By Dora Parkinson, Gurleen Saini and Jasmine Wen
As emerging global health professionals, we must learn to be adaptable; unpredictable project funding, changing foreign policy priorities, cultural differences, delayed flights – the list goes on. This spring, with COVID-19 disrupting virtually every sphere of society, we have gotten a crash course in what it means to be adaptable in the face of uncertainty! We wanted to take the opportunity to share some of our learnings, missteps and even a few “A-ha” moments with others who may be similarly navigating an online, international internship.
We – Dora, Gurleen & Jasmine – are a group of interns working with an organization based at Western University that implements programming internationally. The group we are working with is known as Western Heads East (WHE). WHE is a collaboration between Western University in London, Canada, and African partners in either Rwanda, Tanzania, or Kenya, using probiotic food to contribute to health and sustainable development. Largely through probiotic yoghurt social enterprises, the program is established in underserviced areas of Sub-Saharan Africa to address HIV/AIDS, health, the empowerment of women, and economic development.
Before COVID-19 swept across the world before our eyes, Dora and Jasmine were getting ready for their journey to Mwanza, Tanzania. There, they would be working with the Mikono Yetu Centre for Creativity and Innovation, an NGO that empowers women and girls through the ownership of probiotic yogurt kitchens. Perhaps, they would even go on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa), gain more fluency in Swahili, and form meaningful relationships with the local community.
Gurleen, on the other hand, had a completely different vision in mind. As part of her Masters of Management of Applied Science (MMASc) in Global Health Systems in Africa (GHS-A), she was preparing to go to Uganda with her entire cohort as part of their international summer practicum placements. Now with COVID-19, plans have shifted into students in her program having to pursue remote placements, while taking this learning experience in stride.
Due to this change in plans, our team, consisting of us and other students that we collaborate with on occasion, came together to work with Mikono Yetu and the St. Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT) probiotic kitchens. With both institutions being based in Mwanza, Tanzania, and the three of us remaining in Ontario, Canada, we had to learn quickly how to accomplish our tasks remotely; with our tasks ranging from online presentations to SAUT students, digital kitchen mapping, creating business and marketing documents, and more!
If you’re anything like us and your international internship plans have been burst by the bombshell of Corona, you may find yourself struggling to schedule meetings remotely. Although we are supposedly tech-savvy millennials, the advent of new platforms like Zoom has flustered the entire working world and left many of us stumbling through the use of numerous toggles and tabs. So, for all of our fellow stragglers, here are some tips that can help you excel at navigating the virtual landscape of working with international partners amidst a global pandemic:
- First, find a preferred mode of communication. This may vary for your organization or partners: for us, we have found WhatsApp as the fastest platform to instantly message our partners in East Africa. This is occasionally supplemented with attachments on emails and Zoom calls to mimic in-person connections. Direct lines of communication may prove useful to ask questions and engage in extended dialogue about project priorities and deliverables.
- Next comes the awkward dance of matching schedules. Every person has their own daily list of responsibilities, making it hard to coordinate meetings. This can especially be seen in the different ways of life that exist in various countries. We know first-hand that the way of life in Tanzania, our host country, differs from Canada. While many of us in North America (ourselves included) schedule our lives in advance using agendas and Google Calendar reminders due to an individualistic approach to life, many people in countries, such as Tanzania, have a more relaxed approach to timekeeping due to group solidarity (i.e. the term Ubuntu, which often translates into “I am because we are”). The African philosophy of Ubuntu relates to a sense of happiness and belonging through deep-rooted values of community. Therefore, a group relies on each other, and often a less rigorously scheduled way of life is the norm. Due to these sociocultural differences, we find it useful to set meeting reminders for the entire group a day before, leading to a greater sense of group mentality. And who doesn’t appreciate a reminder for a meeting when it’s slipped one’s mind?
- Don’t forget the time zone differences! Sleep schedules are important and should be maintained and respected, amongst the other daily obligations of life. In our case, there is a 7-hour time difference between our Canadian team and our East African partners. As such, it is important to be aware of what time works best to connect with one another. For instance, all our zoom meeting calls are scheduled within a specific window of time (i.e. between 8am-12pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time) which is between 3pm-7pm EAT (East Africa Time)). This works best for us since some of our partners in Tanzania work in a school or go to school earlier in the day.
- If using Zoom, don’t forget to redeem your host privileges (by using your host key in the participant’s tab) during your meetings so you can wield the all-mighty privilege of muting individuals during calls. This may seem unimportant until there is conflicting background noise. You may also find it beneficial to create a group chat for sharing details behind the scenes and advising your colleagues discreetly on how to handle any mishaps that may occur, furthering a sense of Ubuntu.
- If individuals are unable to attend the meeting, make sure to record the Zoom meeting and send the recording off afterward. Recordings will get saved after the meeting ends, so do not fret if you don’t see the recording right away.
Online recorded presentation presented by Gurleen, Dora and Jasmine (as seen from top to bottom).
We hope these tips and tricks make all the difference for you to successfully navigate collaborating with international partners remotely during COVID-19. We know they helped us immensely! Good luck!
Gurleen Saini is a Canadian Sikh graduate student who identifies as she/her, an aspiring global citizen and a women’s health advocate. She grew up in Etobicoke, Ontario and completed her undergraduate studies at Ontario Tech University in Health Sciences (Honours) with a specialization in Human Health. She is currently a Master of Management of Applied Science (MMASc) Candidate at the University of Western Ontario with a specialization in Global Health Systems in Africa (GHS-A) and plans to attend the University of Melbourne in Australia come 2021 for her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM).
Dora Parkinson is a biracial Chinese-Canadian who grew up in Markham, Ontario. She is completing her undergraduate studies at Western University in Medical Sciences (Honours) with a specialization in Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences. This summer she is completing an internship with Western Heads East, to work with partner organizations Mikono Yetu Centre for Creativity and Innovation in Mwanza, Tanzania and Saint Augustine University of Tanzania in East Africa to develop and establish probiotic yoghurt social enterprises to empower women. In her spare time she enjoys painting custom works, hiking scenic landscapes, and traveling to different parts of the globe.
Jasmine Wen is a Chinese-Canadian fourth year undergraduate student at Western University studying biochemistry. This summer, she is interning remotely with Western Heads East, a non-profit organization that aims to address HIV/AIDS and economically empower women in East Africa (Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania) through probiotic yoghurt social enterprises. Specifically, she is working with Mikono Yetu Centre for Creativity and Innovation in Mwanza, Tanzania to develop a start-up package, kitchen-mapping app, and marketing strategy. In the future, Jasmine plans to continue pursuing studies in global health and medical sciences. When not in virtual meetings, she enjoys running, reading, exploring the world, and learning about different cultures.