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.

An NYU London Professor Redesigns the Learning Landscape

Student sketching and Professor O'Looney teaching

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.”

Sketch of buildings on a street corner

Ellen Ying's local architecture sketch

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.”

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Remote Internships Amid Covid-19

Capital Hill in DC and the beach in Tel Aviv

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.”

Gayoung Lee in DC

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.

Bakari Young-Smith in 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.”

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A Letter to NYU Madrid from Student Jaime Ostrow

Jaime with her friends in Madrid

Jaime with her friends in Madrid

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

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Virtual Language Interpretation at NYU Buenos Aires 

Buenos Aires student on laptop

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.”

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Q and A with NYU Berlin Lecturer on Making Distanced Experimental Music

Zoom screen for Experiments in the future of performance

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.

Colin Self

Colin Self

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.

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Students Observed Ramadan as a Virtual Community in Abu Dhabi

Zoom session for virtual iftar

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.

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NYU Prague Professor Leads Music Education Students in Local Engagement

Klára Boudalová teaching and a mask with piano on an iPad screen

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.”

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Tasting the Flavors of Italy from Afar

Knife cutting an onion and pasta

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.”

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