Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities around the world found ways to make studying away more accessible to students, particularly through virtual platforms and trips into their local communities. A few programs are discussed in more detail below, including their goals, the barriers to studying abroad these programs tackled, and how these programs could be even more inclusive.

Virtual Study Abroad in the Classroom

In Spring 2013, two researchers from Middle Tennessee State University in the United States of America and the University of Pecs in Hungary co-taught a virtual international business course (Lipinski 2014). Both professors wanted to go beyond a traditional lecture-style class experience and included opportunities for students to share their individual stories and collective cultures. The faculty separated their students into small groups to work on projects; when given opportunities to discuss cultural differences and similarities, both professors saw their students engaged more with the material and with each other than in other classes they taught. The two professors made increasing intercultural competency part of their course. By including opportunities during class for students in the US and Hungary to spend time with each other, this experience did not require additional time outside of class or extra travel expenses.

However, because the professors assigned students to collaborate in class discussions and projects, there was an assumption that all students in this class could not only speak, process, and understand English or Hungarian, but that no students had a disability that prevented them from participating in the first place (for example, deafness or hard-of-hearing, blindness, muteness, etc.). In the future, similar classes could provide subtitle capabilities, interpreters, or interpreting software to make the experience more accessible.

Local Exploration

In her first-year class at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, Dr. Laura Grube wanted to help students understand Beloit’s institutional mission and values, the history and economic climate of the city of Beloit, and the basics of economics (Grube 2021). Grube also wanted her first-year students to develop their written and verbal communication skills. She used Adam Smith’s economic philosophies as a backbone for her assignments and lectures, coupled with excursions into the Beloit community to visit local businesses.

When she asked her students if her course prepared them to be successful Beloit community members, they had generally positive feedback in response. Some students specifically said they learned more about the campus and the surrounding community as a result of the class. Students gained an understanding of a new environment with different rules and expectations, much like students would gain on a traditional study-away trip. Grube’s students were able to have this positive experience because Beloit built the first-year initiative program into their core curriculum, meaning students were experiencing multiple high-impact practices (HIPs) at once, a factor that leads to learning success as Vanessa Truelove explores in “High Impact Practices Abroad: The Key to Enriching Study Away Programs.” This experience does not require additional funds or expenses on part of the students, decreasing barriers to study away programs.

While this approach to a local study-away experience breaks down barriers for students who would otherwise not be able to afford a farther trip, faculty teaching a class like Grube’s at Beloit College can still find ways to incorporate considerations for physical barriers, as well. For example, there could be small adjustments to the tours to be more inclusive of mobility differences and sensory issues, although there may even be limitations to what those changes could be.

Study Away Intensive Seminar

Inspired by Milton and Rose Friedman, the Free to Choose Network founded the Capitaf Immersive Study Program in the Friedman’s original property in Vermont (Thomas and Staley 2021). The Friedmans inspired Free to Choose’s mission: finding creative ways to engage people in unique projects and discussions. The program started hosting colloquiums in 2017, focusing on promoting student-led discussions and challenging perspectives throughout five days of intensive study and excursions into the Dartmouth community.

Generally, the sixty-three students who participated in the program between 2017-2020 saw this experience as transformative and said that it shaped their worldviews in ways they could barely imagine before. Students enjoyed being away from their home campuses and thought this setting helped keep distractions out of their work. Like most short-term study-away experiences, there are fewer constraints for students to juggle compared to long-term experiences, including excessive expenses, taking time away from a job or schoolwork, or even a language barrier. The program is not limited to a classroom setting, allowing for more movement and creativity in what Thomas and Staley called an “intellectually ‘safe’” environment—a space where students felt safe sharing their opinions without fearing their peers’ judgements.

Unfortunately, this program is exclusive and still costs thousands of dollars for each student to attend. While some universities are able and are willing to fully fund their students’ experiences with Capitaf, some universities want their students to have “some skin in the game,” so to speak—this is supposed to encourage students to actually participate and “get their money’s worth” out of the program.

However, not all students have the time to travel or take time off for several days, especially for students with part-time or full-time jobs, dependents living with them, or personal medical problems or challenges on top of schoolwork. Additionally, many universities do not offer academic credit for participating in a Capitaf colloquium; even if a student could afford travel expenses and time away from a job and schoolwork, the incentive to attend is solely on the student.


In this blog post, we have looked at three different ways students were able to build on intercultural competency and empathy with fewer barriers. Thinking about how COVID-19 radically changed how colleges and universities operated, we know studying abroad in the traditional way became much more difficult. These examples show that it is possible for students to build on intercultural competency and empathy without spending a year abroad or spending tens of thousands of dollars on travel expenses. While the alternatives are not perfect, these are more equitable options for students who may otherwise be unable to participate in the same way as their other classmates. Alternatives to studying abroad are the future. Higher education as a whole needs to invest in these opportunities so more students may benefit from these experiences.

Follow along in this week’s 60-Second SoTL podcast episode (releasing Thursday) to learn more about ways the COVID-19 pandemic further pushed study away programs towards innovative and creative measures to meet students’ needs.


Grube, Laura. 2021 “Exploring Your Own Local Economy Using Adam Smith.” In Off-Campus Study, Study Abroad, and Study Away in Economics: Leaving the Blackboard Behind, edited by Joshua Hall and Kim Holder, 1-17. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-73831-0

Lipinski, John. 2014. “Virtual Study Abroad: A Case Study.” Atlantic Marketing Journal Atlantic Marketing Journal 3 (3): 102–13.

Thomas, Signe, and Samuel R. Staley. 2021 “Off-Campus Colloquia as Immersive Study and Active Learning: Capitaf, Milton and Rose Friedman’s Home.” In Off-Campus Study, Study Abroad, and Study Away in Economics: Leaving the Blackboard Behind, edited by Joshua Hall and Kim Holder, 33-51. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-73831-0

Elana Gutmann (she/her) is a member of the Class of 2024 cohort in Elon University’s Masters of Higher Education program. She currently works as the Graduate Apprentice at Elon University’s Office of Student Conduct.

How to Cite This Post

Gutmann, Elana. 2023. “Learning from the Past: Alternative Ways to Build Intercultural Competency.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 21, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/learning-from-the-past.