COIL partnerships boost international education opportunities for SDSU students

February 29, 2024
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After COVID-19 shut down study abroad programs in March 2020, SDSU Associate Professor Mei Zhong began searching for a path for her International Studies minor program students to receive a global learning experience without jumping on airplanes.

Zhong found it through a long-running but sometimes overlooked program called COIL, or Collaborative Online International Learning. For Zhong, an intercultural communications expert at the College Professional Studies and Fine Arts,  COVID-19 restrictions were a turning point for online learning, which was embraced by faculty that had previously been reluctant adopters.

She participated in a State University of New York (SUNY) COIL training program in 2021, where she found collaborators at universities in Chile and the United Kingdom.  Later, she entered partnerships with colleagues in Mexico. Now that the pandemic is behind us, COIL programs could play a more significant role in providing global learning experiences to SDSU students, a key goal of the university’s Global Strategic Plan.

“If I can encourage my colleagues to do this, I feel we are opening doors for our students,” said Zhong, serving as SDSU’s director of COIL programs. “We are creating all these opportunities for them to be connecting internationally without stepping out of their comfort zone.”

SDSU International Affairs is hosting a COIL information session for faculty on March 6 from 11 am to noon via Zoom. It will feature two professors sharing their experience with the program. Click here for information.

Designed to run between four to eight weeks, COIL sessions typically include icebreaker activities, collaborative projects, and wrap-up presentations. In one of Zhong’s recent COIL courses with Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, SDSU students were paired with Tijuana students online in small groups. Zhong lectured to the joint class for a week, then a UABC International Relations professor taught for a week, followed by students picking topics for collaborative pilot research projects. In the final sessions, students presented their findings to the class.

Two students from Zhong’s class attended SDSU’s RE:BORDER bi-national conference last fall at UABC’s Tijuana campus to meet with collaborators in person.

Zhong stressed that COIL is meant to supplement study abroad, not replace it. COIL can open opportunities for students who cannot travel because of financial hurdles or family commitments that prevent them from an international education experience.

“You can be very creative,” she said. “I have seen theater professors create a project for both sides to work on, or they create a video or make a web page. There are endless possibilities.”

SDSU Professor Marva Cappello took doctoral students to Oaxaca to meet with peers after collaborating online
SDSU Professor Marva Cappello took doctoral students to Oaxaca to meet with peers after collaborating online

Sometimes, a COIL class is a precursor to studying abroad, laying the groundwork for in-person trips. Marva Cappello, director of SDSU’s joint doctoral program for the College of Education, led an embedded COIL program with La Salle University Oaxaca. Open to SDSU students committed to achieving the University Seal of Biliteracy and Cultural Competence, the joint course examined topics such as educational equity and social justice on both sides of the border.

After the online course, SDSU students traveled to Oaxaca to meet colleagues. Papers from the project were included in a recently published bilingual, English and Spanish, book, “First Binational Research Seminar Oaxaca-San Diego: An Intellectual Space.”

Carlos Paternina Arboleda, assistant professor at SDSU’s Fowler School of Business, tapped COIL as part of a grant-funded collaboration with two universities in Colombia, focusing on developing supply chains and a U.S. market for Colombian cocoa oil.

“So, my students are going to be able to participate in an international experience of working with students in Bogota and Monteria in Colombia to learn about the different products that could be produced from cocoa, how they process it, how they package it for international trade,” he said.

Students from two of Paternina Arbroleda’s classes are gathering data and digging into barriers on the U.S. side related to cocoa oil imports, while colleagues in Colombia are delving into local production and supply chain issues.

“Anything you can do with palm oil you can also use cocoa oil,” said Paternina Arboleda. “It is more sustainable, and that is something we are going to be working on.”

The collaboration is expected to produce at least three research papers to be submitted to trade publications for consideration. Both sides plan to apply for larger grants to continue the research. The initial grant included funding for two students to travel to Colombia, and Paternina Arboleda is looking for more funding to cover travel costs for additional SDSU students. 

Lluliana Alonso, a former education professor at SDSU’s Imperial Valley campus, built a graduate-level COIL class in collaboration with a teacher training college in Tijuana during the pandemic. About 20 students on both sides of the border paired up and wrote weekly letters to each other about their joint academic reading assignments and their personal lives.

The collaboration helped strip away preconceived notions regarding their respective border experiences and education systems, said Alonso, who is now teaching at CSU Long Beach.

“[The experience] empowered students to be agents of change,” she said. “It created a community, but it also was raising their social consciousness and deepening their commitment to the profession of teaching.”

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