Student Success

Your global classmate

Students in Loyola's new Virtual Dual Immersion program study alongside peers in other countries—without ever getting on a plane

By Chris Quirk

Girl sitting on bed working on a laptop.

In 2020, travel restrictions squelched study abroad ambitions for Natalie Kozak, a Loyola University Chicago junior studying marketing and international business. But when registering for fall classes she came upon a unique offering that caught her eye: a Polish literature course taught using a new format called Virtual Dual Immersion (VDI). Kozak was already fluent in Polish, as her parents are natives of the Eastern European country, and the VDI format would give Kozak a chance to study—virtually—alongside students in Poland. She quickly seized the opportunity and signed up for the course. “I already have a pretty good understanding of Polish literature,” she says, “but when I heard about the VDI exchange program, I was super excited.”


After an initial group meeting at the beginning of the semester, Kozak was paired with a student from Akademia Ignatianum in Krakow to explore questions of Polish history, immigration, war, and communism, all done over Zoom. They met on their own schedule outside of class, and, at first, their conversations centered on literature and the coursework. But soon their relationship grew, and they used their weekly sessions to catch up on a variety of topics. They discussed current events, such as how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected them, their families, and their countries. Kozak learned how her partner was coping with a second lockdown in Poland. and they shared the pain of not being able to visit family or friends. They discussed the COVID vaccine, and information from her partner led Kozak to schedule vaccination appointments for her grandparents, who still live in Poland, without ever leaving Chicago. It wasn’t the same as physically immersing herself in another culture and country, but it was the closest substitute.

A more equitable experience


Loyola students like Kozak have found that VDI offers an opportunity for a rich, international experience that can both broaden the student’s perspective and build meaningful personal connections with peers abroad. (Kozak and her Polish literature partner are still in contact, even after their class ended.) And even though it seemed like a natural solution during a pandemic when international travel wasn’t possible, the program has actually been in the works for years, long before COVID complicated study abroad options. The idea was to serve students who—for whatever reason—can’t travel to study abroad, and if things go according to plan, the program will be bringing students together in substantive ways to share ideas with students in other nations for a long time to come.


“There’s been a growing desire to offer more comprehensive internationalization to all of our students,” says Scott Hendrickson, S.J., Loyola’s associate provost for global and community engagement. The expense of studying abroad can put it out of the reach of some students, Hendrickson explains, but the limitations aren’t only financial. Family, medical, curricular, or other personal reasons can oblige students to remain closer to home, making the need for VDI a matter of equity. So Hendrickson and colleague Fraser Turner, director of global initiatives, began working on a solution that would make study abroad programs more accessible to a wider range of students.

We want to make this global learning and global engagement experience an integral part of a Loyola education.

— Fraser Turner, Loyola's director of global initiatives

Speaking your language

In addition to classes like the one Kozak took, an obvious place to test out VDI was in foreign language courses. Last spring, Farah Elhoumaidi, a sophomore majoring in health care administration and minoring in Spanish, took a second-year Spanish conversation course with lecturer Natalia Valencia and was attracted to the class because of the VDI model. “I’m someone who loves connecting with different people from all over the world,” Elhoumaidi says.


The Loyola class paired with English language students at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia. Similar to Kozak’s experience, students would first meet virtually as a group before heading to breakout rooms in pairs—one student from Loyola and one from Colombia—for intensive conversation practice. The conversations in class sometimes started slowly, recalls Elhoumaidi, but the organic nature of the meetings helped students quickly overcome obstacles. First, they would talk exclusively in Spanish for Elhoumaidi to practice, then exclusively in English for her Colombian peer to do the same. “We used a lot of hand gestures at first and looking up words,” she says. “It was definitely a different kind of interaction, but very beneficial and very rewarding.”


The VDI experience differs radically from the typical language course in several important ways. First, students are speaking the language they are studying for a much longer period of time during each class. Second, their fellow interlocutor is a native speaker of that language, so rather than a practice dialogue in class where a partner is learning with you, students are getting a one-on-one session with an ideal conversant. Third, the peer-to-peer nature of the class structure reduces the pressure on students to speak perfectly. They can feel free to make mistakes and just talk to a fellow student from another part of the world, as if they had struck up a chat at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, or a cafe in Mexico City.


“Students are rarely absent to these sessions, and a lot of them end up developing friendships and relationships outside of those sessions,” says Valencia. “Students like the nuance and the novelty of being able to engage with people who are having the same experience as they are, but in a different place in the world.” 


Mary Kenah, a first-year global studies major who was also in Valencia’s Spanish course, noticed a marked improvement in her language skills over the course of the semester. “The format forced us to get creative, and challenged us to communicate in the best way we could,” she says. “It was really cool to see how we could connect even though we live so far apart.”

While the VDI program only began in July 2020, enrollment has been brisk, according to Turner. “We had a more sizable launch than we anticipated,” he says, noting that about 225 students registered for the first iteration. They more than doubled that enrollment in the spring semester.


Hendrickson notes that Loyola has a head start, thanks to its membership in the International Association of Jesuit Universities, which comprises over 200 centers of higher education worldwide. “This partnership is one of the things that makes this work so exciting,” says Hendrickson. “Another important aspect of VDI is the concept of encounter or engagement with the other, which really speaks to Jesuit values. It’s part of our pedagogical paradigm, and it has informed what we do and the way we are growing this program.”


As the VDI initiative moves into is second year, Turner reports that they are building off the first year’s success to expand into new areas. “We want to make this global learning and global engagement experience an integral part of a Loyola education,” he says. “Virtual education is here to stay.”