Profiles, On-Campus Profiles, Features

Global Engagement Portal Cultivates an Immersive Conversation Space for Students

Students do not always have the opportunity to connect with people across the globe through genuine, meaningful conversations. It is even more rare that they have an immersive, intentional space that attempts to mimic the experience of an in-person conversation. 

The Global Engagement Portal allows Boston College students and faculty to have just that. 

“It’s an opportunity to see the humanity of the distant other, to meet with people in different life circumstances than our own, and to have real conversations with them,” said Erik Owens, director of BC’s international studies program and organizer of BC’s portal. 

Created by Shared Studios, the Global Engagement Portal joins two small rooms across the world through high-definition internet video connection to facilitate natural conversations, according to BC’s website. BC’s portal—held inside a shipping container near O’Neill Plaza—arrived on Oct. 23 and will remain on campus until Nov. 16, connecting with locations in 12 countries throughout this period.

The portal is available for faculty and students to reserve hour-long sessions, and it also hosts walk-in sessions.

“Step outside your world,” reads the message on the outside of BC’s portal. “When you enter, you come face-to-face with someone in an identical space, somewhere else on Earth.” 

The screen inside the Global Engagement Portal allows for a life-size view of the participants in the connecting portal, according to BC’s website. Owens said the design of the portal creates a more engaging experience than other forms of long-distance communication.

“The camera is placed in the middle of the screen, so that you look at the people you’re talking to at eye level, unlike with Zoom where you’re looking either at your screen or at the camera but not both at once,” Owens said.

The choice to place BC’s portal inside a shipping container is symbolic of the overall goal of the portal, according to Owens. 

“It’s emblematic of a kind of commerce in the world—a movement of things,” Owens said. “Usually they go on ships and trains and trucks and carry all the things we buy from one part of the world to another, but it’s a metaphor in the sense that we’re changing that kind of commerce for exchange of conversation.”

Owens said he received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation in the fall of 2017 to bring the portal to BC for a week. He said it was a huge success, but he wanted more students to be able to experience it. Since then, the Global Engagement Portal has come to BC six more times. 

“So immediately, I felt that we should do this for longer periods and let more people experience it,” Owens said. “Then, since that time, we’ve had engagements from two weeks to 15 weeks long … six other times.”

According to the schedule, the BC portal will connect with portals in Mexico City, Lagos, and Johannesburg, and more over the next two weeks. Owens said each connecting portal has specific characteristics about its location that guide the focus of conversations. 

“One in Barbados is at a climate research center, and so the people you would talk to are those who are working there, helping to restore the ecosystem in this particular part of the island,” Owens said. “But in some of the places like in East Africa, in Addis Ababa, or in Kigali, those are in places where you might meet with entrepreneurs or artists.”

Shared Studios hires local staff in each of the portal locations to facilitate conversations and recruit local experts to join portal sessions, Owens said. These people are called conversation curators.

“They use the sort of museum metaphor of a curator of art, only these are curators of conversations,” Owens said. “So they hire staff people, paid staff people in all these countries, wherever the portal is to work and host the conversations on their side.”

The portal is often booked by entire classes at BC, which break into smaller groups to discuss a topic important to the class curriculum, according to Owens. 

“We’ve had classes within the English program, in the English department, about writing narratives and migration,” Owens said. “We’ve had music department classes come in for world music where students sing or play their favorite songs, and people on the other side sing or play their favorite songs and talk about what’s meaningful about them.” 

Owens said the portal has not only been used by classes but also by BC sports teams and clubs. 

“We’ve had members of the soccer team come in and teach juggling skills to young people in a refugee camp or an [internally displaced people] camp in northern Iraq,” Owens said. “So there’s all sorts of ways in which students can engage in these in a structured way as part of the curriculum, but also, you know, we have clubs—the Gusto food magazine came in last week and talked about food with one of the groups.” 

While sessions reserved by classes and groups often have a more focused conversation topic, Owens said the walk-in sessions involve more open discussions. 

“They might talk about music, or food, or politics, or what their daily life is like or whatever, and they’ll ask us questions and we ask them questions, and you kind of get to know them in an informal way while learning about the different experiences,” Owens said. 

According to Owens, students with reservations about entering a walk-in session should view it as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone. 

“Bring a friend or two if you want, if that makes things feel better, but there’s always a curator—a student, an undergraduate student—who will be there in the room, helping to lead the conversation if needed and to introduce people,” Owens said.

Moira Ujda, head student curator and MCAS 25, said student curators have the unique opportunity to build relationships with curators in other countries because they often connect to the same portal multiple times. 

“So part of the upsides of being a curator is that you do get to connect with the curators in other portals too, and you kind of get to see that repeatedly [and] build that connection, which is really valuable,” Ujda said.

Olivia Absey-Allen, student curator and MCAS ’27, said she formed a friendly relationship with a woman who was present during her two sessions with the Mexico City portal. 

“I came in last time for the open hours, and that’s when I actually got to talk to her one-on-one, which was cool, because then I just got to know more about how she came to work at the portal and it felt like much more of a friend conversation … just laughing and making jokes,” Absey-Allen said.

Her experience as a student curator helped her gain insight into other people’s lives, Absey-Allen said. 

“We spent a long time talking in the open hours yesterday about the differences between college experiences here and in Mexico City as well as just cultural expectations and moving away from your family,” Absey-Allen said. “Like for them, it’s not really common to move away from your family when you turn 18, and I feel like here it’s kind of your expectation.” 

Owens also emphasized that the student curators gain enormous benefits from their experience. 

“Their lives are shaped by this because they have much more time to both talk to the people on the other side during the sessions because they’re in there running them, but also they get to see how BC students respond to this, and they help the conversations move along and they help recruit people to come into it,” Owens said. 

Owens is trying to find a more permanent space for the Global Engagement Portal at BC, he said, so that students and classes can use it more frequently. 

“Seeing how powerful it’s been for students and for myself over the years makes me confident to say that … this is not a pilot project, this is a proven engagement that really mattered to people and I’d love to see it be more permanent,” Owens said. 

The overarching goal of the portal is that each participant can have their own unique and enlightening experience based on their interests, Owens said. 

“I think our minds and our hearts are opened, and I think that’s what I hope people encounter, but in what ways and on what topics … that’s the beauty of it, that people ask questions that interest them,” Owens said. “They think about their own commitments or experiences and share those with others, and each encounter is personalized and distinct.” 

November 5, 2023