Virtual study abroad engages students without the travel

Greece landscape

Since summer study abroad travel was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercer University has found alternative ways to engage students in study abroad programs.

One of those is through a Virtual World Tour.

Rebekah Anaya, study abroad coordinator for the Office of International Programs, came up with the idea of sharing a Virtual World Tour after seeing the movement toward putting everything online.

“I wanted a way to keep students still engaged in study abroad and looking forward to future programs, even if they couldn’t physically study abroad this summer,” Anaya said. “In addition to keeping students engaged, I wanted to highlight our study abroad programs and give students the opportunity to learn about and start planning for future study abroad programs.”

The Virtual World Tour focuses on one area of the world a week and highlights a different country within that area each day on Facebook and Instagram, @mercerabroad. Anaya saves the stories on the Instagram profile highlights in case someone missed a country but still wanted to check it out.

Ethiopia was one of the countries featured in Mercer’s Virtual World Tour. The screen grab is from @mercerabroad on Instagram.

“I do a little bit of research and put up some fun facts about each country with photos, give information at the end about what programs we offer in that country, and ask followers to share and tag us in their photos from that country,” she said.

Anaya reaches out to students and faculty members to ask for photos from their previous study abroad programs to help with her posts. The Virtual World Tour already has covered areas in Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a few students, faculty and staff members who have told me that they have really enjoyed following along on our tour,” Anaya said. “Some of our students who have shared photos have enjoyed reliving their study abroad experiences through the photos, and some faculty members have gotten excited about the prospect of highlighting their study abroad country for the possibility of getting students interested in their program for next year.”

Mercer’s Virtual World Tour recently was featured in an article on After reading the story, some faculty members turned their canceled summer study abroad programs into online summer classes with a virtual tour of the country.

Study abroad in Greece without leaving the U.S.

Dr. Charlotte Thomas, a philosophy professor, was supposed to lead a month-long study abroad program, Philosophy and Art in Athens, to Greece this summer.

Dr. Charlotte Thomas

“One of the hardest things about the pandemic for me has been canceling the Philosophy and Art study abroad program,” Dr. Thomas said. “I’d reserved our favorite apartments in Athens, and we had even arranged to have the roof of the building all to ourselves for all four weeks. So, I was looking forward to watching the sunset over the Acropolis every night.

“Everything was arranged. And we couldn’t travel.” 

Dr. Thomas teaches a philosophy course called Human Nature and Art and has collaborated for 20 years with Eric O’Dell, an associate professor of art who teaches Drawing Fundamentals and Advanced Drawing. Dr. Marc Jolley, a senior lecturer of philosophy, was supposed to join them on their trip this summer but will now join them online teaching INT 301 Engaging the World.

After reading the news article about the Virtual World Tour, Dr. Thomas tried to figure out if her study abroad program would still be possible on a virtual platform. 

Greece was another country featured in Mercer’s Virtual World Tour. The screen grab is from @mercerabroad on Instagram.

“I got in touch with a friend of mine, George Kokkos, an historian and tour guide who works with me every summer in Greece. I asked him if he would be interested in helping me run a virtual study tour — if he would be willing to go on site with his phone and video chat with my class from various sites around Athens,” Dr. Thomas said. “He agreed immediately, and his enthusiasm gave me the nudge I needed to bring the rest of the program together.”

Dr. Thomas currently is putting together the content of the course.

“Some of what we will use will be the same materials that students work with when we travel to Greece together,” she said. “But we are going to add additional content to immerse students in the culture of Greece, something that just happens automatically when you physically travel there.”

Dr. Thomas really wants students to feel like they have traveled to Greece.

“I want to add content on the food of Greece, music, theater and nightlife,” she said. “By the time we are done, I want our students to feel like they know their way around Athens — like they’ve really been there.”

There is still space available for this summer course, and Dr. Thomas encourages all students to join her on this virtual tour. The program starts May 18, and depending on which courses are chosen, it may fulfill some general education requirements.

“A lot of students were counting on getting that credit this summer by doing study abroad, Mercer On Mission or internships that have now been canceled, so this program might be in position to help those folks out,” Dr. Thomas said.


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