Abdel-Kader: Global Learning Should Be a Priority, Especially During a Pandemic. That’s Why We’re Awarding Grants for Virtual Student Exchanges

Johns Hopkins University, 2017 Stevens Initiative Grantee

Recently, when asked what is the greatest threat to the security of the United States, Adm. William McCraven stated, “K-12 education.” “Unless we’re giving opportunity and a quality education to the young men and women of this country,” he elaborated, “we won’t have the right understanding of different cultures and different ideas. They won’t be critical thinkers … We need young people who can look outside of their microcosm.”

McCraven was describing global competence — the skill set that allows people to navigate different cultures and situations, communicate across barriers, synthesize disparate bits of information to understand a path forward and, ultimately, act on that knowledge for the betterment of their community.

At the Stevens Initiative, we’re proud to support a broad array of educators, schools and nonprofit organizations in connecting students across national borders, regardless of their socioeconomic background, so they can learn more about the world through virtual exchanges.

Our grantmaking has prioritized reaching youth who do not have access to a global experience — rural, urban, women, girls, youth with different abilities and refugees. Broadening this exposure has been part of our mission since our founding in 2015, and our current focus is to virtually connect some 43,000 young people in the U.S., the Middle East and North Africa by summer 2022.

Virtual exchanges harness the power of technology to connect classrooms in different geographies for coordinated, collaborative educational experiences where students learn about one another, build a greater understanding of their similarities and differences and, in some cases, work together on projects aligned with their curriculum. In a time of physical distancing, there is added value in young people connecting with peers — humanizing and building a connection stemming from their shared challenges.

Imagine a classroom in Virginia and a classroom in Amman, Jordan, where students use technology to learn about one another, then discuss an issue such as sustainability or hunger. Each student gains a better understanding of how the problem impacts each respective community. The young people are able to connect on a deeper level, analyze the complexity of a global and local issue, and ultimately empathize with “the other.” In many cases, educators have used the experience to empower their students to act in their communities through service projects connected to the subjects in the virtual exchange.

To build on this momentum and increase access to these global experiences for young people in K-12 and postsecondary classrooms, the Stevens Initiative recently launched its largest-ever grant competition. Whether a school is oriented toward workforce development or the development of social-emotional skills, the young people they serve can gain the skills to better navigate world events, have the mindset and curiosity to understand how issues impact their communities both locally and globally and, finally, do so with empathy and kindness because they’ve connected with and explored similarities and differences with peers overseas.

Many applications come from nongovernmental organizations working with K-12 schools and districts, but schools and districts may also apply directly. Interested applicants in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa would need to develop a comprehensive virtual exchange program proposal that includes a partner across the Atlantic. Applicants submit their proposal with partnerships (i.e. the school, institution or educators they plan to connect with) already formed through their own outreach efforts prior to requesting a grant. K-12-focused virtual exchange programs, such as the Global Nomads Group, Empatico and iEARN, can help facilitate partnerships for participants; some schools prefer to join an existing Stevens Initiative program to start rather than immediately apply for a grant.

A proposed program would integrate into an existing curriculum or perhaps provide a creative way to engage youth outside of school. Facilitators will plan out the virtual exchange sessions on a mutually agreed-upon topic, using real-time (if time zones permit) or text-based or recorded video messages (when time zone differences don’t allow for real-time, face-to-face connections). As the sessions commence and, inevitably, as challenging discussion topics arise, the educators may prompt students to reflect on what they have just experienced in the exchange and what they’ve learned.

The deadline for applications is Oct. 13. Additional details about grant parameters can be found on the Stevens Initiative’s grant competition website.

In our grant-making, we’ve prioritized programs that reach underserved youth who may not typically have an international experience. With at least 1 in 5 American jobs tied to global trade and our communities becoming ever more diverse, having a global perspective can mean access to a job for a young graduate or better relations with neighbors who hail from a different background. Participants in previous virtual exchanges supported by the Stevens Initiative have shown a positive change in skills such as cross-cultural communication and knowledge of the other country or culture — data that were shared in our most recent Impact and Learning Report. For some students, the virtual exchange experience inspired them to study abroad; one took the skills she acquired and started a digital marketing agency.

In the 21st century, complexity and interconnectedness are the norm. As the world experiences tectonic shifts, we must seize the moment to prepare students for what lies ahead. We need to do better, because we can’t go back to normal.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader is executive director of the Stevens Initiative.

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