By the end of March, colleges and universities across the country, including NYU, canceled in-person classes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Campuses shut down. Students returned home. And Zoom calls became the new norm. But what about the students studying at NYU academic centers abroad? How did their professors keep them engaged with the cultures they left behind?
In this special COVID-19 issue of NYU Global Notebook, an online magazine produced by NYU’s Office of Global Programs, you’ll find stories on how the NYU community around the world learned to adapt to this new way of life.
NYU Students Reflect on Their Experiences With NYU Go Local
Madrid Stories: Documenting Life During COVID-19
A location-based course moves to an online format
In early March 2020, students taking the documentary filmmaking course Madrid Stories had just begun their film projects when they were required to leave the city abruptly due to Covid-19. Taught by Emmy-winning filmmakers Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo, the course requires students to explore the city in search of diverse perspectives and find compelling stories that question preconceived notions of Madrid and Spain.
Professors Bahar and Carracedo wondered if they should adapt the curriculum to focus on analysis of documentaries or stay true to the film production format. But students were enthusiastic to continue creating their own films. Some even planned to use it as an outlet for making sense of the changes around them due to the pandemic.
Claudia Picado’s film, Meires en Cuerentena, allowed the Steinhardt senior to process her experience by creating a film that represented her family and chronicled how they came together during quarantine. She says, “I first started this film as the lockdown in Spain began. I envisioned it as a serious, meditative reflection on life in isolation. As time went on I began to realize I was in a uniquely privileged position. I was surrounded by family in Galicia, one of the most beautiful areas of Spain. While millions were confined to tiny apartments, unable to set foot outside, I was surrounded by lush greenery and a one-of-a-kind view. This film highlights the many different forms of beauty around me: nature, family, memories, and hope. I’m sharing not only my quarantine experience, but a bit of my family history, and the things that brought me joy during these uncertain times.”
A visiting student from Swarthmore college, Colin Donahue created In an Instant, a fast-moving film montage that features idyllic scenes of European life. He says, “It’s a portrait of travel to Rome and Paris and all of the things you imagine global students doing.” Donahue explained that when he first returned to the US, he spent two weeks of quarantine in his childhood bedroom reflecting on his past experiences and feeling grateful for the health and safety of his family. He says after looking back at the footage, he knew he wanted to use this project as an opportunity to not only remember his time in Spain but to document how he experienced this crisis.
Tisch student and Chicago native Jack Seibert found pursuing a creative project during this time to be incredibly beneficial to his future career in theater or film. He said that he found tools to help him recognize when he felt motivated or not, and how to encourage himself to keep working or take a break. “The artistic process always encounters unforeseen bumps in the road and it is our job to develop innovative solutions to those problems,” he explained. His film, titled Thank You - The Management, captures the spectrum of emotions Jack felt during isolation in the basement of his family home. He says, “This film was originally intended to be and still remains an exploration of my relationship to my basement. However, change and growth remain relative and inevitable.”
While students had little in terms of production equipment or team they did have iPhones and family. They scavenged available resources and learned new digital tools to create a final product within two weeks. “They had to reimagine their lives, the course, and the project,” explained Professor Carracedo. “Their lives took a turn, but in the process of doing so, the class served as a mirror on themselves, and a mirror into themselves. The process of making their films was reflective of where they were in the quarantine.”
Professors Bahar and Carracedo taught students new editing programs through Zoom screen share demonstrations and used Zoom breakout rooms for small groups of students to view each other’s work and give critical feedback, which is essential to finalizing a film. “The difference between good and great is the last push of the editing and polishing,” said Bahar.
“Madrid Stories, rooted as it is in Madrid, was the most difficult course to adapt to an online format,” said Jim Fernandez, director of NYU Madrid and professor of Spanish Literature and Culture. “Each of the thirteen films, produced in quarantine, captures the strange rhythms of confinement, and tells a story about the impossibility of returning home. They did an amazing job.”
Preparing for a TV writing career during COVID-19
How one student found her place at NYU Los Angeles
Last year COVID-19 sparked a swift move from in-person to online learning across the country. Despite the change in the learning environment, aspiring TV writer Brenah Johnson (Gallatin ‘21) proceeded with her plans to study at NYU’s global campus in Los Angeles. In fact, even though the program was virtual, Brenah actually opted to relocate from her hometown of Chicago, Illinois. “I wanted to experience and explore the city on my own, so I took the liberty of moving to LA temporarily,” she says. “Plus, most of the film industry is based in LA—you’re just not going to get a full view of what the industry is like in New York City or hear about everything that goes on in Hollywood, so I kind of wanted to experience what that was like.”
In addition to her film and TV focused course load at NYU Los Angeles—which featured a movie marketing class, producing class, and TV writing class—Brenah also applied for a remote internship with Grandview Automatik, a company that focuses on equal parts talent management (Grandview) and equal parts TV/film production (Automatik). “It’s kind of like a conglomerate in a sense,” says Brenah. “The two sides work together in tandem and fall under the same umbrella.”
During each week of her internship, Brenah completed three main tasks. She read and annotated TV and film scripts, compiled industry news reports, and developed a show concept that she would later pitch to Grandview Automatik employees.
“All of the interns were assigned an ongoing project where we were asked to pitch an idea for a show,” says Brenah. “We could develop an original idea or pull inspiration from a book or podcast or something else. I drew inspiration from a podcast called Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel. She’s a therapist and a relationship expert, so each episode focuses on a different couple. I thought about changing all of those podcast episodes into an anthology TV series. At the end of the internship, we all pitched our ideas to a panel of employees from Grandview Automatik.”
Overall, Brenah says she left Grandview Automatik with a more well-rounded understanding of the film industry. “Before NYU Los Angeles, I felt like I just didn’t know how the business, management, and agency sides of the industry all worked together and communicated with each other,” says Brenah. “But when I was interning at Grandview Automatik, I felt like I got answers to all of my questions. Even though the entire internship was remote and I couldn’t go into the office, I still had a great time.”
So what’s next for Brenah? After graduation, she’ll be moving to LA permanently to pursue a career in TV writing.
“Being in LA and being part of NYU Los Angeles, I felt like there were a lot of opportunities for the career path I wanted to take,” says Brenah. “LA is a fitting place for me. I think I’d love to start my career as an assistant at an agency and then work on my writing at the same time to kind of build that career slowly.”
Using Film as a Medium for Learning
Reflecting on the pandemic
A conversation with three NYU Global site directors
Last fall during International Education Week (IEW), NYU hosted a virtual event called Adapting During the Pandemic. For this event, participants gathered via Zoom to learn how three NYU Global site directors—Dr. Anna-Kazumi Stahl (NYU Buenos Aires), Catherine Robson (NYU London), and Chiké Frankie Edozien (NYU Accra)—recreated and re-envisioned their programs in the wake of COVID-19.
Throughout the event, each global site director reflected on a wide range of topics including: the transition from in-person to online learning, the newfound e-internship experience, the classes that have particularly thrived in the new online format, the impact of technology on the student experience, and much more. Overall, the site directors focused heavily on the silver linings—the successes and victories they witnessed and achieved throughout the pandemic. “In the Zoom world, everybody’s Rolodex is wide open,” said Catherine—a sentiment was revisited several times by each of the global site directors.
Below are snippets from the larger, more full-fledged conversation.
What are some of the biggest challenges or key takeaways that come to mind when you reflect on the pandemic?
“We were the very last NYU site to close, so we continued in-person teaching for as long as we could. We saw what was happening to our colleagues at other sites, though, so we began to prepare. During spring break, we trained all of our faculty members to be very conversant with Zoom and made sure that every single faculty member had access to the internet at their homes. I was most proud of my faculty and the team in Accra because we really just jumped into it and made sure that there wouldn’t be even one tiny little gap in our students’ education.” – Chiké Frankie Edozien (NYU Accra)
“In the Spring, we usually have 500 students but now we have just 54 with Go Local. For us, it’s been amazing to have that intimate experience. We’ve been able to do one-to-one advising. We’ve been able to do very small scale activities. And that has really changed the texture of relations. Of course we’re looking forward to the day when we have many many people again, but we are taking things away from this time that we can keep in our structures moving forward.” – Catherine Robson (NYU London)
What are some classes that have been particularly successful after transitioning from in-person to virtual?
“After the initial shock of the pandemic, there was this galvanizing moment where we realized how creative we could be. The professor for our Interamerican Relations course has this incredible network from his time working at a major social media company, as well as his time working in government offices in addition to his work as an academic. He blew the door wide open. His students had the opportunity to speak with current and former diplomats from different countries in Latin America. There is a level of experiential vigor that has been injected into classes like this one that were already working really well before the pandemic. Zoom has really made a lot more one-to-one, smaller scale dialogues possible.” – Dr. Anna-Kazumi Stahl (NYU Buenos Aires)
How has technology impacted the student experience during the pandemic?
“The technology has allowed us to be part of our students’ lives even after they’ve left us. Here in Accra, our student life team worked hard to create a community for our students. Whether it was sharing information through newsletters or having a movie screening or even just making sure they were invited to anything we were livestreaming. Once you’re an NYU Accra person, you’re with us for life. One of the values of going away to get a proper international education is that you get an adventure. The trajectory of my career changed for the better once I went abroad. So for those people who came to be with us and had to leave, and can’t wait to get back – they’re still a part of what we’re doing through technology.” - Chiké Frankie Edozien (NYU Accra)
What is the internship experience like in a fully remote setting?
“At NYU Accra, internships and community service are a big part of the student experience. Now since internships are remote, we take more responsibility to know exactly what our students are doing with their time. It’s vital for us to know that people who are studying with us are getting the most enriching experience. The internship partnerships that we have are responsible, ready, and capable of providing e-internships. But our ultimate goal is to get back to a place where someone can look over a student’s shoulder and actually teach them in-person rather than from a remote setting. Because that whole internship and community experience aspect is so vital to being in a place where you feel like a fish out of water.” - Chiké Frankie Edozien (NYU Accra)
“The relationships between our site and internship organizations really came into full view during the pandemic. We have a stable network of organizations that we work with to offer internships across all disciplines and areas of focus. The pandemic really pushed us to think about, ‘What is this internship for? What is the student really learning? What contribution are they making?’ The ability to adapt these internships is incredible. It took a lot of talent and creativity, but it also revealed this incredible focus on what is achieved. These internships are not fetching coffee. They are really making contributions to organizations that need them. In Argentina, having an NYU student with all of this rich background and acumen, it is a value.” – Dr. Anna-Kazumi Stahl (NYU Buenos Aires)
Studying abroad at NYU Prague
Meet Alumnus Jackson Samaya: The Youngest Member of the Hawaii House of Representatives
Jackson Saymaya made a number of smart choices during his undergraduate career that led to his recent election win in Hawaii. Early at NYU Shanghai he focused on politics and international relations as a Global China Studies major. This laid a strong foundation to study for a semester at NYU Washington, D.C., where he took classes at night while interning with Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz as part of NYU’s Global Leadership Scholarship Program.
The internship gave him unparalleled real-life experience. Along with three other student interns, he organized communications, attended Congressional briefings, and wrote memos for legislative aides. They were required to give tours of the capitol to visiting constituents, which gave Jackson an opportunity to really learn the history of the building. “The internship brought to life certain aspects of US politics that were quite abstract to me, “ he describes.
This internship on capitol hill also inspired him to run for student government when he returned to NYU Shanghai for his senior year. He was elected director of the Student Organization Committee, where he received a crash course in management and budgeting that proved to be priceless later on. “Running my own team and managing hundreds of students and a large budget was invaluable for my development as a leader,” he credits.
At NYU DC, he met politically engaged students, who like him, focused on American politics—something he didn't see too often at NYU Shanghai. In DC, he collaborated on a team project that addressed neighborhood houselessness for a course called Globalizing Social Activism: Sustainable Development in Urban Areas. The team conducted hands-on outreach with houseless members of the DC community. “We’d offer coffee and listen to their stories,” he recalls, explaining that he’s always been drawn to this type of work. When he returned to Hawaii after graduation, he continued to support outreach services for the houseless community in Honolulu, specifically in his hometown of St. Louis Heights. At the same time, he learned that his district’s house representative was running for city council. That would leave the seat open for the first time in 43 years. It felt like a sign.
Within days, Jackson energetically launched his grassroots campaign right before the pandemic hit. “Campaigning is about how many doors you can knock on and how many hours you can stand in the sun waving at cars. And this is especially true for a 22-year-old recent college graduate with no name recognition,” he explains. His main goals now include supporting Hawaii’s recovery from COVID-19, addressing houselessness, and strengthening public education. “It’s really exciting to think about how I can make a difference in the community that I was born and raised in,” he says. “In the end, I love Hawaii. I love the people here, and I wanted to serve.”
While many professors transitioned their courses to the online world quite easily, other professors like NYU London’s Benedict O’Looney had to adapt and re-create portions of their curriculum to accommodate the unprecedented times. When altering the syllabus for his course called Seeing London’s Architecture, O’Looney encouraged his students to shift their perspective. Instead of limiting their focus to London, O’Looney zoomed out to include the entire world.
Acclimating to the Times
At the start of the semester, Professor O’Looney designed his course to fulfill three main objectives: to teach students about London’s architecture, to show students how to sketch and maintain a travel notebook, and to teach students how to “read” a town or city. As the semester progressed, and as students returned home in the wake of COVID-19, O’Looney expanded the scope of his class to keep the material relevant.
“After our adventures in London at the beginning of the semester, I wanted students to celebrate their own hometowns and local architecture,” says O’Looney. “For the final class session, we had a lovely ‘virtual’ tour of the world where we looked at some of the amazing buildings, drawings, and research projects students created for their final projects. These final projects were a fine collection of written and graphic studies of international architecture right from students’ hometowns, which included places like Moscow, Kiev, Jaipur, Shanghai, Boston, and California.”
Ellen Ying, a Social Science major at NYU Shanghai, appreciated O’Looney’s ability to quickly and effectively readjust the vision of his course. “It was a pity that we didn’t have the opportunity to continue exploring London outdoors,” says Ellen, “but Professor O’Looney is such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic architect that he did a great job introducing us to the architecture around the world instead.”
An Unexpectedly Fruitful Outcome
Even though she couldn’t complete her architecture course in London, Ellen says she still felt immensely connected to her classwork—especially her final project—and even more so connected to her peers during this time. Ultimately, she credits Professor O’Looney for the way he reimagined his curriculum on the fly.
“Instead of doing a case study on a piece of architecture in London for our final project, we did one on a piece of local architecture, wherever we were,” says Ellen. “I personally liked it very much because I’m more connected to the architecture here in Shanghai, which gave me a lot of motivation to dive into the project and do it well. It also allowed me to see the architecture of where my classmates live.
“Ultimately, this turned out to be an unexpectedly fruitful outcome, so many thanks to Professor O’Looney for making this change.”
Some students kept interning remotely after their study away cities were shut down in response to the pandemic. Even though their experiences changed from their initial expectations, they still made meaningful contributions and connections. Two NYU students from different home campuses give their account of leaving their host cities and taking their studies, and internships, virtual.
Philosophy Major Interns in DC from Her Home in South Korea
In Washington, DC, students often intern on the Hill, for nonprofits and think tanks, among other organizations. NYU Abu Dhabi student Gayoung Lee worked as a research and editorial intern at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she helped manage their public policy blog and prepare her boss’ podcast, Political Economy. “AEI switched over to remote work quite early in the pandemic,” she explained, “as per the instructions of Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a scholar there and a former commissioner of the FDA.”
Prior to the pandemic, Gayoung’s work on the blog was very fast-paced and required access to the Institute’s servers. After editing, formatting, and fact-checking submissions, she would upload them to the AEI website as quickly as possible. Once she went remote, she no longer had server access. Her focus shifted to the podcast and to some of the Institute’s long-term research projects. She said, “I’m not an Economics major, but the podcast features prominent economists, and our scholars are great economists themselves. I learned a ton about how the economy works in addition to gaining some perspective on political and economic topics that I feel people my age often bypass.”
Health policy reports and advice regarding COVID-19 produced by Dr. Gottlieb and other AEI scholars have received a lot of media attention over the past few months. In her position, Gayoung received great exposure to everything AEI was doing, which really helped her to stay in touch with the world while at home. “I’ve realized the importance of building trustful relationships with the people at work,” she said. “I still learned a lot—maybe even more—while teleworking.”
Nursing Major Interns in Tel Aviv from His Home in the United States
Bakari Young-Smith was looking forward to being at NYU Shanghai for his spring semester after an energizing winter break that included volunteering at an orphanage in Tanzania. But a week before his departure, the Nursing major had to make alternative plans because of the suspension of in-person classes at NYU Shanghai following the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Bakari consulted with his adviser and decided to enroll at NYU Tel Aviv instead. All within a few days’ time, he returned home to Virginia, unpacked the bags he had packed for China, repacked them for Israel, and departed for Tel Aviv.
While in Tel Aviv, Bakari wanted to explore his academic background in nursing while having, he says, “a new experience in an entirely new setting.” This led him to an internship with NALA, a nonprofit that works to combat tropical diseases in Ethiopia by improving hygiene and sanitation. But soon this incredible research opportunity was cut short as the global spread of COVID-19 sent him and all the students studying at NYU Tel Aviv back to their respective homes. Despite this upheaval, many NYU Tel Aviv students, including Bakari, were able to continue their internships remotely. His work shifted to initiatives to spread critical public health messages about mitigating the spread of COVID-19 to remote communities in Ethiopia. Taking an innovation-oriented approach, he worked on low-tech ways beyond the traditional routes of radio, television and internet to engage isolated communities in disease-preventing behaviors.
Together with his Tel Aviv–based colleagues, he helped launch effective public health campaigns, including printing public health messages on toilet paper and coordinating neighbor-to-neighbor outreach. For Bakari, examining how communities in Africa are responding to COVID-19 “broadened [his] global perspective.”
Hola, NYU Madrid, my name is Jaime, and I am a junior in Gallatin. I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks pre-coronavirus at NYU Madrid and was asked to share some of my thoughts with you.
When thinking about study abroad, so many words come to mind. New friends. Travel. New experiences. This was something I so badly looked forward to before my arrival back in January. Little did I know how different my semester abroad would unfold.
No one could have predicted how things would change. What once was trips with new friends became tears and hard goodbyes. Overnight, firsts became lasts. The word “coronavirus” quickly made its way into every conversation, and before I knew it, I was packing up room 210 and heading back to the United States.
I was not expecting to stay connected to NYU Madrid throughout this quarantine, but the incredible faculty have gone above and beyond to show their support through these unprecedented times. They continue to reach out and check in, reminding each student that they matter. They are understanding of all the challenges that come with learning at home and somehow continue to make me smile day in, day out. NYU Madrid introduced me to friends who make me laugh so hard my stomach hurts and teachers who push me to be better.
I realize now how influential this experience has been. In a blink of an eye, everything can change. After receiving a beautiful note from the NYU Madrid director, Jim Fernández, and spending time at home, it is clear how NYU Madrid has changed me for the better. In the future I hope the front door of Barquillo 13 will welcome study abroad students the same way it did for me. I hope the incoming cohort will be able to dorm in Claraval and knock on each other’s doors late at night. I hope future students are able to study in the lounge at school and stare at the ceiling the same way I did between classes. Most of all, I hope students get the same opportunity to find themselves and truly enjoy living.
I can’t wait to see my Madrid classmates back in New York City and reminisce about our time abroad. NYU Madrid is a wonderful community full of genuine, passionate, and simply good people. No matter the circumstances, they have and will show up. Thank you, NYU Madrid, for reminding us all to slow down and simply cherish what life has to offer.
Stay safe and healthy.
Abrazos (hugs), Jaime Ostrow
For NYU’s Solidarity Week, NYU Buenos Aires’ Assistant Director for Student Life Paula Di Marzo presented a program via Zoom titled Afro-Descendants in Argentina: Myths, Reality and Challenges from the Educational Perspective. During this event, Anny Ocoró Loango, a graduate and postgraduate teacher at FLACSO Argentina (a grad-only university system dedicated to the social sciences), revealed many widely accepted myths regarding the Afro-descendant population along with the specific challenges they tend to encounter in the educational field.
Normally, during in-person events at NYU Buenos Aires, an interpreter translates the dialogue from Spanish to English for students as they listen through headphones. Because of COVID-19, though, Di Marzo had to improvise and work with the technological tools at her disposal.
“It was a challenge, trying to figure out how to coordinate the translation part of the remote event,” says Di Marzo. “We still wanted to do simultaneous translation because events take longer with consecutive translation and it becomes more difficult to keep the audience’s attention. Ultimately, we found the language interpretation function in Zoom, and on the day of the event, it worked perfectly.”
When a host enables the language interpretation function in Zoom, they can assign an interpreter and specify the languages they’d like to use during the meeting. Then, when the meeting actually begins, their attendees can select which language they’d like to hear.
Feeling the Impact from Afar
After the event, Di Marzo received a bunch of great feedback from both professors and students alike. Najah Aldridge, a Global Public Health and Sociology major from Queens, New York, says she enjoyed the flexibility of Zoom the most.
“I thought it was cool that I could switch between listening to the translator and listening to Loango just like I would at a regular NYU Buenos Aires event,” says Najah. “I also liked that I could use the Zoom handclap feature to convey my appreciation for some of the statements that Loango made during her presentation, especially since she couldn’t hear or see me snapping along.”
Just because the event was held via Zoom doesn’t mean its message was any less impactful. In fact, Najah says this was hands down her favorite event of the semester.
“I chose to attend this event due to my lack of knowledge about the history of Afro-descendants in Argentina,” she says. “Before I came to Buenos Aires, I spoke to a friend who studied at the center the year prior. She told me about all of the joyous times she had as a student there, but she also warned me about the constant stares she got from people as a Black woman. When I arrived, I learned exactly what she meant about the constant surveillance. People asked me questions about my origin as if it were impossible for Black people to live in the country.
“Loango inspired me when she spoke about teaching her daughter to embrace her skin tone and realize it’s not her job to educate people who simply never learned about the presence of Afro-Argentines. Since the lack of education is the primary factor that fuels people’s ignorance regarding Afro-Argentines, it’s imperative to have events like this and people like Loango to portray the rich history of what it means to be Black in Argentina and demonstrate how everyone can unite against the injustice that still occurs today.”
Even though her classes had to move online, and even though she had to leave Buenos Aires early, Najah says she still enjoyed the rest of her semester. Because of the NYU staff who made events like Loango’s talk happen, students were still able to experience and appreciate the cultures they left behind.
“When we received the email about leaving Argentina, I was heartbroken,” says Najah. “There were so many adventures that my friends and I had yet to take. But the energy from the faculty and staff was just unmatched. I’m still astonished by how well the staff and faculty were able to keep up such a high level of passion and encouragement from afar.”
NYU Berlin lecturer Colin Self was on a short trip in Mexico City when the COVID-19 crisis broke. Although his 10-day trip turned into an extended journey that lasted a few months, the composer and choreographer continued to teach his course, Experiments in the Future of Performing and Producing, virtually. Self, who teaches in the Clive Davis Institute X Berlin: Future Pop Music Studies program, explores themes related to expanding consciousness, troubling binaries, and the boundaries of perception and communication. His teaching focuses on the “exchange of energies” in the classroom. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, he had no experience with online teaching.
Q: How did you find the transition? How did the classes work?
A: It was certainly a challenge at first to think about performance as something that we could be in dialogue about over a distance. So much of the class is about this kind of vis-à-vis energetic exchange between all of us in the laboratory, watching and responding to performance. As a performer myself, I really cherish the IRL [in real life] experience of performance pedagogy. It has required a great amount of reimagining with a lot of care being put into presenting alternatives; asking questions about how the psychological and emotional conditions of this experience also affect art-making and performance.
Q: You developed a new syllabus for a Zoom course and specifically pivoted to “explore the canon of experimental art made during pandemics and global crises.” Can great art come from this?
A: Engaging with others about what it might mean to make art in this time is one of the most fruitful things that happened as COVID-19 was unfolding. It started with a letter written by California College of the Arts’ Dean of Fine Arts Allison Smith about art being made during crises and the role artists have to heal and process our collective experiences. I was then in conversation with a colleague about the AIDS crisis, trench art, and the deep emotional history of artists making work under challenging circumstances. Quite often history shows us that some of the gravest circumstances brought forth some of the most inspiring and evolutionary art-making. Now that we are seeing the amplification of care as a priority, and the distribution of resources to people who do not have as much, the creative landscape is changing.
Q: Have you or the students learned anything, whether academically or personally, that you might not have learned in a classroom?
A: One of the biggest lessons for me and so many others I’ve been in communication with has been the vitality of live performance and public assembly, and what a source of inspiration and energy it is to us both individually and collectively. Performance has always been a real-life process of dreaming a better, different world into reality. Without that energetic interaction, I’ve realized what a treasure those in-person experiences are and how there is really no replacing that over digital experiences.
How NYU Abu Dhabi students celebrated iftar during COVID-19
Every year during Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the first time Muhammad received a revelation of the Quran. To commemorate this moment, they spend the ninth month of the Islamic calendar fasting, praying, and reflecting on their spiritual lives. When breaking their daily fast, Muslims typically share a meal called iftar with friends and family. This year, since Ramadan fell during the academic semester, students and staff would have normally celebrated together, in person. Due to COVID-19, however, Associate Director for Study Abroad Aisha Ali and her colleagues at NYU Abu Dhabi had to find a safer way to gather as a community. Their solution? A virtual iftar via Zoom.
Emulating a Traditional Iftar Celebration in the Online World
According to Ali, 2019 was the first year NYU Abu Dhabi could host an iftar event on campus during the academic programming calendar. So, they used it as an opportunity to wrap up the semester and visit an Emirati restaurant as a cohort. Ramadan 2019’s community event supported the Muslim students who were fasting while giving other students the opportunity to learn more about the holy month and try fasting for themselves.
This year, Ali and her colleagues strived to emulate an experience similar to 2019 via Zoom. While iftar is technically just a meal, Ali says there’s also a large social element to it because people often enjoy breaking their fast with friends and family. Even though NYU Abu Dhabi students and staff couldn’t celebrate in person this year, Ali and her colleagues did their best to capture the social spirit that tends to infuse traditional iftar events.
“This year, we had to figure out how to time the event so that people who were fasting could actually eat and participate,” says Ali. “We ordered shawarmas and had one of our peer advisers distribute the food safely. Even though we had a smaller group than usual, it was nice to still have that moment with everyone. I loved seeing some of the students that I hadn’t connected with since we switched to remote learning in March.”
Adapting to the Unexpected for the Sake of Community and Camaraderie
After the virtual iftar event, Ali and her colleagues hosted another Zoom call for students to connect one last time before the end of the semester. During this event, students reminisced about their time in Abu Dhabi, played a few games, and awarded superlatives to each other. In total, about 28 students participated in the event—nearly the entire cohort.
COVID-19 may have disrupted the status quo in spring 2020, but Ali and her colleagues still found meaningful ways to connect with students for the rest of the semester. By using Zoom as a means to celebrate Ramadan and other significant events, NYU Abu Dhabi fostered a sense of community that students can cherish as they move forward in their NYU academic careers.
Klára Boudalová, a performing artist, scriptwriter, and concert presenter, teaches Foundations of Music Education at NYU Prague. This course normally involves engagement with the local community because she wants her students to make a difference. This past semester she had planned for students to work with children on a musical project in Prague. That all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In redesigning the course, Boudalová realized that there are many people who would benefit from support, so she asked students to design projects relevant to the current situation in which kids are required to stay home. She asked each student to connect with their home community—to find kids who are bored or reach out to former teachers—and do something beneficial through music.
The class met twice a week with students joining from China, Alaska, and everywhere in between. Teaching remotely to a global cohort meant that they had a lot more autonomy and responsibility. “Originally, they would have developed their projects with me present, guiding them in their lessons,” she says. “Now I have one-on-one mentoring sessions with them to track their process.” She is impressed with how well students did on their own.
They began by exploring tools like online learning apps and videos to generate ideas, such as teaching children how to make homemade instruments out of pots or other items they had at home and then composing music with their DIY instruments. Despite not being able to meet in person, students shared each other’s research and progress through videos that they made and uploaded to a Google Drive folder.
Some students recorded cute videos of the children singing and dancing for the family at home. Others started a home disco project or taught vocal warm-up techniques to singers so they could maintain their sound quality during lockdown. One student, Valesca Gongora, majoring in Music Education at Steinhardt, created an online choir, and together they filmed “Shed a Little Light” by James Taylor, dedicated to health-care workers, which Boudalová says is “amazing, touching, emotional, and incredibly inspiring.” You can listen to it here.
“During quarantine,” says Valesca, “I’ve seen people turn to the arts for support and comfort. My goal was to put together a meaningful project that had the power to take our minds off of the craziness of the world for a few minutes. Music truly brings people together and can make us feel connected while we are social distancing,” she says. “Working on this project has taught me that communities can still unite during this time of social distance; we just have to make adjustments and be creative.”
How one NYU Florence staff member cooked up some fun during COVID-19
“It wasn’t easy. But we managed and we did it, and I’m proud of the outcome,” says Residence Hall Manager Yasmin Mosaad from NYU Florence. After COVID-19 pushed students back home, Mosaad and her fellow staff members searched for ways to engage students from afar. The result? A virtual cooking class featuring authentic Italian cuisine.
“The main purpose of this event was to let students know that we were there for them,” says Mosaad. “Even though the circumstances changed and they had to leave Florence, we still wanted to carry out our duties and offer students engaging events they could enjoy. We still wanted to keep them connected to Italy.”
Delicious Meals Without Leaving Your House
For this event, Mosaad worked with her husband, Marco, a Swedish-Italian chef who graduated from culinary school. Together, they tackled two Italian pasta dishes via Zoom. Their goal? To mimic a live cooking class on a virtual platform. After sharing the ingredients and completing the prep work, the duo worked through the recipe one step at a time, making sure to review basic skills (like how to cut an onion) along the way.
In total, Mosaad and her husband hosted two virtual cooking classes. During the first session, they cooked a traditional pasta dish with red sauce, and during the second session, they cooked a different pasta dish with broccoli. When selecting recipes, Mosaad says she tried to think of meals that students could easily create at home.
“Because of the circumstances and the virus, we realized that some food items might not be available or may be too hard to buy at the supermarket,” says Mosaad. “So we picked recipes for easy and affordable plates with items that most students would have available in their cupboards.”
A Cultural Connection Through Cooking
Although it can be challenging to facilitate virtual events, Mosaad says the students appreciated her efforts to make the event feel more personal and connected to Italian culture. “It’s always fun when you know you’re helping someone, even if it’s in a small way like cooking,” she says. “The students loved the recipes. A lot of them cooked the plates later and sent me emails thanking us for the classes. It wasn’t easy, switching from ‘taking students to the best gelato place in town’ to ‘cooking classes on Zoom,’ especially with different time zones. But we made it work, and I’m proud of our efforts.”