Studying abroad is as much a part of University of Mary Washington culture as bench-sitting or playing Frisbee on Ball Circle. One-third of each graduating class – about 300 students – spends time learning overseas.
Not this year.
As COVID-19 continues to sweep the globe, international travel – like commencements, reunions and all large gatherings – has been put on hold.
But the pandemic hasn’t halted cross-cultural learning at Mary Washington. This fall, an international marketing class taught by College of Business Associate Professor Kashef Majid has partnered with a university in the Czech Republic to better understand global consumerism and how certain brands and behaviors can transcend cultural differences. Connecting on Zoom, students have discussed everything from fashion fads to technology trends, discovering similarities and differences between young adults living on opposite sides of the world.
“You can study marketing trends in foreign countries all day long,” said senior Ginny Summers, “but in order to succeed in business, you need to be able to have a respectful conversation with someone from a different culture.” Her plans to study in Spain and Australia this year dashed by the virus, Summers was among the more than 20 students in Majid’s class matched with students at the University of New York in Prague (UNYP), which hosts an exchange program with UMW.
An international business major, Summers was paired with Tereza, a Czech student who had lived in the United States as a teen, making her familiar with popular U.S. brands like Hollister, American Eagle and Victoria Secret. “We’re both in a stage in our lives where we like nice things, but we’re also on a tight budget,” Summers said.
Knowing your audience is critical for marketers, said UNYP lecturer Adriana Starostová. Her students’ findings revealed subtle societal disparities. Online shopping is prevalent in the United States, but Czech students prefer to try on clothes in the store before making a purchase. Americans grab coffee on the go, while Europeans linger in cafés. UNYP students often cook at home, with groceries bought at specialty stores like bakeries and butcher shops, while UMW students are more likely to consume fast food and use meal delivery services.
Similarities included an affinity for Apple, Sephora and Netflix, Starostová said. And on both sides of the Atlantic, students are making an effort to purchase environmentally sustainable goods as well as fresh produce from farmers’ markets.
Majid had taught the course before, but it’s the first time he’s had students interview their counterparts across the ocean. The project led them to make recommendations for an advertising campaign targeting 20-something consumers. Once COVID-19 is over, he said, he hopes to add a study abroad component.
“Partnerships like this present an opportunity for all involved to gain some firsthand cross-cultural knowledge and make real world connections,” said UMW’s Center for International Education Director José Sainz, who helped facilitate the project. He and Majid hope to replicate it at other foreign universities that have partnerships with UMW.
Mary Washington senior Shannon Ghahramani, a business major who intends to apply to graduate school abroad, said it was reassuring to know that a person on the other side of the globe shared her same concerns about the virus and how it’s disrupted everyday life.
“My biggest takeaway is how similar young adults can be despite their different environments,” said Ghahramani, who bonded and became Facebook friends with Michal, a Czech student she interviewed. “I was elated to have such a fulfilling conversation with someone so far away.”
International Education Week 2020, Nov. 16 to 20, celebrates cross-cultural learning opportunities. One in three Mary Washington students volunteers, interns, conducts research, or joins a faculty-led trip or other UMW-approved experience outside the United States, according to Center for International Education (CIE) Director Jose Sainz. Visit CIE or call (540) 654-1434 for more information.