First Global Education Program cohort inspired to expand global learning opportunities for kids

Contact: Erin Flynn
A group of students stands in front of a statue in Portugal.

The first cohort of the Global Engagement Program studied abroad in Portugal over spring break in 2019.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The world is more connected than ever, and Western Michigan University's Global Engagement Program (GEP) offers students the opportunity to not only discover it but build leadership and global skills to make them more marketable in their future careers. The first cohort just completed the four-year program, leaving behind tools that will open a world of global learning opportunities for K-12 students.

"I witnessed firsthand these students’ growth from the experiences they were exposed to individually and as a cohort, how they learn to be flexible and adaptable and how this helps to develop their emotional intelligence. This kind of exposure to the world assists in the development of an individual’s knowledge of themselves," says Dr. Paulo Zagalo-Melo, associate provost for global education.

The program officially launched in 2018. Students in the first cohort took global studies classes together during their first year and completed study abroad experiences in Lisbon, Portugal, and across Ireland.

"The Global Engagement Program at WMU really impacted me because it allowed me to learn about other countries and experience different cultures, which is not something I got to do a lot of previously," says Kara VanderKamp, of Kalamazoo, who graduated in April with a bachelor's degree in public and nonprofit administration.

"It's something that's really important to me because I love other cultures, I love to travel and I've always wanted to see the world. And Western's given me a great opportunity to do that," adds Nick Besta, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who graduated in April with bachelor's degrees in anthropology and communications. "I got to learn about countries and actually be there and see it, which I think is so much more valuable than simply reading about it or listening to a lecture. It changed me and made me want to go to other places and keep learning."

A cartoon classroom featuring a character pointing at another character holding a globe.

Lessons developed by the GEP cohort include the home countries of several international students at Western.

While the COVID-19 pandemic hampered some plans for long-term study abroad, a core group of students from the 2018 cohort continued to the program's final phase: A capstone project focused on expanding global education in K-12 classrooms to promote cultural understanding.

"It's so easy at a place like Western—with our extensive study abroad program and the globalization classes that we were able to have—to interact with international students and to experience other cultures. But high schoolers and middle schoolers don't necessarily have that opportunity," says Owen Kilpatrick, a music education and saxophone performance student from Lansing, Michigan. "It is really meaningful to be able to share what we've gained from international travel in a format like this that's easily accessible to anyone, regardless of the resources they have available, and to inspire them to do their own explorations of other cultures."

GEP students designed an innovative digital curriculum using Google Classroom slides. They interviewed several international students at Western and created a slide for each of their home countries—places like Egypt, Bahrain, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic. In addition to an interview with the featured student, each slide includes a number of opportunities to learn about that particular country and culture, from clips of traditional music to books and artwork.

"From a social studies perspective, we're preparing students for a globalized world in which we can't even imagine. If we can't connect students to other cultures and people and philosophies outside of their sphere now, then we're not doing an adequate job as educators preparing them," says Dr. Brianne Pitts, assistant professor of teaching, learning and educational studies, who served as a collaborating faculty mentor on the project.

Video of Global Leadership Bitmoji Classroom Project

The group presented its project to a group of teachers in the Kalamazoo area who shared the lessons with more than 850 students, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. More than 90% of the teachers indicated they had taught less than 10 lessons on global studies from their provided curriculum before implementing the lessons developed by Western's GEP scholars in their classes.

"Exposing elementary students to other cultures, to other people, it's a big plus. I really appreciate this initiative of creating awareness and also appreciating other people and other cultures," says Tongriang Daspan, a Western student from Nigeria who participated in the project.

The majority of teachers who engaged their students with the GEP classrooms said they would recommend the resources to their colleagues or use them in their own classrooms in the future. The cohort presented its work, "International Bitmoji Classrooms: Developing Understanding of Students' Global Perspectives,'' to students and educators from around the world at Western's first ever Global Leadership Conference in April. Group leaders hope to see their efforts expanded and new voices and experiences added by future GEP scholars.

The Program

The Global Engagement Program is designed for a cohort of students to grow together through a four-year curriculum, forming connections with a diverse group of peers in disciplines across campus, increasing cultural competencies and building global awareness. The curriculum includes:

  • Year 1: Global learning for all—Students are connected to peers abroad through global classrooms and participate in a virtual study abroad. There is no program fee for the first year, and all students who successfully complete it earn a $500 study abroad scholarship.
  • Year 2: Global collaboration—Students complete a global leadership and advocacy course; participate in workshops focused on team building, collaboration and leadership; and travel with their cohort for a summer study abroad program.

  • Year 3: Beyond the classroom—Participants complete a long-term, independent study abroad program.

  • Year 4: Global leadership—Students complete a project management course and collaborate on a culminating group project in partnership with an international organization.

Students stand in front of the ruins of an ancient structure.

Dr. Paulo Zagalo-Melo joined the cohort on their trip to Portugal in 2019.

"The exposure (students) have to cross-cultural experiences, international perspectives and the commonality of global challenges helps them understand the world they live in," Zagalo-Melo says. "No matter where they will be for the rest of their lives—Kalamazoo or anywhere else in the U.S. or the world—they need to understand the globe’s interconnectedness, the power of interdisciplinary problem-solving and the potential impact of individual and collective choices. This knowledge and skill-building can help them make more informed decisions in their personal and professional lives."

Students build camaraderie in a cohort with peers outside their own major or college, exposing themselves to different perspectives while also having a community to grow and experience the world.

"Our first trip to Portugal was really interesting, because we got to interact with different businesses and educational institutions there. That kind of showed us what the difference in the economic structure is there compared to what we're used to and how the growing tourism industry affected people who had been living there," Kilpatrick says.

Students also had the benefit of having Zagalo-Melo, who is from Portugal, as their tour guide. One particularly memorable experience for Kilpatrick came when Zagalo-Melo recommended a local jazz club where he saw an up-and-coming musician play.

"As a musician, it was cool to travel around a foreign country and then to hear music I'm kind of familiar with but in a different way. And there were pictures on the wall of different musicians who had visited and I recognized some of them, so that was pretty cool."

VanderKamp enjoyed taking in the history of the places the group visited both in Portugal and Ireland.

Besta stops for a picture at Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of mainland Europe.

"Seeing the old churches and some of the old buildings that have been there since the Medieval times, it's amazing to think of all the history that happened there. Things that took centuries to build are still standing," she says. "It definitely made me appreciate other cultures more. Now, I'm actually seeking out those experiences. Recently I took a two-week trip to Germany with my cousin, which is something I would have never done before traveling with the Global Education Program. I feel much more comfortable traveling."

"It almost became like I was more inspired to do something than I had been originally," adds Besta. "I think it really shows how much global education can help someone grow."

While ideal for incoming students, the Global Engagement Program is open to students of all levels. More information, including how to apply, is available on the Haenicke Institute's webpage.

"Seeing these first GEP graduates and hearing about the impact the program had on them and their journey at WMU makes me even more excited about the future of this program," Zagalo-Melo says.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.