Will Dialogues happen this year? These professors are preparing


Germany Dialogue

After last year’s programs were moved online or cancelled all together, Northeastern professors are hopeful that the Northeastern University’s Dialogue of Civilizations programs — programs that allow students to spend summer semesters studying at universities and institutions abroad — will happen in-person this year. 


“I’m optimistic today based on vaccine rollout, presuming that students will also be vaccinated as we get closer to June,” said Ron Willey, a professor at Northeastern’s College of Engineering.


Willey is planning to return to Tarragona, Spain for the fourth time this July to lead two engineering courses- Thermodynamics 1 and an advanced elective in chemical engineering. 


Mira Cantor, a professor of fine arts at Northeastern, who is scheduled to lead art and art history classes in Ballyvaughan, Ireland, agreed.

Dialogue to Ireland

“I hope it’s a go this year,” she said. Vaccinations, Cantor believes, could make or break her ability to hold the courses abroad. “I think that would clinch it, if they all had vaccines, to go,” she said. 


Cantor’s program was on track to happen in the summer of 2020, but was cancelled after Northeastern banned all non-essential university travel as a result of the pandemic. Willey runs the program every other year, he said, so he managed to avoid canceling or moving to a virtual format last summer. 


This was the same for Michael Hoppman, an associate teaching professor in the department of Communications, who has led a full-summer Honors-only Dialogue to Germany bi-annually since 2015.


“Our twin-Dialogue (the only 16 credit Dialogue in a single summer semester,) is on a bi-annual rhythm, so we were lucky that 2020 was our break year anyway,” Hoppman said in an email. 


This year, all Dialogue courses will be offered in a virtual format should the university determine that they cannot be delivered in person, according to the Global Experience website. Students will have a five day grace period to withdraw from any Dialogue that switches from in-person to virtual without any penalty, the website says. However, if a student decides to withdraw after this five day period, they’ll be ineligible for a refund of the $500 deposit, and– depending on the day they withdraw– could have to pay up to the full cost of the program. 


However, professors hope this will not be the case this summer, as there are certain aspects of each program that are difficult to replicate over Zoom. 


Willey’s trip to Tarragona, for example, includes in-person visits to three chemical companies (Tarragona is the center for chemical manufacturing for all of Spain and much of Europe, Willey said) as well as hands-on hazard analysis using the unit operations equipment at the university where classes are held. 

Spain Dialogue

“I could try to see what I could substitute with some hands-on learning, but that will be a challenge,” Willey said.


Though he noted should the program go virtual, he will still be fully prepared to lead it. However, this would mean that students would also miss out on the afternoon trips to Tarragona’s beaches, as well as a possible excursion to Barcelona toward the end of the trip.


Cantor echoed the same sentiment as Willey.


“To tell you the truth, it’s really about the experience. It would be very hard to do this online,” he said.

Spain Dialogue
Spain Dialogue

It isn’t just about the logistics of moving the classes and experiential learning opportunities online, though. Going virtual means students miss out of some of the most popular parts of the trips. Students’ favorite part of the trip to Ballyvaughan, Cantor said, is “the camaraderie, the smallness of the trip, the smallness of the town they’re in,” which allows them to get to know each other and the locals vey well, and can lead to lasting friendships. 


“One of my former Dialogue students recently spoke at an Honors welcome day event and described the Dialogue nature very aptly I think. She said ‘Dialogues of Civilizations are the exact opposite of virtual classes. The things you miss in a Zoom class are the things in which a Dialogue shines.’ I agree with most of that — one of the greatest strengths of the Dialogue program is the close and personal in-person experience,” Hoppman said.

Spain Dialogue

However, Hoppman still believes students can get a lot of value from the virtual dialogue experience.


“Many Dialogue classes — ours included — are also quite special in themselves,” he said. “They address some topics deeper and more applied than is typical for a Boston campus class and are very worthwhile also in a virtual format. In sum I would say: Virtual Dialogues might not be the same, but they can still be great.” 


Cantor and Willey both said the university told them they will have decisions about whether Dialogues abroad are a go this year sometime in late April. According to the Global Experience website, “there is no single feasibility indicator for a program to run in-person.” Instead, the Global Safety and Security Assessment Committee (GSSAC) will consider a number of factors including travel restrictions, transportation access, number of COVID-19 cases and safety of COVID-19 restrictions, the impact of quarantine or curfew measures on programs, and civil unrest, among others. 


Until then, professors are preparing for a return to teaching abroad, as the world begins to regain some semblance of normalcy.