Student Reflections

Preparing for an Extensive Virtual Study Abroad Program

Emerson Johnston
July 7, 2021
a castle being projected out of a phone

When the Global Experience Office announced this summer’s list of Dialogue of Civilization programs, I was in desperate search of a program that would fit into my degree plan. I had just added History, Culture, and Law (HCL) as a new major, and if I couldn’t find a program that included a course that I was already required to take for it, my dreams of studying abroad while at Northeastern would’ve been crushed. 

After a few minutes of scrolling through a seemingly endless list of opportunities that sounded amazing but didn’t bear much relevance to my majors, I stumbled across what can only be described as the perfect program for my degree: a twin Dialogue entitled “Honors Human Rights Communications in Germany”. The program metaphorically and literally followed the journey from the formative grounds of European fascism and Nazi propaganda and rhetoric, to modern reasoning and Human Rights and I could think of no better program for an aspiring foreign service worker. Moreover, to my great delight, because it was a one-of-a-kind “twin” program, it didn’t just include one course that fit my major, but four! In just under eight weeks, we would visit Berlin (the peak of Nazi rhetoric), the Dachau concentration camp (the devastating results of the Nazi reign), Nuremberg (the site of Leni Riefenstahl’s greatest work and the Nuremberg trials), Strasbourg (European Court of Human Rights), and more, all with the aim of better understanding the foundations of human rights law and reasoning. We were to visit five countries in total and as someone who had yet to leave the contiguous United States, I could not have been more excited to submit my application.  

I was accepted into the program in early February and went straight to work on making preparations; most notably, I had to get a passport. While I won’t bore you with the details, what should’ve taken no more than an hour to complete ended up being a three-week debacle because I had forgotten to change my residency status to reflect my time in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, by mid-March, I was armed with a newly printed passport and ready to head off to Germany in June. 

Much to my dismay, my preparations for the Dialogue (including my tumultuous passport experience) proved futile; on April 24, 2021, the Department of State issued a level 3 travel warning on travel to Germany rendering an in-person version of the program impossible. Two days later, I received the word that my program had moved online. 

Immediately, my professor assured us that we’d still have a fruitful experience and held multiple meetings preparing us for what a virtual program would look like. While we were all aware of the possibility of the program moving online when we applied, most of my peers dropped the program anyway for one reason or another. For me, I wasn’t dissuaded by an online program but to be honest, the amount of work asked of us was more than daunting. For context, the nature of taking sixteen credits worth of classes in just under seven weeks doesn’t really lend itself well to a “relaxed” classroom environment. Our syllabus, both now, online and before, includes multiple long-form papers, numerous debates and moot court assignments, and weekly reflections and speaking tasks. When the course moved online, it also included almost 30 hours a week of synchronous Zoom instruction which some students in timezones outside of Eastern Standard simply couldn’t commit to. I, however, would be in Boston all summer, was really banking on the four classes counting towards my HCL major, and have never been known to turn down a challenge. Since then, I’ve switched my focus to preparing for what will most certainly be the most interesting and demanding period in my undergraduate experience. 

Preparing for a virtual Dialogue like this one has proved to be quite a challenge. The time commitment alone is something that initially gave me pause, as I would also have to somehow fit in my work hours. Because we were no longer going in-person to Germany, I couldn’t afford to take two months off of work like I planned because I have to pay for rent back here in Boston. Luckily, I have a very understanding employer that not only knows about my participation in the program, but encourages it. She and I have worked over the past few weeks to outline how I’ll keep up with my responsibilities for the duration of the program and I am forever grateful for her and the company’s flexibility. That said, working full-time and going to class full-time is daunting and a part of me is still worried about burnout. To combat this, I’ve tried to optimize my time during the weeks as best as possible so I can use the weekends and holidays as chances to recharge. 

Luckily, because my professor was generous enough to give us our project assignments far in advance of the program’s start date, my partners and I have had ample time to get a head start on our assignments. Because I’m hoping to have as much time to myself as I can working the equivalent of two full time positions, having the month of June to front-load most of the initial research was invaluable and even now, three days before the program officially begins, I have most of my final paper drafted. It also helps that the content is immensely fascinating. Nowhere else would i be able to learn as much about human rights laws and the formation of documents I’ve been lucky enough to work with directly when I co-oped at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations and as an ROTC cadet and reserve soldier in the U.S. Army. All of this, coupled with the fact that I get to do it all with a great friend of mine, has made this entire experience far less daunting than I initially expected.