UMD: A Globally Connected University

U21 Global Citizenship Fosters Student Connections around the World

U21 Global Citizenship Fosters Student Connections around the World


This fall, University of Maryland’s Office of International Affairs invited students whose study abroad was disrupted to participate in Global Citizenship, a three-week experiential online course designed by Universitas21 (U21) and the leadership nonprofit Common Purpose to provide students with an opportunity to stay globally engaged. About 2,000 students across U21’s international network connected virtually to develop leadership skills. Together, they came to better understand the most pressing global challenges of our time, working through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 


Brennan Winer, a third-year student pursuing degrees in Epidemiology and Public Health and International Relations, was among the 100 UMD students who participated in the Global Citizenship program. He was scheduled to study International Human Rights in Copenhagen, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic was unable to complete his semester abroad. Looking for alternative ways to gain international experience, Brennan jumped at the chance to participate in the Global Citizenship course and connect with peers around the world. We spoke to him about his experience studying the SDGs and connecting with international students in the virtual space. (This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.)


What led you to apply for this program?

My original program was in International Human Rights through DIS, based in Copenhagen and Bosnia. And there was another course in Sweden focused on public health and policy based in Belfast and London. Seeing programs being cancelled that semester and summer was especially hard. 


I find it comforting to have some sort of recourse from the study abroad department to have another option available to connect on a more global scale. I feel like that’s really important for both of my degrees. Global development is really important to me. The expectation for most people entering the field of international relations is that you have been abroad, speak another language or have some sort of global experience. That was something I felt was really missing in my college career. 


Other people might treat study abroad as a vacation with added educational experiences, but for international relations specifically, I felt it was so critical. So this opportunity was really great to gain that international experience.  


How familiar were you with the SDGs prior to this program?

There are classes within the Honors College that touch on sustainable development, so I was aware of them. But also, because it was the focus of this course, people were allowed to share more nuanced takes on the SDGs in ways I hadn’t considered. 


For example, when we discussed health, we talked about environmental health, occupational health, animal health and all these different perspectives. And while I was familiar with the SDGs, I hadn’t ever thought of them seriously before. 


Why did you choose SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, as your focus for this program?

I started out with health, but decided to switch to SDG 17. It seemed like not a lot of people were focusing on it. Only 20 people out of 2,000 students, so there was a hole in the program that I wanted to fill. I also felt like what I’ve been working on at UMD has already contributed or been focused on that SDG. And none of the SDGs can function without the collaboration of SDG 17. 

It also seemed like the easiest way to connect with students from all over the world. Even though there are only 26 universities, students from those universities come from all over. I felt like the most productive conversations could happen around SDG 17. 


What aspects of the program did you find most interesting? Surprising?

I didn’t expect students to take it so seriously. From the first break group, people were shocked at how vast the program was and that we got to interact with people on zoom from the first class. 

I’ve added a bunch of these people on social media and everyone was blown away by the experience. It felt groundbreaking and alien to have so many people from different countries on Zoom. It felt like a United Nations class experience. 


A lot of groups that focused on individual SDGs also wanted to continue after the course. The group focused on Gender Equality was talking about creating a podcast series and another group wanted to create a tropical disease advocacy network. 


What did it look like to be on the Zoom calls? 

There was a large Zoom session with everyone who could fit that time zone into their schedules, which I think was about a third of the course. After the lecture component, we would go into a breakout room with 20 randomly selected students. 


The focus on the SDGs really came from the students themselves. We were all asked to give out individual contributions and share with other students. It was really cool to have students with really different perspectives. 


Zoom was a lot more conducive to deeper conversations. People really opened up on their passions. I feel like I had a strong personal connection with people from the Zoom because we were able to talk. 


It could be a lot to take in at one time and might be improved if you included more moderation or sub-forums. 


What was it like to collaborate with students around the world?

It was very strange to contribute my perspective as an American to people who may not know what the deal may be. People have a lot of assumptions about the U.S. It was weird to have to explain my perspective and also explain the positions of American politics that I don’t agree with, but to provide the point of view of other parts of the U.S. 

I feel like there were either a lot of ideological similarities or hesitancy to cause controversy, so there weren't a lot of different opinions. Particularly when you consider a majority of the universities were based in Europe. In a lot of the break out groups, some had problems with their internet connectivity, which would make it difficult to communicate at times. 


People would generally build off of each other when developing ideas. It was really interesting to collaborate and layer based off of individual experiences.  


Were their advantages that you noticed of this program being virtual?

You can't have this course without it being virtual!

What would you do differently if you were repeating this, and/or what advice would you give to a future student?

Because this was my stand in study abroad, I was going all out from the very beginning. I took it very seriously, so I wouldn’t have changed that. 

Towards the end, I think I would try to get more people talking. We would split off into smaller groups and you could tell some students knew each other previously or were from the same country, so other students would be quiet unless directly asked a question. I would try to integrate more people into the conversation.


How did you connect with students outside of the course?

I have been on a social media whirlwind because of this course. I didn’t have a Linkedin before this, so all of my connections were crowdsourced from the people in this course. On the first day, everyone saw the potential for this group and discussed how to connect otherwise. Everyone eventually ended up on WhatsApp where we were all able to continue talking.

What do you think will be your biggest takeaway from this program? How might the skills you learned impact your future career?

I think the fact that the course asked us to reflect on our values in relation to the SDGs was the most powerful part. I feel like we are in this constant grind during college and, while you discover things that you are more interested in, you are ultimately focused on your career. You never really stop to consider what your values are in relation to what you are doing. I think, with this course being outside of UMD and not for credit, you didn’t have too many demands for coursework and really were able to focus on what you believed. I think that definitely affected me and now I have a list of things I want to defend when I am practicing in the future.

My long term life goal before the course was, “I want to study in the U.K.” There was never really a why. Now -- after interacting with so many students, the global educational system, and from the activities we did -- I discovered that I am actually interested in the U.K. because they focus on diseases that aren’t touched on in the U.S., because they have a strong National Healthcare System, and because of information sharing that universities in the UK and EU enjoy together through the Erasmus program. Having those specific experiences are making me think more reflectively about what I want in the long term. 


Did this program also help you see how you can affect change in your local community? 

I’m actually involved with Global Scholars at UMD. I stepped back from this course and asked myself, for the time, that while I am in the U.S., how can I learn more about the American system before I leave? I started applying for internships related to Medicare or health policy in the U.S. I definitely moved away from more international-focused internships to focus on American government. 


It also puts into perspective a lot of misconceptions people have about the U.S. I feel like I need to do a better job of sharing what’s going on locally so that I can help others be aware. 


Interested in learning about new global engagement opportunities at UMD? Sign up here!