Students share vision for ‘pandemic-proof’ universities

Nine students from very different backgrounds have overcome the disruption to international cooperation caused by the coronavirus to rethink the university of the future and whether education can be made ‘pandemic-proof’ in the post-COVID era.

Supported by a partnership between the Mastercard Foundation and the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, the students have pooled their talents and experiences of community engagement to collaborate in a pandemic recovery and resilience working group – which will present its findings at a four-day international conference.

The Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC2021) will be jointly hosted on the virtual campuses of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, both in the United States, from 30 September to 3 October 2021, under the banner of ‘Global Institutions, Local Impact: Power and Responsibility of Engaged Universities’.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The interdisciplinary pandemic recovery and resilience team consists of students studying a range of subjects in universities in South Africa, India, Mexico, Ghana, Spain, Burkina Faso and Rwanda.

What unites them is their ambition to become next generation leaders with a clear understanding that international cooperation and public engagement can help overcome the challenges facing the world as it emerges from COVID-19.

Removing barriers to quality education

From working to remove the barriers to quality education and inclusion of sexual minorities and students from underprivileged backgrounds in India to helping preserve indigenous cultures and languages and promote conscious tourism in Mexico, the students have been tackling a multitude of issues in their local communities.

In South Africa, medical students Vuthlarhi Shirindza and Marc Nathanson had their own learning experience seriously disrupted as in-person teaching transitioned to the digital classroom and elective patient appointments and surgeries were postponed.

Shirindza, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cape Town, told University World News: “Our pandemic recovery and resilience working group was tasked with rethinking how the university of the future – and medical schools – can be pandemic-proof, something I am very excited to dissect as I know the fruits of this discussion will impact how we think of future universities and will personally affect my education and work as a doctor.”

She is the student representative of the Rural Doctors Association of South Africa and deputy chairperson of the University of Cape Town’s Rural Support Network and co-founder of RaAzi, a company that uses drone technology to deliver chronic medication in rural and peri-urban South Africa.

Shirindza has also been busy this year spearheading a mentorship programme between the final-year health sciences’ students across South African universities and health professionals working at rural hospitals to give students a smoother transition and adequate preparation for life after university, particularly in rural health.

Respect for opposing views

Among the benefits of being involved in the Mastercard-Talloires Next Generation Leaders initiative, according to Shirindza, is increased awareness and respect for opposing views.

“I was intrigued logging into the same call with people from all over the world in different time zones and life situations, some who speak very fluent English and others who needed subtitles because English was their second or third language or because of a hearing impairment.

“Some people were technologically capable, but others not. Despite being from different spectrums of life, we were all leaders, impacting our respective communities in various ways. Seeing this disparity taught me to be more mindful and respectful of our different life experiences and how they influence our beliefs and decision-making,” said Shirindza.

Fellow medical student Marc Nathanson is on the third year of his course at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town and is president of a private student organisation called Osler, helping students from a variety of different portfolios living off-campus.

He told University World News he welcomed the opportunity to take part in the Talloires Network partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, which had brought together “innovative and dynamic minds from all over the world, guided by high-calibre coaches to critically engage and tackle socio-economic challenges.”

Nathanson said the pandemic and recovery group was challenged by its own connectivity issues, but “has united behind one goal – making a difference to the new normal that will be a post-COVID world” and to consider how universities were structured pre-COVID; how they have been working under COVID and what they will look like post-COVID.

“The team is working well together and meeting weekly to tackle these questions, and preparations are well under way to ensure that, by the time the opportunity to present our research comes, we will deliver a vision of a better world,” said Nathanson.

Think globally and act locally

Across the Atlantic, Ángel José Solís Domínguez, studying for his bachelor degree in Mechatronics Engineering at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, told University World News that he applied to join the Next Generation Leadership (NGL) programme because he wanted “to make alliances with young people from other cultures and contexts to analyse and try to propose solutions and alternatives to the problems we have as humanity. Today, more than ever, is the time to think globally and act locally.”

He explained that the scheme enables participants to access funds up to US$1,500 “to reduce the digital divide and acquire computer equipment, internet, software or books to help us prepare our presentation for the conference”.

Domínguez has founded various projects to teach and preserve indigenous languages and to promote conscious tourism after volunteering to offer maths classes to elementary school children and discovering there was a lack of teaching material written in the indigenous languages of his region.

He decided to find a more dynamic and inclusive way to offer his courses through games and educational materials in the indigenous languages, but was forced to stop giving face-to-face courses due the pandemic.

“So, I decided to experiment by adapting the didactic materials that I have developed so that they are digitally available and more people can access them,” he said, but lack of internet access is a major challenge.

“There is no good signal and the families of these communities do not have easy access to computers or smartphones. I’m still trying to design the best strategy to deal with these problems,” he told University World News.

He valued being able to have cooperative dialogue with colleagues through the NGL programme and understand how the pandemic has affected various regions of the world and how educational institutions were seeking to help society and the environment.

Identifying good practices

“As a network, we are identifying good practices that educational institutions of the Talloires Network have carried out to offer added value and service to students and the community and promote recovery and resilience in the face of the pandemic. We seek to be better prepared for future situations that we face as humanity and similar challenges,” he said.

Back in Africa, Mahugnon Samuel Ahossouhe, a masters degree student at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering in Burkina Faso, also welcomed being able to participate in the pandemic and resilience working group.

He told University World News: “As president of the Water and Sanitation at the 2iE Institute, I was able to mobilise members to produce a hydro-alcoholic solution as part of the response to COVID-19.

“I was also able to carry out health assessments within the two campuses of my institute on the quality of hygiene practised in our restaurants and as a student I carried out a community project on the improvement of the living conditions of sanitation workers.”

He said participating in the NGL programme had given him “a better understanding of what to do for an emergence in a university environment during the pandemic”.

Other participants in the pandemic and resilience working group include Khan Alkozee, who was born in Afghanistan, and is now studying at University of Camilo José Cela in Spain, to earn a double degree in law and criminology with the aim of using his knowledge to make society safety and more prosperous.

Mohak Thukral, founder of Project Kushal Society, a registered non-profit organisation working to remove the barriers to quality education and inclusion of sexual minorities, is another member of the team.

Based in India, he has organised multiple skill development workshops and events for students from underprivileged backgrounds and helped to organise several seminars, awareness sessions, and landmark events, including Punjab’s first Pride Parade.

Thukral is currently working towards digitalising the classrooms of small private and government schools and identifying new ways to improve the skill sets of the students.

Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and research professor at Tisch College of Civic Life, said: “We have enjoyed connecting the team regularly with one another by video-conference. Their community engagement experiences are varied due in large part to the variety of contexts they represent and we admire their resilience and look forward to hearing the lessons they’d like to share.

“Like our previous conferences in South Africa and Mexico, the TNLC2021 (Talloires Network Leaders Conference 2021) is a movement-building event. It’s essential that we elevate the voices and perspectives of students around the world as we reflect on and calibrate our collective strategic direction.”

The Talloires Network of Engaged Universities is a coalition of 417 universities in 79 countries which have publicly committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of their institutions.

Details about the TNLC Boston 2021 conference can be found here. Participants will share ideas and build collaborations for action on important and interrelated issues, including Pandemic Recovery and Resilience, Conflict and Inequality, Climate Justice, Assessing Engagement, and Civic Engagement Futures.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at