21 year, and still want to stay connected, are part of our Virtual Visiting Scholar Program. For many of them, this year was the only window they could come. Because we can’t welcome them to campus, we are offering this online version of the program as an alternative. We are still able to provide them access to working with professors, our amazing library, and selected courses they may want to sit in on. We also offer workshops on Academic English and Research to help our visiting scholars transition into the higher education academic environment in the U.S. We train our graduate students to teach these workshops and work one-on-one with our visiting scholars as facilitators and mentors. For example, they assist our visiting scholars with finding potential experts and professors on campus to collaborate with and locate relevant resources. Through all the services we provide, we hope to create a meaningful experience for our virtual visiting scholars.

AW: We just want them to visit campus! Hopefully Fall 2021 semester. But for now, we’re trying to duplicate the whole experience of being on campus, which is hard to do. A lot of it would be hanging out in our office and having coffee and talking. We really want to provide a forum for having those academic conversations in English, because that’s what so many of our international scholars want to get better at.

WL: Right now we have four virtual visiting scholars, but there are more starting this spring. There is a process, including an interview, to be accepted to the program. And we want to make sure we can support what these scholars need. Just like the regular visiting scholar program, it’s a rolling admission schedule—open anytime to apply.

Have there been any positive outcomes to how the global pandemic has impacted International Programs at the College and across campus?

AW: I think Illinois has done an amazing job of seizing this moment. I am so proud of the way our university took care of our students at the outset of the pandemic—both our domestic students that were abroad and our international students that were here. Looking across campus, it’s impressive how people were putting in so many extra hours to ensure every student got home safe, didn’t incur too many expenses, and to surround our international students with support and everything they could need to survive this difficult time. We showed what we’re made of—at the end of the day, these are our students. We’ll do whatever it takes for them.

But beyond that, because everything was stopped it freed up time for us to really reflect on and evaluate what makes our programs great. It’s given us a reset moment to ask, ‘What do we want to change about this? How do we make this better?’ When we restart programming, I think we’ll see some real differences.

One of these things is going to be a greater emphasis on semester-long experiences. Research is clear that the longer students spend abroad, the better it is for them as teachers. And to their credit, the Department of Curriculum & Instruction has done a fantastic job of building in time when students could go abroad for a semester. That puts it on our office to create programs that are compelling enough, that makes students more excited than scared, so that students go.

We still plan to have the short-term programs, but we’re also re-conceptualizing them to be more theme-based. Meaning, we’d like to have students going abroad to look at particular concepts, identifying research questions in education. What’s going to sustain our students long-term through their career is finding new ideas in education from all over the world. Encouraging new understanding and deepening knowledge is what we should be doing at Illinois, right?

What about alumni? How can they stay connected to Illinois through International Programs and the global education community?

AW: Something we want to convey to alumni is that their opportunity for international engagement never goes away! We would always welcome them to join any of our programming at any time. Just like in teacher education, when you go to a classroom and model after the teacher, our students would benefit greatly from traveling with alumni as mentors, too.

There is also funding available from the campus’ area study centers (like the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, Center for Global Studies, European Union Center, etc.) to give scholarships to alumni doing study abroad experiences. This is federal funding designed to give U.S. teachers global experiences. It’s crazy if our alumni don’t take advantage of this!

All Education undergraduate students are eligible for a $500 Study Abroad scholarship. Students and alumni can get more information about International Programs’ scholarships and experiences by emailing