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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Middlebury students take on remote abroad courses and international internships

Although traditional study abroad has come to a halt because of the pandemic, Middlebury offered remote courses and internships this semester as an alternative experience.

Throughout the summer, Middlebury suspended schools individually based on the Covid-19 levels in the area and local universities’ plans. By mid-summer, however, the school decided to close all Middlebury Schools Abroad and halt all study abroad options that might be available via external programs.

Middlebury students abroad often enroll directly in local universities, so Middlebury has a large contact network of faculty in each country. Dean of International Programs Carlos Vélez was able to reach out to the directors at each of the schools, who found local faculty who were willing to teach remotely to Middlebury students. He then communicated with department chairs at Middlebury — mainly those leading language departments — to finalize a list of courses.

“It was a very consultative process, both with my staff in the schools abroad but also with the chairs of the departments here,” Vélez said. “We wanted to make sure that whatever we offered wouldn’t conflict with other courses that are being taught in those departments.”

Originally over 50 students registered for these programs, but Vélez is unsure how many there are now. All courses but one are taught in a foreign language, and thus have the same prerequisites as they would normally.

Claudio Gonzalez-Chiaramonte, director of the schools in Argentina and Uruguay and associate professor at Middlebury, said that students were initially shy and nervous in his Spanish course on U.S.-Latin America relationships. But after three or four sessions, they warmed up to the class and became more comfortable speaking.

The Spanish-speaking schools also created a site with daily activities such as conferences, movies and chats that students can participate in.

Peter Stavros, an instructor with Middlebury Schools Abroad in Jordan is teaching refugee and forced migration studies this semester. The class is usually taught in Arabic, which meant that it was previously more focused on language learning than content, but this year it is being taught in English.

“Because we are doing it in English and most students obviously speak English very well, we’re able to kind of cover the substance more deeply,” Stavros said.

Students are also finding non-academic ways to stay connected to the abroad experience despite coming home. Diana Milne ’21 was studying abroad in Madrid last spring when the pandemic began to unfold, and was forced to return home early. Now, she is completing a 10-week remote internship for Liceo y Colegio San Juan Bautista, a school in Uruguay.

“I really felt like I didn’t get the full experience that I wanted studying abroad in Madrid because I’d lost so much time being there and it just wasn’t the same from the computer screen,” Milne said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to kind of get a little bit more knowledge about their culture and work on my Spanish. And it just sounded like fun, working with kids.”

Milne spends her time in the Uruguayan classroom speaking in English so that the students can interact with a native speaker. This is particularly helpful for older students who are preparing for international exams. She joins their classes — all in person — via Zoom to give presentations about herself and hear the students’ presentations about themselves, Uruguay, their culture and their school. Milne’s communications with the director, supervisor and teachers are all in Spanish.

“I’ve been checking with half of the students that are taking these remote internships, and to my surprise, they are really very comfortable. I expected questions, discomfort, or some people who might feel lost,” Gonzalez-Chiaramonte said. “They felt that they were learning and they could do what they wanted to do.”

These courses have presented the same obstacles as many remote courses, since

professors and students have had to adapt to Zoom technology.

“It’s obvious that it is less interactive, less spontaneous than a real classroom. We miss

the classroom — I say ‘we’ as teachers and I suppose also as students,” said Nicolas Roussellier, a Paris-based professor who is teaching a French politics course.

KK Laird ’21, who is taking Gonzalez-Chiaramonte’s course, noted that the large asynchronous component of classes presents a barrier. Similar to other online classes, it is far less personal and interactive.

Still, students and professors are making the best out of the situation.

“You know, as we say in French, ‘It’s better than nothing, something like this.’ So still, I would say that if we keep a good spirit, a good morale, we can really make a good job,” Roussellier said.

He added that the small size of his class allows him to see all of the students on the same page, as opposed to his previous in-person lectures — with as many as 80 students — in which he was unable to have closer interactions with individual students.

“There are a lot of cultural assumptions in teaching — in my teaching, in your teaching, in teaching in France and China. It will be great that Middlebury students will be exposed to those differences,” Gonzalez-Chiaramonte said.

Gonzalez-Chiaramonte hopes that Middlebury will continue to offer international courses in the future. Middlebury is set to make more decisions about the spring semester on Oct. 30.

“I think one of the advantages is you could take multiple classes from multiple professors in different countries. And there is kind of an exciting element to that,” Stavros said.