Managing Experiential Learning During a Global Pandemic

May 28, 2020 | By Franchesca Rybar

Universities everywhere are wrapping up what turned out to be an unusual spring semester. Virtual classes, virtual graduations, virtual meetings– and yet, there was no other choice, and things worked out for the most part. As teachers breathe a sigh of relief before diving into fall planning, students are starting internships– or are they? 

A survey conducted by Yello revealed 35% of students nationwide had their summer internships cancelled. For many students, summer is a time to take their classroom learnings and put them to the test in the “real world” while also discovering what they still don’t know. Internships are also a huge networking opportunity for students to wow their colleagues and hopefully return to a full-time role with the company after graduation. Other students use the summer to study abroad, volunteer, or gain additional income– all of which have been affected by COVID-19. 

With “Innovation” in the title, our Center grouped up to discuss the implications a remote-shift would have on our summer programs: we had already extended offers to 21 undergraduate students for GU Impacts, a global fellowship program centered around a 10-week social impact project with one of our eight partner organizations. After having individual conversations with each of our partners to understand the effects the coronavirus was having on their organization and community, five committed to supervising their fellows virtually for the summer, foreseeing helpful contributions despite the distance. The Kunde Social Cafe in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan offered a common explanation for continuing to work with us,

With restaurant businesses closing and in-house customer numbers dwindling, we embraced the need to develop online business models at Kunde.

We are confident that GU Impacts students will create great impact for our mission: to help people with mental disabilities to stay employed and included in the society. We will be working on developing online market, adapting our rehabilitation procedures to online formats, and expanding our reach this summer.

Unfortunately, the other partners were facing larger disruptances and could not commit to summer fellows this year, though we look forward to working with them again in the future.

After figuring out what was in our partners’ capacity, we had individual check-ins with each fellow – our sympathy and support in identifying other opportunities was extended to the students whose partners could no longer facilitate a summer project. Of the 13 students who still had an opportunity, all of them re-committed to working with their organization. The commitment each student made to continuing social impact work, despite no longer being able to travel and interact with a new community, was truly inspiring. 

For the past 7 years, the Beeck Center has prioritized holistic experiential learning opportunities for students to engage in social impact. With commitments from students and partners in hand, we’ve worked endlessly to adapt the GU Impacts program to the current situation. Embracing our core value of experimentation, this summer we’re launching the Sustainable Student Impact (SSI) Project Builder. The builder, a guideline for any student to self-guide a research project using human-centered design, was created in an attempt to fill predicted gaps in community-learning the GU Impacts program may face switching to a virtual environment. While this summer will be a true pilot session, the pandemic has forced us out of our comfort zone and potentially created a new, more accessible way for students to learn about and get involved with social impact. The GU Impacts cohort is typically dispersed across 7 different timezones working full-time with their partner organization; however, with fellows following Georgetown policy and staying indoors, we look forward to seeing how our implementation of the program may improve and evolve with the “hands-on” opportunities we have to work with our students this summer. 

We’ve transitioned our onboarding workshops from “health and safety abroad” and visa applications to “equity and privilege” and “navigating your social impact learning.” Our hope is that our students can still provide value and see their contribution to social impact working with our partners, but also feel empowered and confident in leading their own learning journey. We can’t wait to be a helping hand along the way. Congratulations to our 13 GU Impact fellows!

[table id=5 /]