Last February, Nicole Murillo received the exciting news that her study abroad application was approved, and she would be spending the summer living with a family in Taiwan and learning Chinese as part of the Hamilton Lugar School’s summer language workshop. In March, she received very different news. All overseas travel had been suspended and the program was going online. She had a difficult decision to make: withdraw or join an experimental virtual study abroad course.
Project GO Taiwan had never been fully digital before. Project Global Officers (GO) is a national training program to encourage ROTC students from across the country to study critical languages and develop expertise and intercultural communication skills. At IU, which has been a Project GO member since 2007, it is hosted by the Hamilton Lugar School’s Language Program.
Until the summer of 2020, online language courses were rare, and online intensive programs even rarer. What would an intensive online Chinese program look like? Would the online format be effective?
After weighing her options carefully, Murillo decided to go all-in with the virtual program. Instead of studying Chinese at the Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Kaohsiung City, she would be working from home, connecting with other Project GO Taiwan students and instructors digitally.
To Murillo and the other students, the results were a huge success and a validation of their hard work and commitment.
“This program greatly improved my language skills much faster than I expected…I can now hold a conversation in Chinese for more than 20 minutes with minor grammar mistakes,” she said after completing Project GO.
Project GO students learn one year’s worth of Chinese over the summer, confirmed by a national Chinese language assessment at the end of the term. The results this year exceeded expectations. Not only did students improve their Chinese, but their improvements were in line with or better than those of past, in-person, IU summer Chinese programs.
Murillo’s Language Workshop classmates had similar success with virtual language study.
“This program, without a doubt, brought me to a level of Chinese that usually takes semesters to reach,” said Kobe Holland, a Securities Studies major and member of the Chinese Language Flagship program at the University of North Georgia.
Study abroad programs, of course, are about more than just classes. They are about lived experiences. Here too, the transition of HLS’s summer Taiwan program to an online format presented new challenges, but also new opportunities to connect. Students participated in a wide array of cultural events, including calligraphy, Chinese traditional painting, and cooking classes. Virtual Taiwan students took a tour of Kaohsiung City with the professors who would have been their instructors in Taiwan, and connected with the families who had planned on hosting them, gaining an intimate glimpse of everyday life in Kaohsiung City.
“The cultural events in small groups felt more intimate and engaging, which allowed us to feel more comfortable speaking Chinese and better understand life in Taiwan,” said Murillo.
Gavin Harbo, a Biblical Studies major at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, agreed.
“By attending events such as the Virtual Lounge, the weekly Movie Discussion, and virtual Office Hours, I was able to drastically improve my fluency when speaking Chinese. As a result, I have progressed from describing only simple things about myself, to being able to describe complex topics such as gender equality and environmental protection,” he said.
Project GO Taiwan participants also connected with students from the other 21 summer language programs offered by the Hamilton Lugar School Language Workshop, a unique benefit of the virtual environment.
“If it were not for this online situation, I would not have been able to meet half of the students I met, because we would have been placed in different countries. I believe this online platform of sharing our experience is key to retaining all that we have learned while making long lasting friendships,” said Kat Tran, of the University of California, Irvine.
The students who experienced Taiwan virtually this summer with the Hamilton Lugar School persevered in a novel and challenging program. Working alongside their instructors, they demonstrated that online intensive Chinese programs can succeed. They forged lifelong friendships with students from around the world and developed cultural and language skills that will prove useful when they travel, work, or study abroad after the pandemic.
“In the future I would like to travel to Taiwan to appreciate my mom’s roots and be able to apply what I learned in this program to when I can travel,” said Rosalyn Ng of St. John’s University in New York.
Despite limitations caused by COVID-19, Hamilton Lugar School students are committed to enhancing their global knowledge and language skills. Project GO students, as well as other Language Program students, are demonstrating the attitude and commitment that makes them global leaders.