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New Year, New Virtual Exchange, Same Purpose

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

For Josh and I, making this virtual exchange happen has always been about creating an inclusive opportunity for students from all corners of the world—from all walks of life—to learn from and about one another.

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
Jupapina's English Club

Why virtual exchange?

The idea of connecting classrooms across the globe first took hold when Josh and I left Vietnam, almost two years ago. As we lapped our way through northern Thailand and back to Nepal, this idea quickly began sprouting new life. And by the summer of 2018, our plans for facilitating a virtual exchange between students in the U.S. and South America was full-on flourishing.

From there, it would be another year’s worth of planning and saving; partnering with two organizations whose values aligned with our own; juggling volunteer responsibilities for both; and of course, hopping on a plane bound for Bolivia.

All of this effort just for one, 45-minute video call… Why?

For Josh and I, making this virtual exchange happen has always been about creating an inclusive opportunity for students from all corners of the world—from all walks of life—to learn from and about one another.

With the acceleration of technology and modernization, we are now living in an increasingly globalized world, with no plans for slowing down in sight. And with this acceleration, we have also witnessed the dramatic rise of populism and nations roiled with the challenges of global migration, deeply divided.

Hence, it has become crucial, now more than ever, that we are equipping our future generations to become open, active, engaged, and empathetic players on the world stage.

It’s about taking advantage of technology to tear down geographic and social barriers, as we return to a place of shared values and understanding, together.

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
English Club prep before the call

Challenges along the way

We always knew that facilitating a video call from rural Bolivia would bear its own set of challenges.

There would be the issue of trying to lock-down a television for the English Club to use after school; relying on our phones and Jupapina’s shaky 4G network to act as routers; making sure we had enough pre-paid phone credit; and last but certainly not least, the subtle art of scheduling.

Fortunately, we had Susanna—one of the most supportive, forward-thinking, open, and determined mothers I’ve ever met—head of the Jupapina Parents’ Association, in our corner. We also had Mino, the volunteer coordinator at Up Close Bolivia (UCB); Emma, UCB’s founder; Tim, the director of the traveler program at Reach the World (RTW); and Colin, RTW’s senior program manager, all pulling for us.

With their help, we managed to secure a T.V., charged up our phones, and pinned down a day and time that could work for everyone. On Friday, November 8, 2019— the same day that Emma and her dad would be arriving from England—from 1:15 p.m.-2:00 p.m., we would be connecting our English Club students in Jupapina with an eighth grade Spanish Class at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG) in New York.

(Of course, we were accustomed to “Bolivian time” by this point and agreed to gather our English Club students a full 45 minutes before the call was scheduled to start.)

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
English Club students explore similarities and differences between Bolivia and the U.S.

Unrest in Bolivia

We had Bolivia’s political climate on our radar, well before we even left the States, and there it would stay for months to come. We knew that the Presidential elections were being held on October 20, and that they were bound to bring a slew of contention and uncertainties in their wake.

But the truth is, we could have never anticipated what these elections were going to mean for the country. We could have never known that Friday, November 8 would be the last time we would see most, if not all, of our English Club students. We could have also never known that just three days later, we would be packing up shop and leaving Jupapina behind, nor that we would be in an entirely different country before the week’s end.

Josh and I covered the political upheaval and our sudden departure from Bolivia in great detail for Reach the World. If you’re curious to learn more, you can visit some of those entries here:

But for now, let’s just say that while it was incredibly difficult for us to leave the country in such a sudden and unexpected way, we will be forever grateful for the opportunity we had to connect our students in Jupapina with the girls in New York City. Much the same, we will be forever indebted to Susanna, Emma, Mino, Colin, and Tim for their unwavering support. Making this exchange happen, in the midst of so much turmoil and uncertainty, was truly a collective and collaborative effort—every step of the way.

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
Never before have I witnessed two groups of students so open, so warm, and so fully engaged with one another.

The magic of exchange

We imagined students on both sides of the call would be nervous (not unlike us). We thought they might have trouble coming up with questions for one another; that maybe they would grow bored and restless half-way through the session.

We thought our English Club students might be scared to speak in English, and that the BGLIG students would be shy to speak in Spanish. We imagined that we would need to do a lot of translating, and that there was no way the Q&A session would last for a full 45 minutes.

We thought, and we thought.

We prepared, and we over-prepared.

The day before the call, we spent an entire lesson with our English Club students talking about New York City, brainstorming questions we could ask the students who lived there, and assigning homework for our English Club’ers to come up with three more questions on their own.

That night, Josh and I prepared additional talking points to fill time and planned to deliver at least one or two minutes worth of closing remarks.

And on the day of the call, we tried our best to harness the nerves and anxiety, as we led the infamous “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” icebreaker.

We had Josh, Emma, and another Jupapina teacher ready to monitor behavior in the back of the class, while Angélica and I stayed up front to coach and translate.

But as it turns out, we were wrong—about a lot of things.

Sure, the nerves came and went for all of us, in different ways and at different times. Yet we found our six, seven, and eight-year-old English Club students speaking with such great confidence and clarity—marching up to the computer screen, introducing themselves in English, and then going on to posit their questions for the BGLIG students in Spanish.

A few minutes later, it became clear how much of an impact our small-but-mighty first and second graders were having on these eighth graders in NYC. Soon, the girls at the BGLIG began modeling their behavior—striding up to the camera with confidence, introducing themselves in Spanish, and then going on to ask their questions in English.

And just like that, the true work of exchange began.

Students on both sides of the call began encouraging one another to be quiet so they could hear the responses from the other side. They even began nudging their peers to go up to the monitor and ask questions.

Soon, we had Bolivian students (and Angélica) demonstrating dance moves, while the girls in New York playfully reciprocated. We had older English Club students explaining responses from the BGLIG to younger students and native Spanish speakers in the Bronx using more Spanish so that students in Jupapina could better understand.

We overheard the BGLIG girls talking about “how cute” our youngest English Club’ers were, while our teenage boys in Jupapina commented on “how beautiful” the girls in NYC were.

Never before have I witnessed two groups of such diverse students so open, so warm, and so fully engaged with one another. And the magic of it all went on for every bit of 45 minutes.

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
The magic of exchange in-action

Somos una comunidad

We went into this exchange hoping our students would discover that we have more similarities as humans, than we do differences as Americans and Bolivians. A quick show of hands after the call, however, revealed that our English Club students were split on the issue: about 50 percent believing we had more differences and the other 50 percent seeing more similarities.

I guess, as it turns out, 45 minutes isn’t exactly long enough to immerse oneself in the depths of humanity. But the truth is, what we got with this exchange was so much more potent than likenesses and discrepancies.

We got to experience the magic of reciprocity at its finest—witnessing our students, our next generation of global change-makers, gently nudging each other forward; encouraging each other to be more confident, more open, and more engaged, on both sides of the call.

After the call was over, Susanna brought in celebratory snacks and juice for all of the English Club students. Then, as was customary, we distributed our goodbye high-fives and stickers.

Once the students had left, we thanked Susanna, Mino, and Angélica for all of their help and support along the way. We truly couldn’t have done it without them, we said.

"Somos una comunidad (We are a community),” Susanna replied. “Los estudiantes recordarán esto por siempre (The students will remember this forever),” she added.

And we will too.

Learn2Link L2L Bolivia Exchange
Somos una comunidad.

New year, new virtual exchange, same purpose

For the next few weeks, Josh and I will be hanging out in Argentina before we head south to Patagonia, where we will enjoy a nice “holiday break” and do a bit of trekking with some friends from back home.

In early March, we will move on to Peru, in order to volunteer as ESL teachers with Helping Overcome Obstacles Peru (HOOP) and to pick back up with the spring term of Reach the World. Fingers crossed, we will be facilitating a second virtual exchange between HOOPsters in Arequipa and a new RTW classroom in the States.*

Then, the grand plan is for us to get back to Vietnam, as relatively quickly as possible. We’re ready to put down some roots and settle in for the long haul, as we move forward with building Learn2Link, our educational nonprofit organization. And we can think of no better place in the world for us to be than back in Da Nang.

Undeniably so, our travels and experiences over this next year (and beyond) are going to shape the course of our work with Learn2Link. But for now, we’re simply going to follow our students’ lead—heading into all of it with less expectations and more open minds and hearts.

For no matter where this journey takes us, our purpose remains the same: for us, it will always be about coming back to a place of shared values and understanding; it will always be about learning to embrace our pluralities, so that together, we can make the world a better, more open place.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and safe New Year ahead.

Learn2Link U.S. Bolivia Exchange
No matter where this journey takes us, our purpose remains the same.

*This post was originally written and published in January 2020. Due to the sudden onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Josh and I were evacuated from Arequipa in late March 2020. Sadly, we were unable to facilitate the second virtual exchange we had planned for students in Peru and in the U.S.

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