Students serving dishes of food to a line of other students.
VCU students can get a taste of other cultures and learn from peers from around the world by participating in programs like Global Cafe. These programs make global education accessible to students with international interests but who aren't able to study abroad. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Beyond borders: How VCU is expanding opportunities so all students have access to a global education

From Global Café to Cultural Conversations, nearly a dozen new programs at the university aim to provide students with international experiences.

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Claudia Diaz, a student in the English Language Program at Virginia Commonwealth University from Venezuela, has been preparing trays of arepas, a flat corn cake — and staple of her country’s cuisine — half stuffed with guacamole, tomatoes and onions, and half filled with shredded chicken, cilantro, onions and mayonnaise.

“We have two types of arepas, one is vegetarian and one is Reina Pepiadas, which has meat. Enjoy!” she said, as dozens of VCU students lined up to try one for lunch, along with samples of Venezuelan candy for dessert.

The lunchtime event, called Global Café, is organized by VCU’s Global Education Office and is designed to increase awareness and appreciation of cultural diversity at VCU, and provide students with an opportunity to meet classmates from around the globe.

“Venezuela is an amazing country,” Diaz said. “The people are so amazing. Beautiful mountains, beautiful beaches and delicious food.”

Global Café is one of nearly a dozen current or soon-to-be-launched programs that aim to increase the accessibility of global education for VCU students, without necessarily traveling to other countries.

Student in mask holding a tray of arepas.
Student Claudia Diaz prepared arepas, a traditional dish from her home country of Venezuela, to share with fellow students as part of VCU's Global Cafe. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

“Global learning doesn’t just occur abroad. The cultural richness of both the Richmond area and our campus provides so many unique global opportunities for our students,” said Jill Blondin, Ph.D., executive director of the Global Education Office. “Whether it’s building a deep relationship with an international student on campus, volunteering with an organization in the community like ReEstablish Richmond or connecting virtually with peers at one of our international partner universities, we want to make sure that all students are able to include a global learning experience in their VCU education.”

VCU’s traditional study abroad opportunities aren’t going anywhere, though they were paused amid COVID-19 and are gradually returning, with programs in the U.S. Department of State Level 1 and 2 countries resuming this semester.

But while students are encouraged to consider studying abroad, not all, including nontraditional students with families, student-athletes and those who have full- or part-time jobs, see studying abroad as feasible. So a cornerstone of the Global Education Office’s newly adopted strategic plan is to expand access to international education for all VCU students.

“Whether those opportunities exist in a virtual realm or in person, here in Richmond or abroad, global learning helps prepare our students to be leaders in an increasingly global and interconnected world,” Blondin said. “With the understanding that global engagement is a critical element for every student’s university experience, we strive to provide equitable opportunities to all VCU students to engage globally.”

Online opportunities

One new program, Cultural Conversations, which launched last year, connects VCU students with peers at international partner institutions in weekly guided gatherings over Zoom. Topics of conversation have included art, business, the environment, food, health, human rights, language, music and tourism.

This semester, VCU students have been holding conversations focused on social justice with students at Shimane University in Japan; sustainable development with participants in the English Practice Club in Bamako, Mali; tourism with students at Kien Giang University in Vietnam; food and culture with students at La Salle University in Mexico; and diversity, equity and inclusion with students at VCU School of the Arts in Qatar.

“During COVID, we were unable to travel abroad but we wanted to keep facilitating global learning opportunities,” said Audrey Short, interim assistant director of academic programming for VCU’s global education living-learning community VCU Globe. “Speaking with some of our international partners who were also in lockdown, we decided to create weekly online gatherings where our students could connect, peer-to-peer, and share content that was meaningful to them.

“Now, we’re still meeting, even though most students on campus are back in face-to-face classes,” Short said. “This program allows more students to learn about and meet people from several different countries while taking care of responsibilities at home.”

Zoom screengrab where students are making a heart shape with their hands.
VCU students meet virtually with peers at Kien Giang University in Vietnam, as part of VCU's Cultural Conversations program. (Global Education Office)

VCU is helping students find other individualized ways to benefit from online international experiences. When COVID-19 shut down travel in 2020, many students who might have studied abroad instead took virtual classes with universities in other countries or did virtual internships with global programs. While travel restrictions are lifting, the Global Education Office will continue to help facilitate these virtual experiences. 

Shania Stevenson, a senior majoring in international studies with a concentration in international social justice and minoring in Spanish in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is doing a virtual internship this fall with the Arizona-based nonprofit organization Casa Alitas — or House of Little Wings — that works to provide a safe place for asylum seekers who have been released by the U.S. Border Patrol or immigration authorities to rest, rehydrate, eat and care for their children as they prepare for the next leg of their journey.

“Although I am currently working with the organization as a virtual intern, the work I do still plays a significant role and will hopefully leave an impact on the future of the program,” Stevenson said. “Recently I finished a project where I organized [content] ranging from English-speaking resources to financial assistance for the revamp of the program’s website. The goal of the project is to build a community and lasting resource for guests that come in and out of Casa Alitas. At the moment, the site is more tailored to volunteers and donations and this project hopes to maximize the web page as a resource for all.”

Stevenson’s internship is through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which makes study abroad programs more accessible to American students. She had originally planned to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, but travel restrictions led her to connect with Casa Alitas, allowing her to work on important issues with an international organization.

“A virtual internship or excursion is incomparable to that of the real deal. However, I have still been immersed in deep intercultural dialogue with people all over the world — Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela to name a few,” she said. “Although not on-site, I have been able to hear the stories of UNICEF workers and international volunteers that have come to this amazing organization and have trained and shared their experiences with me. The best part for me has been creating these connections, learning from my peers and hearing the real stories of people that have gone through extremely stressful situations and persevered.”

Yulan Hibbert, a sophomore majoring in interior design in the School of the Arts, took an online course over the summer with Pusan National University in Korea, one of a number of virtual programs facilitated by the Global Education Office. The course focused on teaching Korean language and history.

The fact that the class was virtual and free, she said, made it easily accessible.

“I think it was valuable because I was able to learn a new language,” Hibbert said. “The class was about one month and I was able to recognize Korean characters … and a few words. I realized how fast a person can learn something when you put your mind to it.”

Connecting closer to home

Students have more opportunities than ever to have global experiences right here in Richmond. VCU Globe, along with VCU ASPiRE and VCU LEAD, is being merged into one living-learning program called VCU Transform. As part of that move, several international education programs that were previously available only to VCU Globe students will soon be accessible to all VCU students. One of these, Peace Corps Prep, which prepares students interested in serving in the Peace Corps and other international services, will be available to all VCU students in fall 2022.

Another program, Phi Beta Delta, an honor society with more than 200 chapters that recognizes students’ international service, scholarship, education and involvement, held its first induction ceremony at VCU in the spring.

In the upcoming spring semester, the Global Education Office is expanding Cultural Ambassadors, a program that offers students opportunities to learn about different cultures on campus while helping international students with their English in a structured classroom environment.

“Whether those opportunities exist in a virtual realm or in person, here in Richmond or abroad, global learning helps prepare our students to be leaders in an increasingly global and interconnected world.”

Jill Blondin, Ph.D.

Yet another program, Conversation Partners, matches VCU student volunteers with international students and scholars who are interested in learning more about American culture, practicing English and gaining more confidence in their communication abilities. The volunteers serve essentially as cultural mentors for the international students and scholars, while also having the opportunity to learn about their partner’s culture.

“They meet once per week, ideally, for about an hour and just have conversations, make friends and learn about each other’s cultures,” said Nichole Dorton, student engagement and programming manager for the Global Education Office. “It serves as a good opportunity for international students to practice their conversational skills while having the opportunity to have informal discussions and learn about American culture and also share their culture.”

In making experiences like these easier for all VCU students to participate in, Blondin said, the Global Education Office is helping students see the world from a different perspective.

“As students pursue their studies and move into the workforce, they must become agile and curious thinkers who can address the world’s problems from a variety of angles,” she said. “We’re not just educating students for today, we are equipping them with the skills to solve global problems of tomorrow. Having a cross-cultural understanding of the world is a critical part of that.”