A cultural exchange via the internet between a community college in the US and the Southern Institute of Technology, has forged new links between American and Kiwi students, with the potential to develop into much more.
Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Kansas, contacted SIT in 2020 to see if they could facilitate an online exchange with SIT students. They were put in touch with Communication/ Tourism/Hotel Management/Business tutors Bronwyn Sadler and Selena Coburn. “They wanted to create a relationship between us and them” said Ms Coburn.
The tutors thought it was worthwhile pursuing the exchange to create the opportunity for some inter-cultural communication experience. “Our aim was to allow US students to see New Zealand life and get a taste of who we are, what we do, and how do we do it, with the hope it would lead to the opening of doors for students to visit NZ, and vice versa”, Ms Coburn said.
The new exchange was popular with US students, twenty-five students volunteered to be involved out of an Economics class of sixty. From SIT, twenty-three Principles of Human Resource Management (MAN535) students and twenty-eight students from Professional Communications (COM540) participated, with both sets of students using the interactions to produce assessed work.
Tutors ‘buddied’ the US students with pairs and small groups of SIT students, and from there the students had to negotiate what worked best for both parties to make the interviews happen, taking the time difference into account, and with all the Kansas students being home-based because of the US lockdown it meant there weren’t normal semester timetables to adhere to.
Research on both sides was conducted as interviews, utilising Zoom, Snapchat and Instagram. Students learnt about each others’ cultures, looking at differences in communication, lifestyle, politics, and economic comparisons. Minimum wage, average house prices and everyday living costs were compared, what the US and NZ dollar bought, and who was actually better off overall.
On completion of the paper, feedback from JCCC students had been positive and they made comments on a wide variety of topics which had piqued their interest while interviewing their Kiwi counterparts.
They had been informed on New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, rural/farm living, Maori culture, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy being filmed here, the outdoors lifestyle, and NZ’s connections with Australia, as well as more personal subjects - relationships, music preferences, religious beliefs, parental expectations - and what they did in their spare time.
The SIT tutors were impressed with how knowledgeable US students were on NZ and said SIT students found it “a real eye-opener”, particularly when talking about politics, as their JCCC buddies knew a lot about our country.
“They were well-researched on NZ, especially our politics, they knew about Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins... our students felt a bit naive”, said Ms Coburn. It highlighted a difference in the two education systems, where all US students learn politics at high school level and also in the first year of university.
Due to the US Covid pandemic, Kansas students had all been off-site and in lockdown for a considerable period of time. “When we had contact it had been 15 months for them,” said Ms Coburn, and because of this they observed some interesting reactions from the US students when they saw Kiwi students on Zoom for the first time, not wearing masks and interacting together in the same space. “The Kansas students were freaked out - they couldn’t believe how close they sat to each other,” she said.
“It made us realise our experience of the Covid pandemic had been quite different to theirs,” she added.
SIT students enjoyed the differences they noticed between the cultures, like the weather – Kansas was in the grips of an extremely severe winter when they first made contact. Common to them all was how the experience had been positive and had opened their minds and changed their perceptions of others, as well as how they viewed their own personal lives.
The tutors felt a similarity between the two institutes which worked well was JCCC’s location in the comparatively rural state of Kansas, with a relatively small population. “There may have been different outcomes and more obvious contrasts if we’d paired up with a college from New York,, said Ms Sadler.
They also noticed JCCC students were surprised at how ethnically diverse SIT classes were. And initially it was those physical differences which were immediately obvious and interesting to the students – like class diversity, the proximity of students to each other and no-one wearing masks -but ultimately the most rewarding discoveries in the research were the uncovering of similarities as the buddies got to know each other, said the tutors.
“We’re similar but different - generally speaking, our values are very similar – they are good people who want to look after each other,” Ms Sadler said.
“Kansas students now have a real sense of the kind of people we are,” Ms Coburn said.
The tutors agreed the exchange was an overall success, firstly, for developing the relationship between JCCC and SIT in order to send US students to study at SIT in the near future. They said from the group involved this year, there were about six Kansas students really keen to come to NZ.
“JCCC staff will be coming out next year to check us out, and all going well, the intention is to host JCCC students here at SIT in 2023,” said Ms Coburn.
Secondly, it provided a hands-on experience for SIT students, involving real-life engagement, said Ms Sadler. “It was successful at every level – it’s so beneficial to our students having that face-to-face engagement.” She added due to the positive outcomes they intend to continue with the exchange and it will be available again in semester two of this year.