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3 Ways Virtual Exchanges Contribute to the Mission of Diversity & Inclusion

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    D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) is what’s on everybody’s mind right now. We are living in a moment where it’s downright inappropriate to avoid addressing why so many environments have resisted heterogeneousness and accessibility. And so, it stands to reason that your institution wants to make it well known that these topics are being addressed in every facet of scholastic life: to stay competitive, current, and relevant, education needs to face these timely subjects with an exponential degree of synchronicity and punctuality.

    As your school continues to self-assess, review its curriculum, update its branding, and reach wider demographics, the managing bodies of the institution will want shiny, marketable, and zeitgeisty articulations of these hot-button topics with which to decorate and adorn the alma mater. Chances are, you’re sitting on a glittery mound of cabochons that might suit this very need.

    Whether you’re using telecollaboration programs like virtual exchanges to have your students practice foreign languages, grow their sense of Global Citizenship, or to teach a STEM class, “there’s gold in them hills”! What you’re providing your pupils carries with it many other, oft-overlooked, benefits when cast under the lens of Diversity and Inclusion. Here are three:

    Teaching Humility

    Think about how students react to virtual exchanges; it’s not unlike their first initial travel experiences in that everything strikes them with newness and the feeling of ah-ha revelations. “Wow, they’re so good at English!” or, “They listen to the same music I do!” or, “I can’t believe they say that in their country!” As winsome as these banalities can seem to the practiced educator, they’re the bread and butter of Inclusion.

    You can’t “teach” a desirable quality like humility, but you can certainly, as an educator, provide fertile ground for traits like these to grow. Some of the more prosaic commentary from students about their reflections on the whole virtual exchange experience yields fascinating insights: many students constantly remark with great surprise on seemingly obvious facets of universality. Music, media, and movies are beloved by everyone. Foods have become popular internationally! English is lingua franca across the globe. None make for spectacular news in any regard, but they do make for real, personal, and above all meaningful, acknowledgements to the budding mind.

    A colleague recently made the point that “these interactions, all these little realizations…it keeps them humble.” What she meant is, the more her students got to know each other through the exchange, the more they realized that the foreign students were neither ‘different,’ (read: weird, or strange), nor were her students particularly unique (read: special, incomprehensible). Divulgences of surprise like, “Señora, I can’t believe the kids in Mexico follow American Football!” can really start a conversation about how alike we are. And this focus on similarities can jumpstart the real work of Diversity and Inclusion.

    Overcoming Bias

    These realizations never cease to amaze me and my colleagues; but the sad truth is, what prior knowledge are these new discoveries supplanting? It’s terrible to think, but that same Spanish teacher (incidentally, also from Mexico!) knew exactly what the kids might have thought prior to the virtual exchange. “They think we’re all on our burros… as if everyone in Mexico is riding donkeys!” she blurts out in exasperation. Truly, the similarities come as a relief because they take the place of heavens-knows what kind of backwards biases the First World kids might have of the other countries.

    Prejudice mitigates acceptance. Apprehension and discomfort stymie inclusion. Fear is the educator’s enemy. There’s no other way to read it—our job must forever be to acclimate our students to a changing world and teach them courage. When we create the opportunity for encounter, we raze these prejudices and biases and build in their stead connections.

    Creating Connections

    I think about my vociferous Mexican colleague, and one of her observations comes to mind as particularly salient: “When the boys in my class shot their videos, they were very respectful. They composed themselves much better than they would in the classroom: they wanted to make a good impression, present themselves better. A lot of them spoke better English than they normally do!” We must assume that our students mean well, that they genuinely want to learn and be taught, and do good in the world. We can’t let the anxiety of ignorance stymie their desire to connect with one another!

    Therefore, your virtual exchange acts as a sandbox for them, a place to safely interact with other people and learn about other cultures without being put on the spot. In exercises where the students perform the “Getting to Know One Another” bit, or present their cultures to each other, they have the unique opportunity to advocate for themselves, exhibit curiosity, and act as ambassadors for their communities. These safe encounters are what the greater world is missing: an opportunity to hear stories, ask questions, and share experiences. It is true that the work of Diversity and Inclusion revolves around amplifying voices that have been quieted and marginalized for too long, but it must happen both on a societal level as much as the intrapersonal level.


    There remains a lot to be done in Diversity and Inclusion, and the field of education is an active worksite. However, fear not—as an educator implementing innovative ways for your students to practice foreign languages, discuss ideas across cultures, and develop their global citizenship, you have already set the stage for meaningful conversations and interactions that will forward the initiatives of D&I work. By giving your students the gift of a safe place to commune with peers from another community, we allow them to be humbled by what they do not yet know without faulting them for it. This vehicle allows them not only to own their newfound knowledge, but to overcome their inherent biases. Empowered by their personal experiences and devoid of hand-me-down prejudices, your students build stronger connections with the world around them. Even if it all seems basic, and the kids are taken aback by how similar they all are, that’s the point: you’re doing it right.