How Georgia State Grew International Outreach During a Global Shutdown

Posted July 12, 2022

Editor’s note: This sponsored article is published as part of a paid partnership between the Georgia State University Office of International Initiatives and Global Atlanta. 

While many colleges and universities shut down or slowed their international initiatives during the pandemic, Georgia State University was able to maintain and grow its global footprint thanks to a diverse portfolio of programs and a core focus on equitable access.

It was no small feat for a university with a large, non-traditional student body, especially during a time of uncertainty and travel restrictions. But Georgia State was up to the task, having already built a study-abroad population recognized by the Institute for International Education as one of the most diverse in the country.

Facing diminished study-abroad opportunities, the Office of International Initiatives (OII) staff developed innovative programming to create sustained engagement with students across various demographics, using technology to generate exchanges and maintain interest in the moment while shifting the focus beyond the pandemic. 

Free Passports

In February 2021, the OII launched the Free Passport Initiative. While OII staff had previously hosted passport days, inviting representatives from Passport Services to help students with applications and covering their costs, the response was often underwhelming.

This time, the office set out to create a large-scale campaign, reaching out to community partners and students via social media and beyond. Students responded enthusiastically, to the point that traffic crashed the website on launch day. Capitalizing on the campus-wide buzz, more than 1,000 students received their first-ever passport, taking the pivotal first step to studying abroad. The Institute of International Education recognized the Georgia State Free Passport Initiative with the prestigious Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education in 2022 in the category of Widening Access for International Education.  

“As a graduate student studying communication sciences and disorders, my goal is to become a future speech language pathologist. As an SLP, I plan to travel globally to assist individuals with communication disorders,” said Calia Howse, a GSU graduate student. “GSU’s Free Passport Initiative has made me one step closer to being able to study and travel abroad to assist those in misrepresented communities.”

Embracing Virtual Exchange

OII also saw an opportunity to expand the virtual exchange, a high-impact pedagogical practice that connects students across the world through Internet-based tools and innovative technologies – all without requiring international travel. 

When the University switched to online learning at the start of the pandemic, OII partnered with the Center for Teaching, Excellence, and Online Education to offer virtual exchange webinars to faculty as a supplement to online teaching workshops. Offered twice a week for four weeks during summer 2020, these webinars attracted more than 120 faculty. 

Additionally, OII partnered with the Atlanta Global Studies Center (AGSC) to incentivize faculty to incorporate virtual exchange activities into their coursework through funding competitions. The result has been continuous growth of virtual exchange courses, new courses in disciplines that had not previously implemented this teaching paradigm and a growing number of students at Georgia State engaging virtually with students all over the world.  

“When many in-person international programs were not available during the pandemic time, Virtual Exchange implemented in my course provided a great opportunity for many students to communicate and collaborate with international students on field-specific projects,” said Hongmei Zhang, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology and a 2022-23 Virtual Exchange Faculty Fellow. “Students learned about different cultures and shared their ideas regarding many other topics. The combination of synchronous as well as asynchronous interactions in this program tremendously enriched the students’ learning experience. Students from this class said that the Virtual Exchange program has been a very rewarding and enjoyable journey!” 

Over 1,000 Georgia State students currently participate in virtual exchange courses each semester, and virtual exchange is starting to become a mandatory component in certain academic programs. The Robinson College of Business, for example, integrates virtual exchange into a required senior-level course in the Bachelor of Business Administration program; ensuring all business students the opportunity to participate in at least one virtual exchange project before they graduate. 

Global Scholars Distinction 

During the pandemic, Georgia State also engaged more students in their Global Scholar Distinction (GSD) program. The GSD program recognizes students who have taken or passed five Global Scholar Distinction courses at the 3000 or 4000 level and received a B or above. Like virtual exchange, GSD is a growing opportunity for students to expand their global education without leaving campus. 

Over the last two years, OII and AGSC staff increased efforts to identify and designate courses that are eligible for the distinction and promote the GSD program to students. The number of students taking Global Scholar courses rises each year, and like the previously mentioned initiatives, GSD is not cost-prohibitive to students.  

All this shows how Georgia State University’s commitment to access and affordable education extends to its efforts in global education. While travel was limited, Georgia State continued to equip its students with the global skill set needed to succeed post-graduation, said Wolfgang Schlör, the university’s associate provost for international initiatives. 

“Instead of hunkering down during COVID, Georgia State made global experiences possible for thousands more students than even before the pandemic started. We believe every student should have access to international opportunities, and we have moved closer to that goal over the past few years,” Dr. Schlör said.  

For more information on these programs, contact the Office of International Initiatives at

  • Farrah Bernardino, Senior Director, International Initiatives, Georgia State University 
  • Elaine Guillot, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations, Office of International Initiatives, Georgia State University  

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