Op-Ed: Virtual internships and learning experiences are just as valuable as in person ones

When COVID-19 forced us to shift to a new way of doing business, many focused on what was lost in translation to an online format. I was one of them — at first.

As the pandemic picked up steam, our signature global learning programs and fully funded internship and research program at Earlham College were abruptly paused. As our students and faculty shifted to online coursework, many did so for the first time in their young lives or long careers. Virtual internships and online global learning experiences were offered simply to fill the void.

But instead of reading student reflections decrying these as second-rate experiences, I’ve heard a refreshing narrative for the last two years.

“It has helped me spend less while saving more by not having to go to in-person sites where there is a high cost of living,” one neuroscience major told me. “I have been able to continue my summer research experiences remotely during the school year, instead of just having to quit."

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Others followed sharing triumphant stories about discovering a newfound focus for their post-graduate endeavors or making connections they never expected due to distance or other obligations.

Now that pandemic travel restrictions are being lifted across the globe, we shouldn’t lose sight of these lessons. We can start by embracing and encouraging young people to pursue virtual internships and online global learning opportunities whenever those options make sense.

Roger Adkins is the executive director of the Center for Global Education at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.
Roger Adkins is the executive director of the Center for Global Education at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Despite missing out on the more esoteric kind of learning when we experience things in real life, many who work in the experiential education space are learning that online internships and virtual study abroad experiences have significant capacity to prepare young people for the world of work while sharpening their worldviews. They also offer more efficient ways for students to chart their path — especially if they aren’t yet ready to travel far from campus or home, pandemic or not.

Two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined writing this. Part of the magic of participating in traditional study abroad experiences is the unexpected moments or epiphanies that come from exploring somewhere new. Living with a host family, roommate or on your own for the first time are important steps toward becoming culturally adaptive and independent. That was especially true in my personal and professional experiences. I studied abroad in Iceland, led off-campus programs in the United Kingdom and visited program sites in places like Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Portugal. These boots-on-the-ground experiences cannot be replicated.

Attending college virtually? Keep these tips in mind.
Attending college virtually? Keep these tips in mind.

But making important connections with the world beyond our home regions, “touring” locations of historical and cultural significance and learning how to navigate relationships across cultural differences can absolutely be achieved in the virtual space. More than not, I and our students have realized some internships don’t actually need to take place in a cubicle office when they can be carried out virtually anywhere else.

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Yet this idea remains uncomfortable territory for my colleagues and me, especially at institutions like Earlham that offer personalized, high-touch learning experiences led by the same professors who grace our classrooms. A national leader in the experiential education space, Earlham ranked in the nation’s top three for the percentage of students participating in study abroad programs, according to the Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange. Indeed, about two-thirds of our graduates study abroad at least once, a stark contrast from the national average of 11 percent.

But more than ever, it is time to think about virtual experiences in the same vein as the in-person ones and strike a balance for students that prepares them for the nuances of the world we live in. In the absence of hiring a team of futurists, career and global education officers in higher education need to hire personnel with a strong abackground in virtual learning and approach their work with an open mind about the value of those experiences. While there is ample expertise in distance learning in higher education writ large, similar expertise in experiential learning leadership is lacking.

While the pandemic has certainly accelerated the need for alternative modes of experiential learning, the real life or bust mentality needs to go once and for all.

Roger Adkins is the executive director of the Center for Global Education at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Op-Ed: Virtual internships and learning experiences are valuable