SIA builds community, finds success during unique fall semester (Part 2)

Student studying in the Katz building

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The fall 2020 semester was a time of unique challenges and impressive victories at the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA). In part one, we focused on the innovative ways in which the school was able to cultivate connections and strengthen diversity and inclusion. In part two, we turn to the classroom experience and highlight the strategies that promoted students’ academic success.

An Adaptive Learning Environment

In speaking with the SIA community about the fall 2020 semester, one word kept popping up: adapt.

Of course, technology plays a key role in adjusting to remote learning. SIA students and faculty benefit from the wealth of technological infrastructure built into the Lewis Katz Building. Every classroom in the building is equipped with video-conferencing capability, multiple cameras for dynamic interaction, microphones at every other seat, push-to-talk and camera calling, dual-monitor extended desktop capability, and touch panels for ease of access.

But in order to make the fall 2020 semester work, students, faculty, and staff had to adapt on the fly.

Crisis simulation screenshot
SIA students representing Turkey during the annual International Crisis Simulation, led by the U.S. Army War College, which shifted to a virtual setup in fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. IMAGE: Penn State

“We are so grateful for all the ways our SIA community came together to support each other through these crises,” said Dean Hari Osofsky. “Our faculty and staff worked together in extraordinary ways to develop a positive learning environment and provide support for students, and our students showed tremendous leadership.”

Sherrine Boseman Rives, who is expecting to graduate in spring 2021, had an in-person internship set up in Cape Town, South Africa, for the summer. But her plans were upended when the pandemic made international travel untenable; thankfully, with the help of SIA faculty and staff, she was able to shift to an eight-week, virtual internship with a South African nonprofit. Boseman Rives specifically praised the support she received from Claudia Prieto, director of academic advising and student affairs; Grant Littke, director of career services; and her faculty advisor, Professor Eleanor Brown.

“I can say that I wouldn’t have had a successful virtual experience without the assistance of Claudia, Grant, and Professor Brown,” Boseman Rives said. “They made sure that I knew exactly what I needed to do to make my virtual internship a reality, and it was a phenomenal experience that really was a saving grace for me.”

Sherrine Boseman
Sherrine Boseman, pictured here (center) on the Career Exposure Trip to New York City prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, has made the most out of her final year at SIA despite having to shift her internship plans to a virtual experience. IMAGE: Andy Gabriel, Penn State

While the pandemic prevented Boseman Rives from traveling outside the United States, some international students found themselves unable to arrive in the country. For Adam Shim, a Class of 2021 candidate, that meant continuing his SIA graduate studies from afar while remaining in his home country of South Korea.

“Remote learning has been very smooth thanks to the SIA staff and professors’ ability to adapt to this style of learning,” Shim said. “The professors are very enthusiastic about teaching and are well-versed in the material, which makes them very easy to understand. They have been able to accommodate [international students’] needs by being considerate of the time-zone difference when assigning work and exams.”

Mike Sanders, who started his SIA studies this fall, began the semester in Comoros—where he has lived and worked for the past five years, first with the Peace Corps, then as a professor at the University of Comoros, and for the last year with the United Nations Development Programme as part of a regional task force combatting COVID-19. A few weeks into the semester, Sanders was able to arrive in State College and attend some of his courses in person, before again making the shift back to remote learning after Thanksgiving along with the rest of the University.

“SIA professors and staff have been so supportive and did a great job with the transition, making sure I felt included even when I was 9,000 miles away,” Sanders said.

That support, he added, has eased his concerns about the effects of remote learning.

“I was worried that learning remotely would hinder our incoming cohort's development, but in our group I've found everyone to be so talented, so intelligent, and so genuine. I'm incredibly eager to see how we can grow as a group and to foster a culture of solidarity from this opportunity that will carry on into our professional careers.”

A Sense of Normalcy

Several SIA students emphasized the importance establishing good and consistent study habits while also being flexible enough to adapt—important skills for graduate students at any time, but especially during a period of remote learning.

Channalyn Tek
Class of 2021 candidate and SIA Peer Adviser Channalyn Tek in the Katz building, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. IMAGE: Andy Gabriel

“You have to find a routine that works for you and stick to it, even if you have to switch the routine around when it no longer effectively serves you,” said Channalyn Tek, a Class of 2021 candidate and SIA peer adviser, adding, “You have to go with the flow and focus on your own learning habits.”

Probably no one would describe the fall semester—or any part of 2020, for that matter—as “normal.” But with so much going on in the world, many students have embraced the routine of attending classes and completing homework assignments, even if it looks a bit different.

“For me, there was the constancy of the School of International Affairs and Zoom. It became my lifeline,” said Boseman Rives. “My courses and my virtual internship were my chance to work towards creating opportunity in an uncertain future.”