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EMU Professor promotes 'Virtual Study Abroad' concept

Eastern Michigan University TESOL professor, Zuzana Tomaš spent much of the 2021-2022 school year in Slovakia.
EMU Today
Eastern Michigan University TESOL professor, Zuzana Tomaš spent much of the 2021-2022 school year in Slovakia.


Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. We're all familiar with the concept of study abroad, so students are given the opportunity to add to their formal education and cultural education by studying in a foreign country. But the growing cost for these programs has made the opportunity pretty much prohibitive for many students. At Eastern Michigan University, Professor Zuzana Tomaš is developing a compromise alternative for students. It's an effective way to create a virtual exchange program. Professor Tomaš, thanks for joining us here in the studio. I'm curious what spurred the thought in the first place to create a virtual abroad program?

Zuzana Tomaš: Yeah, thank you, Cathy, for having me. So, I have several reasons why I wanted to do something like this. Perhaps, somewhat selfishly, it's a way for me to be in contact with my homeland, my original homeland, Slovakia. And after I came back from there as a Fulbright professor, I was actively looking for ways to stay connected with the amazing team of professors and students at a university there. So, we figured why not start a program where the teacher candidates from Slovakia and the teacher candidates here in Michigan could work together and learn from one another?

Cathy Shafran: The teacher candidates you're speaking about--they're students who are studying what?

Zuzana Tomaš: They are all studying to be teachers. Some of them want to specifically work with English language learners. Hence, they often come to our TESOL program, which stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. But they can be any future teacher because, ultimately in southeastern Michigan, one way or another, they'll one day have an English learner in their classrooms.

Cathy Shafran: Now, obviously, you wanted to bring them together. Typically, one would think about going to the other country to do that. Why did you come up with an alternative to this?

Zuzana Tomaš: Well, don't get me wrong, Cathy. I do hope that all of my students will get to visit Slovakia. And in fact, I am planning a study abroad program also. But, like you said, you know, for a lot of students, it's simply not affordable. So, I figured why not at least get them to meet their peers from another university? Why not engage them with Slovak English learners, perhaps by teaching them English on Zoom?

Cathy Shafran: And, as a result of that, you were able to do the program not once, but, already, you've done it twice. What are you seeing in terms of that cultural exchange that typically is going to happen? Obviously, if you're in another country, you're going to have that culture exchange. How does it work when you do it virtually?

Zuzana Tomaš: Oh, it works really well. So, I really believe that these teacher candidates are absolutely developed their global competencies. They are working with their Slovak counterparts to investigate the world, just to give you an example of either looking at a topic of wellbeing last semester. And, you know, so really, holistically, not just us emotional and physical well-being, but looking at their country's occupational well-being, intellectual well-being, social well-being. And, you know, after the program I had a lot of my students starting to tell me things like, "Huh, I was really surprised. The Slovak students have free health care. And I was really surprised my Slovak friends, you know, have don't have to pay for university studies." So, I think one of the huge benefits is to really find out things about the world that help you question the status quo in your own country and start looking for ways that could maybe be different and better.

Cathy Shafran: How do you facilitate the program? How does it work?

Zuzana Tomaš: Sure. So, I work with a professor there. We try to as much as we can align the courses, so they are offered at the same time. And then, we spend a few weeks, you know, teaching some content. How do we teach English effectively while at the same time giving teacher candidates opportunities to get to know each other, to create teams, to start planning their own projects, beat, you know, free English language books for learners or free Zoom lessons for students. And once they, you know, have enough time to plan their work, we try to then offer the program. So, last semester, students were teaching the lessons they co-created to English learners in Slovakia.

Cathy Shafran: And how did students make connections with people in the other country?

Zuzana Tomaš: So, it's through the classroom activities when we have them working the breakout rooms and they have to work together. Oftentimes, you know, we try to start by, you know, less formal activities where they get to know each other, their work styles, their sort of strengths and weaknesses. And then, they have to complete a project together.

Cathy Shafran: Do you feel, because you've also done study abroad in other countries, is there anything missing from the experience when you do it this way?

Zuzana Tomaš: Oh, you know, certainly, when you're in a study abroad, students can be really immersed in the experience, and they generally don't have other commitments and responsibilities. Whereas, you know, if you're doing this as part of one class and you still have to juggle work workload in other classes and perhaps a job, family, and other obligations, you know, you certainly can't afford to put quite as much focus into your project, but the benefits are still there.

Cathy Shafran: Is this something you feel can be replicated across all the disciplines?

Zuzana Tomaš: Absolutely. I think I would be hard-pressed to imagine a situation where it would be disadvantageous to an Eastern Michigan University student to apply the content they are learning to a situation where they can work with an international partner, right? Having global skills is such a key for so many professions, knowing how to communicate with non-native English speakers, recognizing diverse perspective: these are all skills that you want to see in all of our students. So, absolutely. I would love to see this applied more broadly.

Cathy Shafran: Have you been recommending it to others as an option to consider?

Zuzana Tomaš: Well, it's a relatively new direction for myself. So, you know, I have done two of these programs, and I'm so excited to do more. So, as I sort of experience more success, I feel like I'll become a real advocate on our campus for these kinds of programs.

Cathy Shafran: Is this something that came to your mind during the pandemic that there must be a way to continue these programs?

Zuzana Tomaš: I'll actually credit my graduate student from Slovakia to first give me this idea. For her thesis project, she was looking at telecommunication and doing these kinds of projects across classrooms for learning English, so, you know, exchanges for English learners in Slovakian friends and, you know, England and how this could benefit their language development. So, I was then just starting to think about, well, if it works so well in foreign language education classes, why can't we tap into this in teacher education?

Cathy Shafran: So, it wasn't a "Oh, I really want this to be happening, but we can't get there during the pandemic. How else can we do it?" It was more of a "Wow, this is a unique concept. Maybe we should try it in addition to study abroad."

Zuzana Tomaš: I think it was both of those pools. I was actually hoping to offer the Slovak Study Abroad program before the pandemic. We had everything lined up, 12 students recruited, and then, of course, we had to cancel the program. So, I think between being disappointed that it didn't work out and having this graduate student interested in the topic is what really sort of propelled me in this direction.

Cathy Shafran: And have you found that the numbers that are signing up for these courses are significantly more than what you would have for study abroad?

Zuzana Tomaš: Well, absolutely. The study abroad program in Slovakia will be estimated that, you know, the program fee will likely be around $1500. But then, plus, you know, of course, you have to buy your own ticket. You know, so, $3,000 is a considerable cost for a teacher candidate to go on a program like that. So, you know, a virtual exchange is free. It's effective. You can get a lot out of it. So, it's a really nice way to develop these competencies.

Cathy Shafran: And the numbers. Significantly higher?

Zuzana Tomaš: Absolutely. Also, in every course, I have about 25 students who engage. So, every semester, it adds up.

Cathy Shafran: As opposed to a study abroad when you would see...how many students do you think?

Zuzana Tomaš: Well, about 15.

Cathy Shafran: 15. So, you're able to attract far more students than you would to this type of cultural exchange with a lower cost than you would?

Zuzana Tomaš: Absolutely. And, you know, my hope is that these teacher candidates, by realizing how beneficial these programs are, that once they become teachers, they might seek out opportunities to collaborate with teachers around the world and develop their own virtual exchanges.

Cathy Shafran: Zuzana Tomaš, EMU TESOL professor and creator of a virtual exchange program at EMU, thank you so much for joining us today.

Zuzana Tomaš: You're welcome. Thank you for having me, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: I'm Cathy Shafran, and you are listening to 89.1 WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti.


Eastern Michigan University TESOL Program

Zuzana Tomaš

"Eastern Michigan University Fulbright Scholar professor creates virtual exchange program and conference to connect U.S. and Slovakian teacher candidates"

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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