Although COVID-19 halted international student exchanges in 2020, some students at Mount Saint Mary’s still found a way to engage with peers around the world. Hosted by the Stevens Initiative, Soliya is a virtual exchange platform in which students in the US, Europe, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) converse with people from other cultures.
Thirty-six Mount Saint Mary’s students joined Soliya’s Connect program in the fall of 2020, and their experience in the Soliya Connect program served them so well that the Mount will participate in the program again in 2022.
“This is a way to jump-start virtual exchanges, not as a substitute for study away or for travel, but as an add-on,” says Lia Roberts, academic director of the Center for Global Initiatives, one of three faculty at the Mount whose students participated in Connect in 2020.
In addition to students from Roberts’ international relations course, participants came from Nancy Ballesteros’ cultural studies and Emerald Archer’s politics of globalization classes.
Each student from the Mount joined a different virtual group, each comprising eight to 10 members plus a professional moderator. The groups met once a week for a month, at least two hours at a time, to share opinions on topics such as democracy, education and women’s rights. With participants spread across many time zones, students in Los Angeles had to join the virtual conversation at 5 am — no easy feat, Roberts observes. “But they got up and were cameras on and coffeed up.” And they loved the experience.
One of Archer’s students chose a group that met even earlier and longer — from 3 to 6 am —because she wanted to spend as much time as possible talking with peers abroad. “Her justification for choosing this time, even after I urged her to reconsider, for her sanity, was to meet folks outside of her MSMU cohort in order to have new and meaningful conversations,” says Archer, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Advancement of Women.
According to Archer, the strategy worked. “The topic of our course, globalization, was of interest to everyone participating, and she got to learn from some very different perspectives.”
It took a while for participants to feel comfortable in the group, says Gianne Gonzalez ’22, a healthcare policy major with a minor in business who joined Connect while taking Roberts’ class. “We were mostly worried about accidentally offending one another,” she says. “But over time, as the moderator guided the conversation, we started to ease up.”
Gonzalez’s group included students from the US, Italy, China, France and the MENA region. Some topics proved difficult, as when talk turned to US politics and students feared that others would judge them harshly for their opinions, she says. But overall, the group interacted well. “I was ultimately surprised by how easy it was to communicate with people who are different from me.”
In fact, Gonzalez so enjoyed the program that she enrolled in a second session of Soliya Connect on her own and is now training to work as one of the program’s facilitators.
“When I first started the Soliya program, I realized I was uninformed and naive about people’s cultures,” she explains. “As a facilitator, I will have the opportunity to bridge that divide and help people expand their knowledge.”
Whether students also plan to travel or study abroad, Soliya’s Connect offers another way to broaden one’s perspective on the world, Roberts says. “Despite the fact that we live in Los Angeles, one of the most global cities you can think of, we often end up having conversations about difficult topics with people we already know. This program gives students an important opportunity to talk to people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
NOTE: Launched in 2015, the Stevens Initiative is sponsored by the US government with support from the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. The initiative is named after the late US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed by extremists in Yemen in 2021. Soliya Connect is one of its programs.