Virtual study abroad experience keeps students engaged in international service

Two Elon students who had been enrolled in the university’s study abroad program in Seville, Spain, are continuing to engage in international service virtually after their experience was cut short in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maggie Cornejo ’21, a Spanish and strategic communications major, spent several months in Seville, Spain, learning the language and helping high school students learn English, an experience she says reignited her passion for teaching.

Unfortunately, that international experience was cut short for Cornejo and other Elon students as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across Europe and the rest of the world.

“There was so much that we still had planned,” Cornejo said. “We were in lockdown. The police were in the streets, and you would get fined for going outside your house, so we couldn’t even say goodbye to most people.”

That meant leaving behind the host family, friends and experiences Cornejo gained during her time in Spain. The circumstances were the same for Samantha Steinman ‘21, a Spanish and strategic communications major, who was also studying abroad in Spain.

Samantha Steinman ’21 poses for a photo during a visit to the Plaza de España in Seville, Spain. (Photo courtesy: Samantha Steinman)

“I was really starting to thrive in Seville when the news of COVID came,” Steinman said. “It was literally our mid-term week that we got sent home.”

Steinman had been teaching English to 13- to 16-year-olds when students were required to come home. Despite their disappointment, Steinman and Cornejo found a way to salvage the experiences and relationships they’d developed in their time in Seville.

Through the Council on International Educational Exchange, the two volunteered to teach English online to Spanish students who were quarantined in their homes. Cornejo and Steinman joined nearly 50 other CIEE Seville students based around the world in engaging in virtual service to the community that helped make their study abroad experience a memorable one.

Cornejo now video chats with two sisters back in Seville, discussing culture, music and crafts to help the girls, who are 11 and 13, become more conversational when speaking English. The meetings are special opportunities for Cornejo, who says volunteering during her study abroad experience in Spain was always the highlight of her week.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to lose those moments,” Cornejo said. “I think that it just gives us a connection back to Seville.”

Maggie Cornejo ’21 (front) poses for a photo with classmates from her Digital Video Reporting class. (Photo courtesy: Maggie Cornejo)

Steinman is currently teaching English grammar to an 8-year-old girl in Seville, creating flashcards and having frequent conversations to help her learn the language. Cornejo says the experience has been rewarding because it allows her to stay connected to the community that meant so much to her Elon experience.

“They were so welcoming to me when I was abroad, and they were all very forgiving of my Spanish, so I think it’s the least I could do to help,” Steinman said.

Now as the two continue their studies at home, Cornejo and Steinman are trying to stay in touch with the gracious host families and new friends they met while overseas, hoping that one day they’ll have another chance to learn and grow in Seville.

“I definitely am sad that I didn’t get to do exactly what I was planning, but I’m thankful for the time I had in Seville, and I’ll figure out a way to get back there some day.”