As a student at the University of Montana, I’ve had a chance to connect with peers across the world this summer through the Mansfield Center’s new Global PALS program, in spite of the barrier of a pandemic. Through this exchange, I’ve built a friendship and global awareness I never thought was possible virtually.
Global PALS, which stands for Peers Across Lands Sharing, was created this summer for students at the University of Montana to connect with young leaders from various Southeast Asian countries. The program works as a virtual exchange, pairing one University of Montana student with a student from across the globe. Students engage in cross-cultural learning activities with their PAL, such as discussions about their respective countries, cooking cultural dishes, and even going on virtual adventures together. Despite a physical barrier, the opportunities for connection that the program has fostered for involved students, like myself, have been wonderful experiences.
My PAL, Pia, is from the Philippines. We share common interests in journalism, and I’ve loved learning about her work with documentaries. I’ve learned that the Philippines and Montana are both “outdoorsy” places, and that the civil rights protests occurring in America are being mirrored in the Philippines – although with different issues on the table. We’ve both had the opportunity to learn about the political climate in each other’s countries. Pia and I are very similar, and it’s been fun to get to know her this summer.
Not only has the Global PALS program provided opportunities to connect with our individual partners, but the Mansfield Center has also been inventive about ways to create group learning opportunities via Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. Pia and I led the first group session, meeting with a cohort of students from the University of Montana and Southeast Asia. We organized PechaKucha Storytelling, which is a type of storytelling traditional in Japan. Each person created a presentation of 20 slides, and had 20 seconds per slide to tell the group about their favorite book or movie – essentially, getting 400 seconds total to tell your story. Another set of PALS organized a group watch of “Becoming”, a documentary about former first lady Michelle Obama that included virtual discussion.
From both group sessions, students had valuable takeaways from connecting with their peers across the world. We learned that even with completely different cultures, we all enjoyed similar films and books. Many films and books, even across our cultures, contained similar themes regarding empathy, kindness, inward and outward beauty, and dystopian societies. Amidst the exchanging that occurred, everyone treated each other with respect, were willing to work through awkwardness, and enjoyed making new friends.
The ingenuity of the Mansfield Center in creating a program that connects students from across the world even in the midst of a global pandemic is worthy of praise. Even more worthy of praise, though, is the way that this program supports University of Montana students in their leadership and workforce development. Not only are students provided an opportunity to learn how to work virtually, but we are also honing our cross-cultural communication skills, allowing us to become better equipped to deal with an increasingly global economy in the future. I encourage other institutions to create these virtual learning opportunities for students, too.
As a student, the Global PALS Program has inspired me to be more culturally aware about the world around me, which is an important aspect of becoming a globally minded citizen. I feel supported, connected, and more prepared than ever for a future working with a global community as a result of being involved in Global PALS.
Mariah Thomas is an Honors student in the Global Leadership Initiative at the University of Montana, studying Journalism and Political Science. She also works as an International Research Intern at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.
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