Written by Amy Whitesall
Students get firsthand look at distant cultures and countries – without leaving campus.
Growing up in Westchester, New York, Eric Kim (’09) knew little about his Korean heritage. So when he was invited to join the University of Michigan’s new Global Understanding course and talk to students in Seoul, South Korea, and Vancouver, Canada, he jumped at the chance.
Kim was one of about a dozen students in the pilot of a new course that uses video conferencing and instant messaging to link students with partner institutions around the world. The course is part of the Global Scholars Pilot Program, a living-learning community in U-M’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. The program was located in East Quad in 2009-2010 and has a core curriculum focused on broadening students’ intercultural engagement and global awareness.
During its first semester, the Global Understanding course paired U-M students with students at Seoul National University, in Seoul, South Korea, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. A total of ten video conferences—five for each university—were held at the Language Resource Center in the Modern Languages Building. Students participated in video conferencing and instant messaging to communicate with their assigned partners in the other classroom.
The class explored topics such as college life, culture, family, religion, prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination from multicultural perspectives.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I liked the chance to have intercultural communication, and the chance to dispel stereotypes,” says Kim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology. “For example, students in Seoul had the idea that New York City was a dangerous place, where people get shot all the time. I explained to them that New York is not like that, and they found that helpful. Now some want to come to the United States.”
Jennifer Yim, Director of the Global Scholars Pilot Program, says the class provides students with global intercultural exchange opportunities while they are on campus and develops cultural awareness and video conferencing skills to prepare them to succeed in a global setting.
Students learn about social protocols, the impact of facial expressions and body language, and they develop social awareness about cultural differences, says Yim, who teaches the course.
They also learn about cultural stereotypes, including stereotypes about Americans.
“Some students had heard that people in the United States are lazy and eat a lot of hamburgers,” Yim says, discussing topics that emerged in class. “Our students had heard that Canadians play a lot of hockey and have funny accents. My students told the Seoul National University (SNU) students that there is a stereotype that all Koreans are very good at math—and the SNU students laughed. Our class discussions open up a space where students can share the cultural stereotypes they’ve heard and dispel them together.”
U-M students were surprised to find Canadian students knew so much about U.S. politics, especially the details of the 2008 presidential election, she says. At first, all the students hesitated to talk about stereotypes of other countries because they didn’t want to be rude. But in the class they learned to talk openly with people from other countries without being insensitive.
“The big thing was to learn how to represent yourself without speaking for the whole culture,” Yim says. “The students had to balance being honest about acknowledging stereotypes with conveying a positive image of themselves, their universities, and hometowns.”
Students wrote a paper about their experiences, which they sent to their online student partners for input and then submitted a revised version to their instructors. This collaborative project teaches students how to provide honest and constructive feedback, Yim says. About half of the students have kept in touch via email or Facebook since the class ended.
Aaron Gomes, a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, who grew up in Dubai and learned to interact with people of various cultures, welcomed the chance to enroll in the course.
“It was a fantastic learning experience where I developed into a more culturally mature person,” Gomes says. “Our use of video conference facilities and Skype to communicate with students around the world emphasized the importance of two major, interlinked trends in the world—increasing globalization and increased use of technology at all levels.”
Gomes says the lessons he learned will last a lifetime.
“Sometime in the future, I can imagine myself sitting in a boardroom in New York and talking to business partners in Mumbai, using the exact same skills I learned in my Global Understanding course.”