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Inaugural GNL project brings students together

Inaugural GNL project brings students together

The COVID-19 pandemic made student mobility and exchange programs challenging, but Hugo Chen, director of international collaborations and partnerships for York University’s Faculty of Science, found a way to provide students with a global engagement opportunity nonetheless, by turning to globally networked learning (GNL). Now, post-pandemic, the GNL initiative – his Faculty’s first – is still going strong.

Hugo Chen
Hugo Chen

GNL, also known as collaborative online international learning virtual exchange (COIL-VE), refers to an approach to research, learning and teaching that enables students, faculty and non-academic researchers from different locations around the world to participate in, and collaborate on, knowledge-making processes and concrete research projects. It dovetails nicely with York’s University Academic Plan and its priority of advancing global engagement, as well as the Faculty of Science’s Strategic Plan with its goal of creating “more opportunities for all students to have international exchange and field course experiences.”

It also reflects the University’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being, by contributing to students’ overall mental health and resilience; SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, by promoting intercultural understanding and dialogue; and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goal, by emphasizing the importance of global partnerships in achieving sustainable development.

“Many students found the pandemic stressful because they were stuck at home and their opportunities for international exchange were curtailed,” Chen said. “Although I was relatively new to York, I was experienced in international education and knew the benefits of GNL, or COIL-VE, as it is often called.

“The Faculty of Science hadn’t tried GNL previously, but I want to be an innovator and decided to facilitate some cross-cultural communication.”

With support from York International, the office that supports GNL initiatives at York, Chen reached out to Xin Wang, an associate professor at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China. The duo, and an administrative colleague there, agreed to organize a series of Zoom sessions to bring students from York’s Faculty of Science together with students from Northeastern’s School of Information Science & Engineering to increase intercultural understanding.

At York, Chen invited members of the group Global Leaders of York Science (GLYS) to participate. GLYS is a volunteer team that works closely with Chen’s office to support the Faculty’s international initiatives, provide undergraduate students with professional development opportunities to enhance their employability skills and help them develop a global mindset. A total of 35 GLYS members and Northeastern students took part in the initial cross-cultural sessions. They began with an international coffee chat over Zoom in November 2021.

Participants in Hugo Chen’s GNL project connecting through Zoom.
Participants in Hugo Chen’s GNL project connecting through Zoom.

“My objective was to have them meet and talk about their own experiences,” said Chen, who is a certified sociocultural competency training facilitator. “The important thing was to build understanding and exposure around different cultures.”

A joint organizing committee comprising students from both universities created a series of virtual sessions, each lasting an hour and a half. The topics they chose included a comparison of their education systems; mental health, including pandemic challenges; artificial intelligence; and the opportunities and risks of globalization. Of course, there was also informal discussion about their favourite books and music, hobbies and interests.

“I suggested ideas, provided advice and was there to facilitate their conversations,” said Chen.

After each session, he and his Northeastern colleagues asked students to provide feedback and suggest potential improvements.

“This was an opportunity to broaden their world views without a huge cost,” said Chen. “Not all students can afford to travel abroad, so this makes international opportunities accessible and inclusive. Having such an experience may also encourage students to study or travel abroad later. There are benefits to exploring different perspectives and this project opens the door to those possibilities.”

The success of the program was apparent in the comments students provided on their post-GNL surveys.

“Engaging with students from different countries was enlightening,” wrote one student. “It’s fascinating to see how our approaches to science and education differ and, yet, how much we can learn from each other.”

Another student added, “This program opened my eyes to different cultural perspectives and has given me friends from across the globe. I’m still in touch with my group members and we often discuss our academic and personal life.”

Since 2021, Chen and his colleagues in China have run the program annually, with participants drawn primarily from GLYS. The composition of the group changes each time, with a mix of returning and new participants, and it continues to be popular.

“One of the program’s most gratifying outcomes has been the formation of ongoing relationships and friendships among the participants that have transcended the program’s duration,” said Chen. “This speaks to the depth of the students’ engagement and the program’s success in forming meaningful international ties.

“We also hope the students will choose York for their further studies.”

Courtesy of YFile

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