Participants in The Experiment Digital make a recipe together as part of their virtual homestay. (photo courtesy of Megan H.)

“I heard participants share that this program was the only ‘good’ thing for them during the summer—a bright spot in an otherwise long and lonely summer.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person programs, World Learning quickly gave its people-to-people exchanges an intense virtual makeover. Drawing on in-house expertise, organization staff created virtual exchange programming for thousands of participants, providing a vital outlet for intercultural exchange in a time of crisis.

The organization was able to tap into the experience and expertise gleaned from its pioneering virtual youth program, The Experiment Digital*, which launched in 2016. When The Experiment in International Living was unable to send students abroad this summer—a first in its 88-year history—the 2020 cohort was invited to join The Experiment Digital instead. The program nearly doubled in size compared to 2018, ultimately connecting 922 students from Algeria, Iraq, the U.S., and Yemen for a dynamic, eight-week virtual exchange.

World Learning also utilized this model to move its U.S. Department of State-funded summer youth exchanges online and connected another 325 students from the Americas and Iraq through the Youth Ambassadors Program, Jóvenes en Acción, and the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP).

“I heard participants share that this program was the only ‘good’ thing for them during the summer—a bright spot in an otherwise long and lonely summer,” says Melanie Brubaker, senior program officer for Youth Exchange at World Learning.

To create more intimate dialogue between participants, each youth exchange was broken down into smaller “family units” that made up larger neighborhoods. Within each family group, trained youth facilitators and peer mentors led engaging discussions on a host of issues.

“I feel like a completely different person from the start of this program and now. It was pretty life changing to be honest,” says Jorge Hernandez, who participated in the virtual Chile-Argentina Youth Ambassadors program this summer.

Participants in The Experiment Digital engage in a video chat in summer 2019

Meanwhile, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which brings professionals from across the globe together with experts and colleagues in their field in the U.S., went from paused to virtual, hosting 13 distinct programs during the second half of 2020—the same program-count as a pre-pandemic 2019. Virtual program themes echoed traditional IVLP programs, like one session where a group of six foreign policy experts from Kenya met virtually with their counterparts in Washington, DC, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to discuss U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region, as well as Kenya’s new seat on the UN Security Council.

Other exchanges that transitioned to digital include the Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES), the International Sports Programming Initiative, and the Professional Fellows Digital Communications Network program.

In addition, staff found creative ways to connect diverse areas of expertise across the organization to support participants. For example, the academic exchange and TESOL teams collaborated to provide intensive online English training for Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD) students who needed to strengthen their language skills before spending a semester at a U.S. college or university through the program. Beyond providing rigorous academic English-language classes, the TESOL team created a host of extracurricular digital activities, such as a game night, a book club, a storytelling contest, and a virtual museum tour for Global UGRAD students, providing real life conversation practice and cultural training while strengthening bonds between them.

While staff are eager to resume face-to-face exchanges, once it is safe to do so, they are also excited about continuing to leverage technology to strengthen programs and make them more accessible and inclusive.

“No one expects virtual programs to replace in-person ones, but the virtual format enhances and expands them in unexpected ways,” says Patricia Harrison, World Learning’s director of International Professional Exchange Programs.

* The Experiment Digital is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.
All other programs referenced in this story are funded by the U.S. Department of State.

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