This year's Forum on Education Abroad conference in Atlanta felt like it was over almost as soon as it started. Abbie and I arrived a day early to take advantage of a pre-conference workshop on digital storytelling in education abroad. The session ran from 8 to 5 and was intense. Time flew by, as it does when you are engrossed in meaningful work.
The session was team-taught by IE pros Doug Reilly and Thomas D'Agostino from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Joe Lambert from StoryCenter. Joe was a founder in the digital storytelling movement. It was wonderful to have all of them in the room, coaching us in our endeavor.
Before we arrived in Atlanta, the team sent us all an email with our homework-- find a compelling story we wanted to tell, location images to go with the story, and draft a 200-word script. This prep work, while not exactly what you want to do right before you scoot out of the office for a trip, was what made it possible to cram the 3-day workshop into a 1-day session. I started with an article I wrote for this blog. Abbie found a poem she wrote during her re-entry from study abroad in Spain.
The workshop started out with an intensive on digital storytelling principles and a few samples of the art form. We then moved to the story circle phase, where we pitched our script ideas and gave constructive feedback to one another. I cannot say enough about the value of this step. Sometimes we have the kernel of an idea but we don't feel confident about direction or the message we convey until we let others tell us what they are hearing. Having a safe space to do this, and reflecting on the elements of a good story, was a valuable and fun exercise.
As a professional, I write all the time, but rarely (if ever) do I write about deeply personal topics in an emotionally expressive way. Digital storytelling demands this. Somehow limiting our stories to 200 words is a magical formula. It's like poetry. This restriction taught us to be efficient and intentional in our art. You have to find ways to convey a message through thoughtful imagery, words, and tone when all you've got is 200 words. You learn where to cut and where to linger.
The software we used was called WeVideo. It's available free online if you want to try it in the basic version. I found it far more intuitive than iMovie or Moviemaker, but that is just me. It's an easy drag and drop system. You can layer sound and images as well as add in all the fancy effects like other video editing systems.
In the end the technology really takes a back seat to the story. I came into the workshop thinking we'd get a lot of technical training-- and we did learn new things like how different fade effects signal transition or conclusion and ways to layer music. Most of what I learned was how to dig inside myself to find a good story and work hard to shape it into something that draws others in.
At the end of our day we did a little screening party and it was so moving to not only see other people's personal stories, but to acknowledge how far they'd come when just a few hours ago we were in a circle hearing the initial pitches and giving feedback.
On Friday, Tom, Doug, and Joe had a Forum conference session that incorporated our work. They gave an overview of the process to a packed room. They showed a few of our films (Abbie and I made the cut), invited us to speak about how we see ourselves implementing the pedagogy on our campuses, and let us share how it felt to participate in the process. They even added our names to the slide-- so I guess it was not just a workshop but a backdoor to a Forum conference presentation.
It was a strange but rewarding feeling to be able to look around the room and see the response of people watching my story...to see their smiles or hear their gasps and side comments. It is unlike anything I have experienced. Normally when I am presenting my work I am standing in front of a room, too focused on delivery and nerves to really soak up more than a few faces in the crowd. This felt so much less threatening. I can't wait to try digital storytelling with my re-entry students and let them experience the same.
We only had a day so our end products were rough. I'm still a little embarrassed by mine and have so many tweaks I want to make to the images. And I'd love to add a music track. Abbie also feels that hers is just a start so I promised I'd share a disclaimer. She plans to add in more images after a trip to Spain this summer.
But you can at least get the idea of what is possible in a few hours if you let go of perfectionism and allow yourself to reflect on life's lessons:
Abbie's Digital Story
Kelly's Digital Story (adapted from this post)
First question: How do you feel about intern (or peer advisor) training? For most of us, it comes at a time when we are already super-busy gearing up for the start of a new semester/year, and while student staff turnover can bring fresh ideas and energy to the office, the reality for advisors is that student training can be time-consuming and repetitive. When you have explained office protocol for the 9th, 22nd, and 44th time, you probably aren’t doing so with the same enthusiasm as the first time, and it’s likely that your new students notice.
Second question: Throughout the semester, do you find yourself wondering if students remember anything from the initial training? Do you shake your head at their inability to perform basic office skills? (Okay, that was three questions.) If you answered no, I’m jealous, and you’re lucky. As I touched on in a previous post, it can difficult to strike the balance between a “tough love” attitude and viewing a failure to meet expectations as a learning opportunity.
The solution that my colleague Korbin Dimmick and I developed? Battle of the Interns, or BOI! Don’t worry – we aren’t pitting our students against each other in a fight-to-the-death match where the winner earns the favor of the advisors that week. What we are doing is employing a bit of friendly competition to re-enforce the policies covered on the first day as well as enhance certain professional skills that will help the students transition to their first full-time position after graduation. Plus, it shakes things up and adds some harmless entertainment for the advisors.
We knew we were on to something when one of our former students told us that one of our challenges was something similar to what she was asked to do in a Teach for America interview and that she performed better because of the prior preparation. (She was later awarded a position.)
Korbin and I recently presented a session on this topic at the NAFSA Region VII Conference, and you can check out the full details here. In short, the “battle” takes place throughout the semester, with challenges being completed every other week during our weekly intern meetings. To pump up the excitement, we play a snip of our chosen BOI theme song before each challenge and occasionally bring in small prizes.
The foundation of each challenge is the acquisition or enhancement of a certain skill, such as written and oral communication, event planning, teamwork, and problem-solving. The challenges can be individual or collaborative, vary in length (usually 5-15 minutes), and result in ideas to benefit or enhance the office. We make an effort to balance the number of administrative-type challenges with the ones that are more fun, and we strategically choose challenges to play to the strengths and weaknesses of all of our interns so that the “star” doesn’t always win and the “needs improvement” student doesn’t feel targeted.
At the end of the semester, we oversee the final challenge: an obstacle course of tasks, which include answering a couple of reflection questions to provide feedback on BOI and the internship in general. We adjust challenges every semester based on this feedback and on each intern’s specific need for improvement.
You may be thinking, “What’s the point, though? That sounds like a lot of work, and you should know education abroad advisors don’t have enough time as it is to finish all of their ‘to-do’ items. How can I justify devoting time to something that doesn’t seem to directly benefit the office and/or support the office mission?” In response, I say great questions, but we’ve seen a number of benefits for the office:
As for the time issue, I say touché, but we’ve developed the program over a few years, a little at a time, and are firm believers that sharing is caring. If you’re interested, we’d be happy to share some of our materials, and you can adjust them to work for your office.
After checking out the challenges we’ve used in the past (in the presentation linked above), are there any you think would work well for your team? Do you have suggestions for new challenges?
Let’s be real. Odds are, if you’re reading a blog about working in education abroad, you love to travel and are hoping for a position that allows you to do so. In my current role, I have been able to conduct international site visits at exchange partners in France, Germany, and Switzerland and have served as the on-site coordinator for three programs in Belize and the Virgin Islands. Pretty sweet, right? But what most people forget is that when my employer sends me to these amazing places, I do spend most of my time working, so it isn’t the same as traveling for leisure. (No really, that’s the truth.)
For my first trip to France, I wasn’t sure to what to expect, and that’s tough for a girl who likes to always have her ducks in a row. Since this was my first international business trip, I was anxious about getting it “right”: asking all the right questions in meetings with international colleagues, documenting everything from conversations to campus tours to reimbursable expenses, and successfully navigating a culture and language unfamiliar to me.
Having never been to France, I researched cultural business practices, common language phrases, and information on the French education system. Much of this research should be done before jetting off on any international trip, but I was trying to fit this research in with the busy end-of-semester rush. I knew, of course, that I would be fine, but a work assignment of this magnitude can be a little stressful (or a lot stressful, as was the case when my second site visit to Germany and Switzerland was affected by a spontaneous week-long train strike).
Once on site, I’m busy confirming meeting times and locations, actually finding the meeting locations, touring the campus and surrounding area, and speaking with faculty, international office staff, past and future exchange students, and other relevant personnel. Afterwards, it’s on to the next location, so a large chunk of time is also spent traveling between institutions.
Serving as an on-site coordinator for a program brings a completely new set of challenges. Yes, I participate in all of the fun activities with the students. Yes, I have been to paradise for work. But… I’m also the “fix-it” person 24/7 for a week. A student missed the connecting flight? Make arrangements to go back to the airport to pick the student up later. The cafeteria doesn’t have the correct information for your group? Supply them with a detailed list of contracted meals, program participants, and any dietary requirements. The lights don’t work in the accommodation? A student is locked out of his/her room? Call Housing and/or Campus Security after hours. A student needs to visit a health clinic? Set up a case with your insurance provider, locate a clinic, and accompany student to the appointment. The faculty director wants to add an activity to your packed itinerary? Call to see if the transportation vendor can adjust at the last minute. Water activities are voluntary, and a student chooses not to participate? You also do not participate and must find another comparable activity for the student during that time (bummer, right?). Trying to fit in a quick lunch between activities? Expect to be interrupted seven times by students, the housing contact, and the dining contact. Additionally, you are on-call 24/7 in case of emergencies. It’s stressful, y’all. Your job is literally to absorb any problem that arises in order to ensure the students (and on-site faculty, to an extent) experience a seamless program.
I wouldn’t change a thing, though. Travel is my passion, and I have always been interested in education, so I’m lucky to have found a job that combines both of these areas. Plus, these experiences are invaluable opportunities that will benefit me as I work to advance in the profession, and I am able to connect with students, faculty, and colleagues I may not have met otherwise. Besides, even though I’ve done my best in this post to prove that I really do work while abroad, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t manage to sneak in some time to explore on my own!
I was there to clean out a closet.
You read that right. I flew all the way to Australia to inventory, sell, destroy, and ship stuff contained in an approximately 10' x 8' closet located in a tiny coastal town.
the problem with leftovers
In study abroad we talk a lot about program development and creating new ways to immerse our students in the local culture. There are tons of resources on how to build a new study abroad program. We almost never talk about the flip side. What about when we create programs that, for one reason or another, don't work out? I'm referring to programs that need to be dissolved because they are no longer meeting enrollment, financially solvent, or satisfying the needs of our students. What then?
The program in Lennox Head was one of these programs. I won't get into the complexities of why, but the program my institution operated there for over 10 years was closed down. Over that decade equipment was purchased, student belongings were left in storage for the subsequent participants, and there were physical remains left behind.
You might be thinking, why not chuck it in a bin or leave it for someone else, but universities, particularly state universities, have strict protocol for how these sorts of things are handled. For example, you can't donate items to charity if they were owned by the state because it might be seen as favoring one charity over another. And electronics that could contain data need to be wiped and destroyed by a certified tech. It is not so easy as walking away. Last summer it was my role to ensure that every rule was followed and all materials were properly inventoried and handled.
local impact from our global programs
There was another thing I realized when I prepared to say farewell to little Lennox Head. Our programs don't operate in a bubble. It's not just about my university. I had to explain to the locals why we were closing up shop. They asked things like, what could they do to help bring the program back or if it was something they'd done (that one broke my heart).
Our study abroad program had grown to be a part of their community-- our students chatting with locals at the lawn bowling club, shopping in the markets (spending $$$ on surfboards they could barely get up on), and volunteering for beach cleanups. Yes, sometimes it wasn't the best impression we made (mostly loud students coming home from a night at the pub). But the people in town loved sharing their Aussie culture, comforting homesick Midwestern students, and talking about the local history, plants & animals. The town became an unofficial sister-city to our campus.
I suppose I am sentimental about this program because it was where I worked for my first residential study abroad job in 2006. Or maybe it is just because the town is so small, the people so friendly, and the landscape so breathtaking. Regardless of the reason, last summer inspired me to think about program sustainability in a new way.
It's great when some of those items (hairdryers, bath towels, guide books) can be left for the next group. But what if there isn't a next group? Has anyone thought about the impact on the local community? Does your office have an "exit" plan? Are there partnerships with local agencies in place so that students can donate their unwanted personal items on the last day? What measures will the institution take to sell or repatriate equipment purchased with program funds? Are you prepared to incur the cost of sending staff to dismantle the program? Are you familiar with the regulations and laws governing property disposal?
These are important questions for international educators and just as critical as "Where should we build a program next?"
NOTE: If you are an education abroad professional who has experienced the "death" of a program and would like to present on this topic at an international education conference in the future, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org