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Dialogues of Civilizations back in full swing and taking students around the world

Northeastern students Emily Recchia and Julia Henning are on a documentary filmmaking Dialogue of Civilizations program in London, a welcome return to abroad programs for both students. Photo by Julia Foley

Hadeel Farhan has spent the last two years thinking about Italy.

In 2020, the third-year computer science student decided she wanted to go on Professor Peter Wiederspahn’s Dialogue of Civilizations to Italy. She was looking for something new–something different from her desk-bound computer science classes–and Wiederspahn’s month-long on-site study of Italian architecture fit the bill. Farhan applied to the program and, to her delight, got accepted.

Farhan attended the first orientation session, and she grew even more excited. She headed out for spring break with Italy’s countryside and sunbaked terracotta roofs on her mind. Then, COVID-19 hit. 

As international travel writ large ground to a halt, Northeastern canceled its study abroad and Dialogue programs before making some virtual. A few Dialogues returned in summer 2021, but not Farhan’s Italian dream trip. So, she waited. And when Farhan, who is entering her fourth and final year, saw that the Italian Dialogue would be returning this summer she leapt at her last chance to go to Italy.

“I didn’t let myself get excited because I was concerned about the fact that it could have gotten canceled last minute,” Farhan said. “I was really happy that I actually made it to Italy.”

Northeastern’s campuses have been open and fully operational for almost two years, and professors and students are now also embracing the opportunity to venture outside the country. 

The university offers experimental leaving programs, including co-ops and Dialogues, in 146 countries and on all continents. The Dialogues bring students to over 75 countries, including Spain, Israel, Switzerland, Argentina and Hungry, just to name a few.

While there’s been plenty of excitement, many programs have had to change in response to the pandemic and its challenges.

Farhan’s troubles didn’t end when she landed in Venice: She and a small group of students tested positive for COVID-19 within one-week of the program’s start. Farhan took the test result–and the ensuing quarantine period–in stride.

“I kind of think that I was grateful to be on the Dialogue in the first place, and I was just like, ‘Oh, this is a little blip,’” Farhan said. “I thought that I would rather have gotten COVID and was still in Italy than not gone on the Dialogue at all.”

For Wiederspahn, who led the architecture and urbanism Dialogue to Italy for three summers prior to the pandemic, these challenges required a new level of adaptability and flexibility when approaching the program.

“We included those students on our walks through Zoom, through iPhone meetings and taking pictures and letting them draw in their quarantine space, which was a luxury in Florence,” Wiederspahn said. “We were bringing them gelato, and they learned very quickly how to order food.”

After a seven-day quarantine, Farhan and her fellow students all tested negative and rejoined the in-person excursions throughout Italy.

Wiederspahn has made very few changes to his Dialogue, but that’s not the case for every professor.

Liza Weinstein, associate professor of sociology and anthropology and chair of the department, began planning her Dialogue to India in 2021. She previously ran a Dialogue to South Africa for three years, and the new program was designed as a way to foster peer-to-peer interactions between Northeastern Dialogue students and students in local universities, in this case Ashoka University, located just outside Delhi. 

When it became clear Weinstein wouldn’t be able to lead the program in 2021 due to the pandemic, she integrated some of the peer-to-peer elements into her class, bringing Ashoka students into her classroom remotely. Weinstein found the experience “affirming” and ultimately beneficial to the program she will lead later this summer.

“It was advantageous, and I think I now have a better sense of what kinds of projects it would make sense for the students to do,” Weinstein said. “I think it would have been a lot more trial and error if we went to Ashoka without having this year of virtual engagements. Plus, I’ve had the additional year to build relationships with colleagues at Ashoka and to understand the Ashoka students better and to prepare more fully. … I feel like we’re going in further ahead than we would have been.”

Unlike Farhan, attending a Dialogue during the pandemic has been smooth sailing for Julia Henning.

A first-year journalism and political science student, Henning is currently in

Julia Henning, a a first-year journalism and political science student, is working on a sports documentary on her Dialogue of Civilizations programs. Photo by Julia Foley

London on an English culture and documentary filmmaking Dialogue with Michelle Carr, senior lecturer of communication studies. Henning said there have been no pandemic-related disruptions to her Dialogue.

“It’s fun to just be able to jump back into that whole [way] of meeting people on public transportation … and just talking to a bunch of people, going out to all the restaurants,” Henning said.

Henning and Farhan have had very different adventures, but after two years of a pandemic where anything and everything was up in the air, they share a gratitude for their Dialogue experiences.

“I feel like I’m taking advantage of things more,” Farhan said. “During quarantine I said I wasn’t going to be indoors unless I needed to sleep. I haven’t really stuck to that 100%, but I have spent more time outside, so I’m happy with that.”

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