Several UNCW international studies students who missed out on the study abroad requirement due to the coronavirus pandemic will be able to graduate as planned, thanks to a virtual experience that is the next best thing to being there.

“Students in this program have a study abroad component,” said Julia Morris, assistant professor of international studies. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down global travel last spring, “we had a number of students who were supposed to graduate who hadn’t fulfilled the requirement.”

Morris and her departmental colleagues brainstormed ways to give graduating seniors a meaningful and academically challenging experience.

With an Applied Learning COVID-19 Response & Adaptation mini-grant, she developed an alternative curriculum to help students fulfill the study abroad requirement without leaving home. The mini-grant program was a collaboration between the Offices of Applied Learning, Community Engagement, Center for Teaching Excellence, Undergraduate Studies, and the Research & Innovation Services Team.

The result was VR International Experience, a fully online course using virtual reality to allow students to “travel” and study a place of their choosing.

“Once travel restrictions went into place and were extended through summer and fall, we needed to adapt,” said Dan Masters, chair of the Department of International Studies. “Dr. Morris stepped forward with this option. It has given us an opportunity to meet student needs to graduate, to think more critically about our international experience requirement and what students are supposed to get from the experience, and to blend technology with cultural exchange.”

The department purchased 40 virtual reality headsets that can be used with a cell phone. This semester, six graduating seniors enrolled in the class. There are no set classes or lectures. Instead, students control their studies, guided by a list of rigorous academic expectations.

Using the VR headsets, students are not constrained by cost or other barriers. Throughout the class, they explore their chosen countries, pinpointing a specific city or region for a “deep dive” into the culture, history, politics and geography of the area. They keep a digital portfolio.

So far, Morris has been impressed both with her students’ choice of international experience and their enthusiasm in fulfilling the assignments. “They’re very inventive,” she said.

Advancing academic programming and fostering global learning experiences are among the priorities in UNCW’s Strategic Plan.

Emma Cowen ’21, who chose Morocco for her experience, said no virtual course can compare to traveling abroad, which she has done. The French and international studies major has shared some suggestions with Morris on how to improve the virtual course.

“However, Dr. Morris’ enthusiasm is what makes this course as promising as it is,” said Cowen. “Her course content gives us the freedom to explore what is of interest to us, and her feedback is always encouraging and provides us with ways to dive deeper into elements of a country’s culture.”

Because the pandemic is expected to continue into next year, Morris expects that the course will be offered again next semester. But the department is considering keeping it as an option for students who face considerable barriers to international travel. The VR experience may also help the department redefine some of the expectations for study abroad students in the future, she said.