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Grounded during pandemic, OIP gets cooking with Virtual Peru course

by Chuck Gordon

For all intents and purposes, international travel shut down a year ago. An inconvenience or even irrelevancy for some, the lack of overseas flights was a killer for study-abroad programs.

Wingate’s flagship international program, W’International, essentially went “poof” overnight. “I really wasn’t thinking in March 2020 that we wouldn’t be able to travel for the next two years,” says Jennifer Armentrout, executive director of global engagement for the University. “We were hopeful that we would be able to resume operations by fall 2020. Surely things would die down then!”

Instead, as we all know, the pandemic has dragged on. Wingate’s Office of International Programs canceled five of the six spring 2020 W’International seminars in March of 2020 (one program, heading to China, had already been axed) and in the summer canceled all offerings for the winter break. In October, the spring 2021 program was nixed, and Armentrout is now eyeing May of 2022 to get Wingate students back on flights overseas.

But she hasn’t just been sitting on her hands, waiting out the pandemic. To give students at least a taste of study abroad, Armentrout and her team spent last fall figuring out how to bring some semblance of an international study program to Wingate this spring. The result has been a successful Virtual Peru course, conducted by Dr. Melanie Keel, associate professor of education.

During Zoom sessions every other week, four seniors and four juniors have learned about Andean culture, Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines, and the intersection of native and Spanish culture from Dr. Victor Alex Huerta, an anthropology professor in Peru. Wingate’s educational partner in Peru sent each student a gift basket containing the types of things they might buy in the South American country: a Peruvian corn snack, a can of Inca Kola, an alpaca keychain, and a flag and stand.

Keel also had students create “vlogs” (video blogs) detailing a future trip to Peru each student would take. She says that they were very creative and that the students articulated well where in Peru they would like to visit and why."It was the best virtual class I have ever had. As a hands-on learner, this was a very interactive way for me to get a taste of Peru from home."

Next Tuesday, Wingate students will meet up virtually with college students from Peru to discuss how the pandemic has affected the economic, healthcare and political systems of each country. In the final class, on April 13, they will make presentations based on their findings.

The students say the entire course has been fun and informative, but perhaps the biggest hit so far has been a live cooking class held over Zoom in mid-February in which students made “succulent, mouth-watering” ceviche alongside a Peruvian chef.

“It was the best virtual class I have ever had,” says Tanya Crump, a senior communications major from Matthews. “As someone who is a hands-on learner, this was a very interactive way for me to get a taste of Peru from home.”

“The chef’s eagerness made it feel really comfortable to try and participate in class,” says Ana Jeri, a senior psychology major from Monroe. “Definitely one of the top experiences I have ever had in class, even though it was virtual.”

For Keel, working with people from another country who are also dealing with the pandemic has provided “an escape from the Covid challenges and current stressors of life.” Armentrout says she’s been “pleasantly surprised” by how well the semester has gone. She’d been worried about technological bugs, but it’s been smooth sailing so far.

And having gone through this semester’s pilot program, there’s a chance more such offerings could be in the cards. At the very least, Armentrout envisions incorporating some elements of virtual international exchange during the semester-long courses W’International students normally take before they visit their chosen country.

“I think there are going to be pieces we can take from everybody’s experience operating virtually and make it a meatier experience, with more engagement throughout the whole experience,” she says. “We’ll be able to do more personal introductions online, more interactions with host-country nationals online beforehand, or just have some more interactive elements during the semester.”

Just as an all-remote learning experience doesn’t match the effectiveness of in-person instruction, virtual study abroad is no substitute for the real thing. But in the age of Covid, it’s better than nothing.

“I really applaud the students for being open-minded and adventurous enough to try a virtual version of study abroad,” Armentrout says, “and I think it's been a valuable experience for them.”

March 25, 2021