Ikudu and Erasmus

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iKudu Blog

Welcome to the iKudu blog, which aims to amplify the diverse voices of the iKudu stakeholders. In this space, members of the iKudu team will regularly share their views on our project and related international education topics. 

The iKudu project is based on the fundamental belief that it is necessary to rethink internationalisation in an uncertain world. First, it is crucial to recognise and transform the power dynamics underlying international academic collaboration. Second, it is essential to develop pedagogies which allow every student to participate in international education, integrating technology where appropriate. 

However, while we agree on the fundamental tenets of our project and our principal goals, all our stakeholders contribute different perspectives. The iKudu project plan reflects the diverse insights of a team hailing from South Africa and Europe. In this blog, we aim to provide a space for intellectual discourse on our project and related international education topics, which allows for constructive, critical engagement

Cornelius Hagenmeier
iKudu Project Coordinator 

Perspectives on Collaborative Online International Learning from an International Staff Member at Coventry University

by ikudu Blogger | Apr 10, 2021


By Dr Federica Jorio, Intercultural Engagement team, Centre for Global Engagement (CGE) – Coventry University

Coventry University is driven by and oriented towards internationalisation. My role within the Intercultural Engagement team is a good way to put into practice the genuine interest in people’s beauty and complexity and to educate myself every day through the cultures they embody, share, and un/intentionally teach.  
I work in the Centre for Global Engagement, which is the centralised department that supports physical and virtual mobility for students and staff, global programmes such as summer schools, language courses, and the extra-curricular skills development provision of the Global Leaders Programme.  
The Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) element of the provision, which we strive to embed in the student experience, is meant to offer the opportunity of virtual mobility to students from Coventry University and from partner universities all around the globe.

As doctoral researcher, I have used auto/biographical methods to share knowledge and reflections about a topic, which means that I more or less know what I want to say, but I let the process of knowing unfold as a pathway before my eyes in a process of automatic writing and free association of metaphors and images – especially because my favourite methodologies implied the use of film sequences and videos. 
Therefore, this piece of reflection that I am writing will show some auto/biographical elements and will showcase some diversions and dense passages between contents, following the links between pieces of my life that I am narrating, reflections on the complexity of culture/s and my actions as a professional in the Higher Education sector.

Premise – Where I come from
When I applied for my first job at Coventry University in 2016, one thing I was asked through the application process was my nationality and my ethnic background; I selected ‘Italy’ as country of origin, and I immediately learnt that I was ‘White – other background’ here in the UK.
This has put me in the position of rethinking my ethnic background through the eyes of my host country. First, in Italy you are never asked about your ethnicity, as only nationality is bureaucratically needed (such as declaring multiple citizenships, if any). 
This is, on the one hand, because Italy never maintained its (shameful) dream of a Fascist Empire in the Mediterranean countries and coasts – daydreaming about another Roman Empire of centuries before. On the other hand, immigration in my country is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of flows of different populations from various countries moving to Italy in different waves. 
This latter element is particularly true (embarrassingly verifiable) when one checks the Italian slang that developed in the areas where immigration was more impactful – like the region I grew up in – Lombardy. From the 80s to the present day, unfortunately, some nationalities are used in common conversations to indicate specific kinds of professions; this is because, depending on the decade in which a specific group of migrants arrived in Italy, they found jobs in a specific area – due to their expertise or because this was the only opportunity offered to them. The result of this regular association between a nationality and a job is that, even now, some people in Italy are using the country of a person to imply their profession – the nationality means the profession. But again, there is a formal use of the nationality (for paperwork, for instance) and an informal and stereotypical and racist use of it.
This is the basic expression of intercultural (in)competence and attitude that I experienced around me in Milan in the first 30 years of my life.
Apart from this external environment, I also embody the south of my country, being myself a third-generation migrant from the South; this posed some conflict in my cultural development, as I grew up in the North and, at the same time, was raised in the dialects, habits, and beliefs of the South. 
With this multi-layered national identity, I internalised a subtle experience of discrimination from the people of the North towards people from the South, regardless of all being Italians. As a third-generation migrant, I have indeed witnessed my parents’ discomfort in being children of migrants, as well as their will to keep the ‘south-ness’ within the walls of their household. In my case, after one of my grandparents died, maybe to keep his memory alive, I allowed myself to speak my family’s dialect outside the household and I described myself as ‘born in the North, raised from the South’. I was raised and educated in a Western white environment and curriculum with a focus on the history, culture, and heritage of Italy, Europe, the West, and North of the world. But again, I chose to study Ancient Greek and Latin, although no one speaks these languages, because they are the roots of my (Italian, Mediterranean, Indo-European) thinking and being. When I look at a political map of the world and zoom out from Milan, I think my focus has always remained on the South of Europe, closer to countries touched by the Mediterranean Sea.  
At the same time, my main informal education came from the media (cinema and TV) – an example of education mediated by technology, in a way. It allowed me to have new (often intercultural) encounters with the White North of the world – mainly through stories from the United States of America, but also stories about westernised characters from Japanese anime, and imported TV-show formats that reshaped the Italian television style. Still a mediated experience, though. 
I was introduced to ancient Middle East history through the mediation of Ancient Greek translation courses. From the founding of Persepolis, I got to learn about the Islamic revolution in Iran through the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, because this part was not included in the contemporary history programme taught in schools – it is too contemporary, and Italian and Western history have priority over the rest of world’s past, present - and future. 
Between my childhood and my school years, this was the version of the world I was offered and which I accessed.
This is quite a long diversion from the job application I mentioned at the beginning; however, it was necessary to give you a glimpse of the complexity of being from a geographic part of the world when this is a political definition that no longer means a lot to me, and which at the same time shaped my experiences and my opportunity to access knowledge before I knew that I should pause every assumption. 
Being lucky enough to have access to knowledge resources, I am out of excuses to be narrow-sighted ‘because nobody told me’ or ‘I did not know’ or ‘this is where I live’ and ‘this is how things go’. 

Reflection – Where I am going with my job
Going back to the job application processes, collecting data about ethnicity is a mere statistical exercise when it is not followed by any acknowledgment of diversity – not to mention sensitivity to inclusiveness. It helps employers to show that they offer equal opportunities, but it does not mean that there is genuine interest in the cultures that the employees embody. Let alone equality issues and real inclusion.
This sounds to me like the difference between being a tourist – noticing the details and culture of a place you are exploring for pleasure, for work, and for a limited time – and being a migrant who goes from ‘honeymoon’ to ‘adjustment’ in a new country. When you travel as a tourist, you compare and go back home with souvenirs and some stories about the places you have visited; when you migrate, you learn and question (yourself too, above all), comparing your experience with the new context(s). Some of your privileges are gone and you were too short-sighted to see that you had them, or too arrogant to assume they were ‘your own’ rights – now, you are the ‘other’. 
This is not the well-known epiphany moment of the white person seeing the world differently, and after an initial moment of guilt, going back to ignore or to blame the other. This is the moment when I started dismantling any monolithic definitions of myself and welcoming every new facet of the prism I wanted to be. The prism is a good metaphor because it implies that, in order to show yourself, a ray of light has to go through you – you have to be in a relationship – even to clash with this ray of light, to see your true colours. 
This experience of being a migrant (although I am still lucky and privileged) has allowed me to relate to and to be relatable for a lot of students and staff in these five years at Coventry University. I learnt to listen and allow people to choose the words they prefer to use in a sentence, I learnt to ask for synonyms, and I learnt to ask when I do not know and when I do not understand. I have learnt to always be in the position of an active learner – eager to be of help and to be more and more able to abandon my assumptions to let meaning and complexity unfold and surprise me. To let human encounters surprise me and educate me.
As a student, I had the opportunity of an abroad experience in my early thirties, but for economic and family reasons, I never had an Erasmus or study abroad experience during my undergraduate or master’s years. I wonder if going abroad for six months for study or work would have changed my life; I wonder if the Federica from the past, like those students who had the experience of being an ‘at-home’ student like me, would have benefited from a COIL experience. The older Federica would certainly encourage the younger one to get involved and test herself in something scary and unknown, reaching someone in a country and in an (educational) culture that is different from hers (ours!) and to see what happens. 
No homesickness involved, no (extra) money involved. It is a good opportunity to learn about intercultural diversity, which means – from my point of view – to become more humble and hopefully wiser, less prone to jump to conclusions, more interculturally respectful and competent. 
The interesting thing from the point of view of staff involved in such virtual experiences is that they can get the same life skills that we hope to offer the students; both professional service staff (like myself) and academic staff who are COIL project leaders, are working with a partner to develop their intercultural competence and digital expertise (and confidence?). We are all working online on a common topic – in our case, on building the relationship and the educational premises, apart from the infrastructure, to create a COIL positive experience for all the people involved. Finally, we all learn from these experiences, from unforeseen technical issues and from unchangeable constraints – be it time-zone differences or the impossibility to use software or a platform that is considered illegal in a country. 
We all learn about expectations, limits, frustration, excitement, trust, and commitment; we learn from this to be patient, to be compassionate and helpful, wherever possible. The pandemic that affected 2020 has clearly shown how little patience we sometimes have with technical issues regarding network connection, lagging video/audio, background noise, and different levels of expertise among the participants. Somehow this is a great moment for digital (personal) awareness, which can lead to digital interpersonal competence. 
If we assume that COIL is built and relies on the use of digital technology, the ‘first encounter with the other’ has an additional potential threat: technology can go wrong and affect the relationship before it even starts. So, technology is the essential key, but it is also the powerful medium that can shape the relationship – the medium is indeed the message and the possibility of delivering it. 
With this premise in mind, the human and educational experience and element of COIL is, for me, the possibility of being together in a temporary displacement to which we can give a name, a shape, a structure – we can co-build a negotiated meaning and give ourselves a purpose and a method to walk together on a (digital) path. 
A COIL experience is then a journey, with some guidelines and an online place to go back to, where unexpected is the norm, and, in some measure, what you wish for – for yourself as educator and for the students. 
COIL offers a safe enough space for an intercultural encounter, which can mimic future professional and human contexts. Instead of an individual learning experience mediated by technology, which contemporary students somehow already have or can access, COIL requires collaboration, interaction, and the development of authentic listening and communication skills, not only on the students’ side; COIL is a learning pause in which all the actors involved are allowed to not know what is going to happen, although the project leaders as professional in teaching and education can provide the script to the students. COIL is not a screenplay, it is rather a draft, a plot; COIL is the safety net for the intercultural tightrope that the world lays in front of current and future global citizens. 


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Chevon Slambee 
Chief Officer: Strategic Projects, Institutional Reporting, and Research Internationalisation
       T: +27 51 401 2501
          E: jacobscs@ufs.ac.za

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