College Student Uses Technology to Support Innovative South Africa Virtual Study Abroad

Aurelio Soto ’23

Aurelio Soto ’23 recently traveled to Makhanda, South Africa as part of a team working to create 360-degree video tours in support of innovative virtual study abroad programming between Bloomfield College and the town of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

“I have been working with Aurelio for the past two years through Inkululeko, the organization that serves motivated South African township youth with finishing high school and moving onto university,” said Bloomfield College Instructor of Media Communications and founder and Executive Director of Inkululeko Jason Torreano. “This latest project focuses on producing innovative virtual study abroad experiences that leverage virtual reality, using Oculus and similar devices, and mobile technology.”

Through faculty development funding, and Bloomfield College’s Changing Lives Internship program, Soto traveled with Torreano to South Africa during spring break and joined a team working on the project. His role was to create the 360-degree video tours of Makhanda that will be woven into existing Bloomfield College coursework, taking a traditional virtual study abroad program to the next level. 

“During his time with me, Aurelio learned about South Africa, interacted with colleagues of mine from overseas, mentored new interns, managed a team of a dozen tutors from around the United States, and built an online tutoring library that can be used by our learners some 8,000 miles away,” said Torreano.

Soto completed the 360-degree video of the Bloomfield College campus this spring. With the Makhanda content added, Bloomfield College students are able to take a virtual tour (using an Oculus) of the Makhanda community, and South African students are able to take a virtual tour of our campus. According to Torreano, this will provide context for “longer-term, remote engagement which is missing with current virtual study abroad options.”

“Virtual study abroad offerings very often are little more than Zoom conversations,” said Torreano. “Creating this type of experience offers students who have the desire, but not the financial resources, to study abroad through a more immersive and transformative learning opportunity.”

Today, Inkululeko has developed mutually beneficial collaborations with entities around the world, including U.S. colleges and universities. The non-profit organization continues to serve motivated students in Makhanda, South Africa while providing college students the opportunity to work alongside Inkululeko.

“These projects augment what students are learning in class and offer some real-world experience that transcends the boundaries of campus,” said Torreano. “Multiple studies show that young people who go overseas come home with a broader, fuller worldview, additional future career opportunities, new friends, expanded networks and enhanced problem-solving skills. Engaging with people in other countries is transformative.”

“For me, this opportunity to experience another country was very fulfilling” said Soto who shot video using a 360-degree camera at nearly a dozen locations in Mahhanda and interviewed students and colleagues about Inkululeko. “In those two weeks of time I spent in Makhanda, I gained more skills in leadership, working as a team, and communications. I was even invited to teach a lesson on the history of animation to a class of high school students who were very engaged and seemed to really enjoy the new knowledge they gained. Though I just graduated, I look forward to continuing to be involved whenever the opportunity arises.”

Future collaborations planned between the mentor and mentee to further enhance virtual study abroad at Bloomfield include weaving longer-term international engagement opportunities into the College’s curriculum for Fall 2023, conceiving additional ways to include virtual and robust international engagement into other programs across campus, and creating a how-to guide for future students to shoot 360-degree video to build a library of places around the world for students to engage with.

Last year, Soto was featured in a story about his role in Inkululeko on Channel 7, the ABC Affiliate in Buffalo, New York. The story highlighted his collaboration with Inkululeko through COVID-19 to offer remote tutoring options for learners.

Photo: Aurelio Soto ’23 shot video using a 360-degree camera in support of innovative virtual study abroad programming between Bloomfield College and the town of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

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