There is a frisson of excitement in the room at the University of Padova. The frescoed ceiling is an unexpected surprise because the room itself is modern, equipped with a screen, projector and an array of cables numerous enough to satisfy most people’s technical needs.
Colleagues from Brazil, Honduras, Sweden and Italy drift in, many are meeting each other for their first face-to-face interaction since the start of the VAMOS project over two years ago.
Eloy Fassi Casagrande, Project coordinator and teacher from UTFPR said, “Padova is a wonderful opportunity to meet with our colleagues, beyond the screen. This personal contact is vital and we can better explain what we are doing. Seeing the results first-hand highlights what can be better. It’s a pilot project, so there is always space to improve. We now realise how different this approach is, and how valuable this knowledge is. You can see the whole picture: from expectations to reality. This has been a massive learning curve both for students and teachers alike. The pandemic pushed us to learn and do something different. The new toolkit has been very useful. We’ve gone beyond zoom and google meet.”
Eloy has hit the nail on the head. We’ve all been working and collaborating online, and it’s true the relationship-building began way back. Judging by the shrieks of delight and recognition, nothing beats giving your virtual colleagues a real live bear hug. It only goes to show the benefits of experiencing an element of virtual exchange ahead of a physical mobility.
Diego Diaz of UPNFM said of the introduction morning, “I felt as though I was reconnecting with old friends. It’s like we have been in touch for the longest time. Our VE pilot started the process of finding a common ground virtually. This physical meet up is vital for networking on a professional level but to go beyond that and become friends.”
The following two days were productive mix of exchange, updating, sharing ideas and personal meetings, not forgetting social dinners with much talking and laughter replete with delicious Italian as well as middle eastern food.
(Picture: Yoga between the sessions)
Events kicked off with a masterclass entitled Raising Institutional Support and Awareness for VE by UNICollaboration’s Sara Pittarello, to explain the importance of understanding the stakeholders within Higher Education Institutions and how to harness their support. The afternoon was given over to a wonderful guided tour of Palazzo Bo, the Rectorate building at the University of Padova, and a veritable architectural treasure.
The following morning the Steering committee met to decide the way forward and how to harness the energy and momentum built up during the exchange, the main focus being the impact on Latin American participant countries and how to take the lessons learned beyond academia, using the power of technology for innovation in education and out into the community.
Time was made so that all the partners could share their vision for the future. Ideas included a wonderful selection of outreach events in the form of conferences, webinars, master classes all geared towards disseminating and amplifying the lessons learned during the VAMOS initiative.
We heard about specialised internationalisation at home outreach programmes with a focus on climate change and sustainability from a Brazilian partner. A Honduran partner shared their vision of identifying relevant stakeholders and other interested parties in the UN’s SDGs. A committee for environmental science has been set up to include government institutions, organisations involved in tourism, as well as other partnering universities across the country. We learned that Honduras will be focusing on forestry as well as ideas for sustainable living and how the partners want to involve more youth in sustainability projects and nature conservation. Most of the youth in Honduras belong to rural communities, so it’s vital to get the students to go out there and talk about their experiences.
Given that VE is by its very nature, more inclusive, allowing previously isolated communities to participate, there will be a focus on identifying those stakeholders involved in water and forestry to invite them aboard the initiative. ‘We will use our connections to make this happen’, said Nelson Mejia form UNAICFOR.
There was an overriding understanding that VE and the use of innovative pedagogical techniques improves a university’s ranking by making it more appealing internationally and also as a response to student demands for innovation. VE is an innovative way for academia to connect with wider society at a ‘glocal’ level in order to begin to address the complexity of ‘wicked problems’ that we all share the desire to find possible solutions to.
Partners demonstrated a deep appreciation that the Virtual Exchange experience requires the support of local NGOs, sponsors and the private sector, both at local and national level to enable VE to become an established and mainstream strategy within universities and beyond.
A Future Mapping and brainstorming session undertaken by Sweden’s Uppsala university had the participating teams presenting their shared idea for an ideal scenario for future Virtual Exchanges. Teams were mixed so there was an enriching cross-pollination of ideas from across the partnerships.
Thyago Moreira de Queiroz, a teacher from UFPE commented on the energy in the room to continue with the project.
Fanny Jonsson, Uppsala’s tireless Project Coordinator said, “The sharing of ideas is fruitful and helpful on how to reach beyond academia and into society. With such a broad format, and all the new ideas from everyone, these different initiatives taking place are a celebration of all the work we have done thus far.”
We ended the gathering with a ‘Train the Trainers’ workshop, run by UNICollaboration’s Mirjam Hauck and Teresa Calderon that focused on inspiring the participants to go back to their institutions and train up colleagues in how to set up a VE. Teresa shared her VE experience from her own institution in Valladolid in Spain.
UFPE’s Project Coordinator and teacher, Roberto Guerra said the in-person meetings have given him greater confidence to pursue his ideas for the future.
Our final gathering altogether took place rather aptly at a restaurant in the heart of Padova called Peace ‘n’ Spice which is a wonderful illustration of what a real community project looks like. The restaurant is run by a group of asylum seekers from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan and you get to mix and match delicious multi-ethnic cuisine, with organic wines and special cocktails. The décor is cosy and colourful, a veritable reflection of what can happen when cultures collide, blend and influence each other. A different Virtual Exchange for every day of the week.
Written by Lorenza Bacino