By Deanne Puca
Haworth College of Business students are brainstorming with Indian business and nonprofit leaders; experiencing Indian dance, music and art; learning to cook with Indian spices; and even riding along with a live motorcycle tour through the streets of Bangalore. Broncos are still getting a valuable study abroad experience virtually during the pandemic as international borders remain closed.
Although valuable lessons learned from studying abroad haven’t been easily achievable during the past year—appreciation of other cultures and people from distant places—they're not completely out of reach, says Dr. Tim Palmer, interim chair and professor of management, as he pursues connections and experiences for his students almost 8,500 miles away.
Through a well-established relationship with Christ University in Bangalore and Rajagiri Centre for Business Studies in Kochi, India, Palmer modified his annual December study abroad program to become a virtual experience that allows his 22 students to explore environmental and social sustainability, discussing topics such as sex trafficking, human rights for domestic workers, gender inequality and climate change. Additionally, students have the opportunity to learn from sustainability executives at firms like Haworth and Infosys. The experience was WMU’s inaugural virtual study abroad program.
The IndiBroncos, as Palmer calls them, include 20 undergraduate and two graduate business students. Most are from across the Unites States, but two are from Vietnam and one from Brazil.
"A big part of study abroad is learning about yourself through other cultures," says Palmer, who is also director for the Center for Sustainable Business Practices. "Students are hungry for cultural experiences. You want to make this a valuable experience."
"COVID-19 has shown us that we are all bound up in each other globally,” says senior Henry Thiry, a human resources management student from Milan, Michigan. “Right now, both the United States and India are facing the same crisis. Being able to connect with folks from another country during this time has brought great restoration to my psyche; the experience has been a great 'escape.'"
This is marketing senior Catherine Lemus' third study abroad experience at Western; she has previously traveled to Norway and Ireland. Despite being virtual, she says the latest program has created close bonds with Western and Christ University students, allowing them to work in small teams to conduct interviews with sustainable businesses and write articles.
"It has been a fabulous way to stay curious and conscious of the global community to which we all belong," says Lemus of Plainwell, Michigan. "I appreciate how much effort Dr. Palmer has put into the coordination of various speaker sessions, an international group project and additional culture videos. These have helped bring Indian culture to life, giving us some of the biggest benefits of studying abroad: relationship building and exposure to global perspectives."
Her past study abroad experiences have been in countries with more traditional western culture, she adds.
"I saw this class as the ideal opportunity to push myself to learn about a culture that I am very unfamiliar with and expand my knowledge of sustainability in business, which I am extremely passionate about," Lemus says. "I have tried to seek out classes which provide me multiple viewpoints, since to me, college is all about understanding the lives of others."
Dr. Lee M. Penyak, director of study abroad, agrees study abroad enriches students both professionally and personally as they interact with international peers and acquire skills employers are often seeking.
"A goal of the University and the Haenicke Institute for Global Education is to help all students—not just those who travel internationally—become globally engaged and develop intercultural communication and leadership skills," Penyak says.
“As much as I am eager to resume travel with students to India in 2022, I now realize the value of virtual study abroad,” says Palmer. “Many students face significant practical and economic considerations that can impact their ability to travel internationally. A virtual program can provide access to students seeking meaningful global experiences without leaving WMU's campus. My hope is virtual study abroad opportunities persist beyond the current restrictions we face with COVID-19.”