September 29, 2020

International Programs uses virtual model to expand access, collaboration during pandemic

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University students have the opportunity to work with students and faculty in Peru, Brazil and other parts of the world thanks to a new program offered through Purdue’s International Programs.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic suspending study abroad programs, Michael Brzezinski, dean of International Programs, set out in May with his staff to find ways faculty and students could still have intercultural learning experiences.

Brzezinski, faculty and staff explored what could be done to take in-person study abroad to a virtual realm. About 30 faculty members showed interest in participating in a pilot program. Ten programs involving about 100 students were approved for the fall 2020 semester.

sheffield-abroad2 Zach Didat (right), of Indianapolis, and Luke Rhoades, of New Albany, both seniors in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, participate in an online discussion with researchers and students from University of Engineering and Technology and the National University of Engineering. The students are both participating in the virtual intercultural learning experience being offered through Professor John Sheffield’s class this semester. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe)

“We needed to respond to the suspension of study abroad programs by offering outside-the-box intercultural learning experiences for our students,” Brzezinski said. “We had to pivot in a major way, and quickly, and accomplish in three months what often takes a full academic year. The dedication and effort by multiple individuals in every one of our colleges is a testament to their commitment to offer global experiences to our students.” 

Brzezinski credits faculty members who have existing international collaborations and an interest in intercultural learning for pulling the program together in three months, as well as those who are looking for ways to have professional development opportunities for students.

“The virtual experiential intercultural learning (VEIL) experiences that we have created will not only benefit students during the pandemic, but they will continue to be excellent opportunities  for students who don’t have financial resources to study abroad after overseas travel is resurrected. I believe that these virtual learning experiences are here to stay well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brzezinski said. “Furthermore, thanks to the hard work of the CILMAR (Center for Intercultural Learning, Mentorship, Assessment and Research) staff we were able to rework our entire Intercultural Pedagogy Grant (IPG) curriculum so that we could offer workshops to help our faculty learn how to integrate best virtual teaching method practices into their programs.”

John Sheffield, a professor of engineering technology in Purdue Polytechnic Institute and president of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy, has incorporated intercultural learning experiences into the semester team project on renewable energy for his HyFlex and online sections of the MET 320 Applied Thermodynamics course. The classes are working with faculty and students at the University of Engineering and Technology and the National University of Engineering in Peru, through a partnership that Sheffield developed in 1996.

The project Sheffield’s classes will be working on with their Peruvian counterparts is the United Nations’ “Race to Zero” initiative, which was suggested by a Peruvian professor. The goal of “Race to Zero” is to integrate renewable energy technologies with appropriate hydrogen fuel-cell technologies into the design of a net-zero community. The project can show students how their work can support a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon economic recovery that creates well-paying jobs and sustainable growth, and prevents future threats. 

In addition to every student having an engaging virtual intercultural experience, the course’s new look also addresses Purdue’s alternative calendar, which will switch to remote learning after Thanksgiving.

“The traditional final exam for Applied Thermodynamics will be replaced by this semesterlong project,” Sheffield said.

The Black Cultural Center had plans to take a Maymester group to Brazil to study the Afro-Latin Diaspora. With the trip canceled, BCC leaders worked with International Programs and long-standing partners Brazil Cultural – Education and Cultural Travel — to switch to the new format, including a different timeline.

Brazil Cultural staff worked with the BCC in developing a virtual program that will have a real educational and service impact, said Renee Thomas, director of the Black Cultural Center.

According to Thomas and Bill Caise, assistant director of the BCC, the program will be offered for one hour each evening Nov. 16-20 via Zoom. While no credits will be offered to students, the program is free. Participants can register for the program online.  

Caise said the study abroad will still give students, faculty and staff the opportunity to explore the complex issues of history, race, politics, Latin America, the African Diaspora and how they affect Afro-Brazilian culture. In addition, participants will explore highly diverse communities such as Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, including roots to those communities’ West African culture.

“We are excited to offer this flexible, accessible and fun experience. Students will have the chance to dip their toe in the water and experience a study abroad program. No passport is needed, and it is a great alternative for cultural learning,” Caise said.

“It is our goal that students will be exposed to study abroad and once the borders are open, they will be more likely to enroll in a credit-bearing offering through the BCC and the African American Studies and Research Center,” Thomas said. 

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Writer, Media contact: Matthew Oates, 765-586-7496 (cell),, @mo_oates 

Sources: Mike Brzezinski,

John Sheffield,

Renee Thomas,

Bill Caise,

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Note to journalists: High-res photos of students participating in a virtual study abroad experience are available via Google Drive. Faculty and staff are available for phone or web-based video interviews. Please contact Matthew Oates at for information. Journalists visiting campus should follow visitor health guidelines.

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