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A Portal to New Perspectives

Students Learn About Election’s Impact From Live Chats Overseas

By Lauren Brown


John T. Consoli

John T. Consoli

Only 10 feet separated Megan Williams ’18 from two Honduran high school girls in matching uniforms as she asked what they thought of Donald Trump and his stances on immigration.

But the distance was really closer to 1,800 miles, as Williams enhanced her education on global politics one October afternoon from inside a gold-painted shipping container parked in front of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Through the university’s partnership with the arts collective Shared Studios, Williams entered the 8 x 8 x 20-foot “portal” tricked out with immersive audio and video technology so users could speak to people in other portals around the world in life size and real time, as if they were in the same room.

It provided a unique and timely opportunity for undergraduates in Jim Riker’s course, “Voting as if the ‘Real’ Issues Matter: Citizens’ Perspectives on the 2016 Elections,” to expand their awareness of key foreign policy issues up for debate this season.

“It’s allowing students to get a broader perspective to hear from voices around the world about why the U.S. is so important in terms of its footprint and impact around the world,” says Riker, director of the Beyond the Classroom living and learning program. “It’s the next best thing to giving a student a ticket and a passport.”

This is UMD’s second time hosting one of the 27 portals in circulation worldwide. Last fall, during the Clarice’s NextNow Fest, the focus was on artistic collaborations.

While it’s on campus from Sept. 9 through mid-November, the portal has gotten plenty of other visitors, such as the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and Roshan Institute for Persian Studies.

“It’s really an opportunity for the campus community to make international yet profoundly personal connections,” says Megan Pagado Wells, associate director of the Artist Partner Program at the Clarice, who facilitated the uses across campus.

That was true for Williams, an environmental science and policy major who campaigned for President Obama in 2012 and plans to teach Spanish someday. She was surprised at how little the Honduran teens knew about the U.S. presidential election—until they stumped her with questions about their own country. She says “getting slapped in the face” with her ignorance made her re-evaluate her own expectations.

“This was the most valuable experience I’ve had at the university,” she says.

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