A passionate Ambassador for Virtual Exchange

Hiba Ibrahim is the first recipient of UNICollaboration’s brand new ‘Excellence in service’ badge.

She’s a 5th year PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at York University in Canada and is very much hoping to finish her dissertation this year. She’s of Palestinian/Jordanian descent, and dreams to continue her research in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).

She talks to UNICollaboration about her Virtual Exchange journey and where she hopes to take it in the future.

It’s personal

“It wasn’t the best experience to be honest,’ she admits with a wry smile.

Hiba entered the world of Virtual Exchange back in 2008, as a student when she experienced it first-hand by participating in a VE collaborative project. She has a background in intercultural communication, so, taking part in a collaborative international online programme seemed an obvious way to explore the values it espouses.

It was very emotional and we had to discuss topics that were close to me and very important. I was a little disappointed that others didn’t necessarily perceive what I had to say as openly as I had hoped. This meant there was a lot of tension and miscommunication. And after the programme ended, I was compelled to find out whether others had had a similar experience to mine.”

The impact of an international collaborative experience

Hiba ended up spending time in the US as a Fulbright scholar. It was following this experience that she began coordinating VE programmes, working with both US students and teachers and students and teachers in the MENA region.

“This is when you get to see the challenges first-hand,’ explains Hiba. “I had the opportunity to see very different communities, both urban and rural, deprived and challenged. Some in lower income US communities had digital literacy challenges, or challenges accessing technology. This was a real eye-opener and energised me into keeping going with my research. I also travelled across Jordan, linking MENA communities with communities across the US that included refugee communities and host communities too.

“It forced me to think deeply about why I’m using this technology. Practising, coordinating, designing, and implementing these sorts of projects and working closely with students and teachers gave me the impetus to keep trying to understand more.

In my masters, I focused on intercultural competencies. For my PhD, I was interested academically in pursuing this pedagogy. Intercultural competency remains really dear to me, and being in the field gives you a unique exposure to keep questioning and understanding.”

Recognition for unwavering commitment and research

Hiba is the first recipient of UNICollaboration’s ‘Excellence in Service to the field of VE’

digital badge. She can’t hide her surprise and pleasure.

“I was not expecting the email’, she says. “It was the first email I opened in the morning and I’m truly humbled and honoured. I feel more energized than ever to continue the work I feel so passionate about. It’s come at a very challenging time, whilst writing my dissertation. Imposter syndrome can set in and sometimes you doubt your thinking. But this gave me a boost and makes me want to do more within the VE community. I want to keep reflecting on what we are doing and dig deeper.”

What is The SIG, Special Interest Group?

Hiba started what is called the SIG. A special interest group for VE. But what’s it for and how does it work?

“The SIG is about two years old now, and began during COVID, at a time when VE was becoming a trend, explains Hiba. 

“I thought it would be a good idea to bring graduate students together to learn and have critical conversations with key researchers in the field of virtual exchange.

Bringing new voices to the field and looking into the vision of the organisation by doing this made sense. Graduate students are the perfect audience in that they are looking for new ideas and new opportunities.

What we have in common is that we are all from different countries! And that is exactly the point and where the focus is.”

To summarise then, the SIG aims to diversify the field by bringing students work to the community and sharing it. 

“It exists to provide a platform and share and exchange resources, webinars, symposia, readings and more.  And it helps bring other academics to us.

“To be honest, it’s challenging to keep it going. We need more volunteers to keep it sustainable. The SIG always needs others to step in and continue what we started as it’s important work. I think it’s a unique platform and because it is virtual, it’s more accessible.

Such a platform enables us to network with others and become inspired. This can only be beneficial, as it helps you to learn and expand connections. I hope to see more volunteers in the future.”

Future plans for the SIG

“We’re excited to share our plans to launch a database that will contain student dissertations. They will be added to UNICollaboration’s Zotero list. To that end, we will be circulating a form to enable this to happen.

We’ll continue our regular activities and we hope attendance continues to be good.

And for me personally, I hope to finish the dissertation and continue with my work and reach out and collaborate with others in the field.

I hope to be able to connect in person and I’m always open to sharing and learning more.

The SIG has its own Youtube channel if you’d like to find out more and become involved