Magazine Feature

Virtual Engagement, Real-World Impact

How students are working with communities across the globe despite the pandemic

By Mary Lou Forward

Summer 2021

As the severity of the global health crisis presented by the emergence of COVID-19 became apparent, colleges and universities across the United States began bringing students home from study abroad programs and canceling international travel for faculty and students. Wishing to honor its commitment to global learning for all, the State University of New York (SUNY), a comprehensive public higher education system comprising sixty-four institutions across New York State, began exploring alternative options for students to engage internationally.

The SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), where I serve as executive director, convened a group of faculty and administrators from eighteen SUNY institutions and system-level offices in late March 2020 to develop a virtual experience that would provide perspectives on some of the world’s most challenging problems, along with opportunities for students to address them. The brainstorming led to the development of the SUNY COIL Global Commons. The six-week pilot program, which took place July 6–August 10, 2020, enrolled fifty-eight students from eighteen SUNY institutions. The students completed projects with seven community-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa and the Middle East.

The foundational idea for the program centers on engaging students with the world’s “wicked problems”—problems that are exceptionally complex and critical for the future of humanity and the planet and that require multifaceted responses. The United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) frame some of these challenges, including poverty, inequality, and climate change. Because these issues are so complex, it can be hard for students to know what actions to take that can make a difference. Nevertheless, people and organizations all over the world are striving to address these problems. Many of these organizations are small and are working hard with few resources to improve circumstances in their local communities. Our challenge was to create meaningful opportunities for students to engage with these organizations, providing enough context and fostering skill development so that students could contribute effectively to the organizations’ work. We did this by combining the power of storytelling with a focused exploration of selected SDGs, culminating in storytelling-based projects—including videos, presentations, a digital magazine, an illustrated book, and outreach materials—with the NGOs.

“What I got out of the program is that I want to heal broken systems,” says SUNY Empire State College student Gabrielle Lerner. “It made me appreciate collaborating with others in a very structured way. The life that people live in other places is not comparable to the life we live here. I now bring that perspective with me to discussions and decisions.”

We set out to create a program model that was flexible and scalable and that would provide enough diversity of content and student choice to make the program appealing to a broad range of interests. Foundational to the program design and administration was the ability to leverage existing SUNY expertise and resources to create a program that would be available to any interested student, regardless of home institution. The pedagogy of the program was informed by three SUNY initiatives: COIL, which provides a proven methodology for significant online global virtual engagement; the PEARL framework (Prepare, Engage, Add value, Reflect, Leverage) for integrating program components; and SUNY OER Services, which promotes creating, adopting, and using open educational resources (OER).

The life that people live in other places is not comparable to the life we live here. I now bring that perspective with me to discussions and decisions.

The SUNY COIL Global Commons model is designed to optimize virtual engagement, with a central meeting area, or Commons, for shared experiences and content. Students begin in the Commons for orientation and intercultural communications preparation, return to the Commons periodically during the program for reflection, and end the program there with further reflection and presentation of their work. Students enrolled in any of the courses in the program interact in this Commons space, which provides a forum for broad discussion and idea exchange.

We organized the program into two three-credit courses, which together prepare students for their collaborative project work. Students complete the preparatory content for both courses during the first three weeks, then do the project work for two weeks, which is part of both courses (the project content is evaluated as part of the SDG course, and the storytelling skills used and the reflections on creating the project are evaluated as part of the storytelling course). The final week of the course allows students to finish the projects and present them to the NGO partners. Students must take both courses and complete the project. To facilitate credit transfer, we use processes developed for study abroad, including for student registration and records, billing, and hiring faculty. Following those processes, five different SUNY campuses managed the administration of the Global Commons program in 2020. SUNY Online—which provides a gateway to online courses and degrees and serves all SUNY institutions—designed and managed the learning platform.

The first course for the Global Commons program is Intercultural Storytelling, which focuses on the elements of storytelling and how stories shape the way people understand complicated issues. To frame the in-depth exploration of the class topic, the course uses the lenses of different media through which stories are told. All students receive an overview of the principles of storytelling and explore how these principles are realized through the media of their choice, such as videos, graphic novels, nonfiction narratives, or procedural media (including video games).

“Through storytelling, you do more than tell a narrative, you also give a piece of yourself to others and allow them to truly understand you,” wrote one participant reflecting on the program’s storytelling component.

The second course focuses on international perspectives on one of six selected SDGs (no poverty; good health and well-being; gender equality; sustainable cities and communities; climate action; and reduced inequalities). We offer six versions of the course so students can choose which SDG they want to focus on. The course includes an overview of the breadth of issues related to each of the SDGs, along with an in-depth examination of one aspect. For example, for the International Perspectives on Sustainable Cities and Communities course, students first learn about sustainability and systems thinking and then choose to study either the lens on preserving cultural and natural heritage or the lens on sustainable design and green building. Each SDG-focused course offers more than one lens from which to choose. Students studying different lenses discuss issues with one another, allowing them to appreciate the complexity and nuances related to the SDG overall.

Students then apply learning from the first and second courses by helping an organization craft the story of its work. Through completing the coursework and project, students learn about another culture, how it views the problems framed by the SDG, and how people are working to address these challenges in their communities. Students participating in the same project do not have to follow the same pathway through the program, and having students who bring different perspectives and insights lends strength to the project work.

“Working in a team was effective in helping me understand issues related to the SDG,” wrote one student about participating in an International Perspectives course. “We had a fantastic group with many diverse abilities, so it made the whole learning process really dynamic and fun.”

To ensure the work with the organizations is a true collaboration that meets the needs of the organizations and their communities, students complete a unit on intercultural communications as part of the program’s first day. They also explore cultural humility in the storytelling course and what it means for them both as producers of stories and as listeners. Student groups meet with their NGO partners in preparation for and during the project work. They also meet with representatives of the communities the NGOs serve. Faculty facilitators guide the check-ins with the NGOs to ensure students are listening to and incorporating feedback, in terms of both culture and content.

“It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially during times like these when we need to be united to better the world,” wrote a student in a program evaluation.

To ensure that the program could be easily scaled, we decoupled teaching from curriculum development. Faculty from across SUNY developed academic content for one of the focal areas for each course (for example, nonfiction narratives for Intercultural Storytelling). Since each course has multiple focal areas from which students can choose, content is designed so students can work through the materials largely on their own. Developing the curriculum in this way allows us to add teaching faculty to any course to accommodate student demand.

Teaching faculty are responsible for drawing together lessons learned in each area of study to help students understand the interrelatedness of problems and issues. For instance, the professor for International Perspectives on Climate Action facilitated discussions examining the overlap between two of the focal lenses students could choose from in that course, environmental planning, and agriculture and food systems.

Original content developed for the SUNY COIL Global Commons is licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution license, making this OER reusable by any faculty for any course. Student projects are also openly licensed to allow the NGO partners to make modifications and use the project outcomes as they see fit. The projects are featured on the program’s showcase website:

We selected faculty facilitators following a SUNY-wide call for self-nominations and chose facilitators according to their areas of expertise and experience with project-based learning, online courses, and international/intercultural education.

“In my twelve years of teaching, this course was the most extraordinary course that I have ever taught,” says Linda Gironda, a lecturer in legal studies at Purchase College, who taught the course International Perspectives on Reduced Inequalities. “The combination of storytelling, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and partnering with an NGO was compelling, impactful, and so meaningful for me and, I believe, for my students.”

We designed the program with ethical intercultural collaboration at its core. We were therefore delighted with the feedback we received from our NGO partners. Staff at one partner organization, Primary Health Care and Health Management Centre (PriHEMAC) in Oyo State, Nigeria, noted that they became friends with students and professors, who demonstrated intercultural understanding and adaptability when working with stakeholders. They also appreciated the high-quality work students were able to complete. “We have already produced a thousand printed copies of the digital magazine they created to distribute in our communities,” says Gideon Adeniyi, communications and program officer for PriHEMAC.

Students enrolled in the International Perspectives on Gender Equality course helped another partner organization, Hope Revival Children’s Organization in the Mara region of Tanzania, produce materials for community outreach and empowerment programs. “I’m asking you—don’t stop here,” says Stephen Marwa, executive director of Hope Revival. “Can we think of what else we can do together to bring more impact and to empower women?”

Just over 50 percent of students completed the program evaluation. These student evaluations pointed to the strengths of the model. We asked students to respond to statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), with several open-ended questions. The following responses were of particular note:

I liked having a choice of medium through which to study storytelling.

→ 80 percent agreed strongly; 20 percent agreed.

I liked having a choice of lens (in the SDG focused course).

→ 62 percent agreed strongly; 31 percent agreed; 7 percent were neutral.

The format of the course (self-paced content with activities, assignments, and facilitated discussions) was effective for my learning.

→ 42 percent agreed strongly; 50 percent agreed; 8 percent disagreed.

The project work with our partner NGO was rewarding to me.

→ 69 percent agreed strongly; 27 percent agreed; 4 percent disagreed.

I developed skills in intercultural communication.

→ 69 percent agreed strongly; 19 percent agreed; 12 percent were neutral.

Working on this project has motivated me to continue to take action on issues I care about.

→ 73 percent agreed strongly; 23 percent agreed; 4 percent disagreed.

When we asked about areas that might need improvement, many students felt that the workload was too demanding given the short length of the program. Students most often wanted more time to work on the projects with the NGO partners. Comments pertaining to the project work with the NGO partners were overwhelmingly positive. This was clearly the highlight of the program for many students.

“I love this NGO!” wrote one student. “If given the opportunity I would jump on a plane and work for them anytime.”

When we asked what students found most compelling about the program, responses varied. Some said learning about SDGs was most compelling. One student noted that working with an NGO dealing with issues in the student’s field of study was a good alternative to an internship. Some pointed to learning storytelling skills to tackle real-world problems and make a tangible difference through NGOs.

“The SUNY COIL Global Commons program allowed me to interact with students beyond my age, years of experience, and education,” wrote one student, pointing to the benefit of enrolling students from across SUNY in the program so each course and project had a mix of students from different institutions. “It was truly a learning experience that gave me a broader perspective on issues I care deeply about.”

Finally, we asked students for anything additional they wanted to share with us. Many emphasized how much they enjoyed the program and said they would do it again. Others said the program had changed their world-view and had helped them make long-lasting connections with new people.

“Thank you for the experience you provide students like me who are interested in global sustainability and change,” wrote one student. “This program has further fueled my passion to work in the public health sector and has given me the tools to do so.”

The biggest lesson (re)learned by the steering committee? Students amaze us when we let them.

The SUNY COIL Global Commons again took place in the summer of 2021. The plan is to continue the program and expand it to semester-long offerings. More information is available at

Photo illustration by Paul Spella

Student Spotlight

Kyla Meltzer, Class of 2021, SUNY New Paltz

Courtesy of Kyla Meltzer

Why did you decide to do the SUNY COIL Global Commons program?

I was supposed to study in Korea in summer 2020, but my plans fell through because of COVID-19. I started hearing that there were virtual options and learned about this program. Most important to me was the emphasis on social issues and the option to choose the issue we wanted to focus on. I was also interested in the project, which I thought could lead to something I could put on my résumé as professional development experience with a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

How did you develop the project with the NGO?

We worked with an organization called Inkululeko ( in South Africa, which provides South African township youth with the skills, support, and guidance necessary to succeed in university. Inkululeko wanted a video that showed what it does and how its work contributes to meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The more we learned about the organization, the more we realized that using the voices of people in South Africa was the way to convey the importance of Inkululeko’s work and the way the organization cares for learners’ mental health in the context of postapartheid South Africa.

We used WhatsApp to communicate with people in South Africa. We had to deal with load shedding (planned electrical blackouts), so communications could sometimes be difficult. We still managed to get great interviews with people who work on the ground providing services and supporting students. We also got videos, photos, and information from Inkululeko staff. It was so inspiring to work with this organization. The people involved have so much passion and
are so dedicated to the learners in
South Africa.

What did you gain from completing the program?

The program unlocked a passion within me for international development. It really expanded my understanding of social justice and ideas like transformative justice. The coursework was both US and global in focus. Our professor included content about liberating yourself from fear of taking action, like worrying, “What if I say the wrong thing?” or “What if I don’t know enough?” The program made me want to make a difference and made me feel that I can make a difference.

What have you done with this learning since the program ended?

Because of this program and the encouragement of my instructor, I pursued an internship with Inkululeko and have continued to work with the organization since the Global Commons program ended. At first, I worked on editing videos, continuing the work we did over the summer, but more recently I’ve been focusing on grant writing. We just received a grant to support our outreach efforts to help ensure that learners have what they need in South Africa during the pandemic. Now I’m working as a mentor for incoming interns and will be leading weekly meetings. The scope of my responsibility has been increasing, and it’s been a really great experience.

Working with Inkululeko has taught me so much about myself. While the idea of what I want to do after graduation is still foggy, I now know how rewarding and important it is to work with a community to help it meet its goals. I found that I enjoy grant writing and fundraising; when you believe wholeheartedly in the work the organization is doing, it’s easy to ask others to support it. I want to continue to do this kind of work.


  • Mary Lou Forward

    Mary Lou Forward is the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Online International Learning for the State University of New York.