Reimagining Community Building in Education in the Time of COVID-19 – Reflections on a Pioneer Faculty Seminar

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Pioneer Faculty Seminar


Celebrating her eighth year mentoring at Pioneer Academics, Professor Colette Mazzucelli has a surprisingly upbeat assessment of the potential outcomes of the current pandemic crisis. “It’s certainly a crisis, but it is also an opportunity,” she said in a recent seminar addressing the impact of the pandemic on the broad field of international relations. Dr. Mazzucelli, who has taught International Relations as a member of the Graduate Faculty of NYU since 2005, was addressing questions from a group of close to two dozen Pioneer students from around the world. Organized by the Pioneer Academics Student Advisory Board, the seminar was facilitated by co-hosts Evelyn from Beijing, China, Vinh from Houston, Texas, and Annie from Hangzhou, China. Participants came from four continents, and were dialing in to the Zoom seminar from Nigeria, Cameroon, Pakistan, India, England, Canada, and several places each in the United States and China.

Dr. Mazzucelli’s remark was in response to a question about incorporating the work and ideas of a large range of disciplines into discussions about international relations. Specifically, she was reflecting on the opportunity this crisis presents to begin to work together more intentionally in the all-important field of public health.

“I think,” she said, “we see that this pandemic brings concepts such as health security, Global Public Health, to the forefront of our thinking.” She reimagines the relationship between the fields of public health and international relations as one that brings into the conversation “the voices of those who are global public health specialists, who are practitioners in medicine, who have backgrounds in infectious diseases.” The intransigence of this pandemic, “the way in which it continues to challenge us…makes the academic world much more aware that there is no place for disciplinary divides. We have to be more holistic in our thinking and we have to allow public health conversations and research to impact international relations in different ways.” For instance, since the pandemic will affect each continent differently, each continent will need to respond differently, and “we have to understand these differences” and what they mean for the field of international relations.

Global health is just one example of the opportunities for reimagining the world that the pandemic is creating. Dr. Mazzucelli also spoke about education, which is her own passion as well as her profession, and, in response to participants’ questions, areas of life as diverse as identity and gender issues, war and peace, and a new vision of our global interdependence.

Dr. Mazzucelli did not set out to be an educator. Because of her great interest in travel and international relations, she trained and planned to be a diplomat. However, a wise professor noted her particular interest in Europe and counseled her to become an academic instead, so she could focus her attention on her area of interest rather than move from place to place depending on the needs of the Foreign Service.

It proved to be good advice and a wise decision. The academic trajectory she chose allows her to have the best of both worlds: hands-on experience in the field of international relations; and the joy of mentoring students who share her interests. “You have to reach out as a professor to just about every part of the world. You have to communicate with many different peoples and groups and communities.” The academic world “gives us an opportunity to be responsive in very specific ways, through our mentoring, through our writings, through the different networks and communities that we can bring together.” It’s the mentoring, the ability to help young people find their own passion, that she finds most satisfying. “I would say the most special thing is to bring young minds together with those who have already established themselves and their careers, and to see how these young people come into their own, recognizing their own vocations through the experiences they have with established colleagues.”

The pandemic and its disruption of the ordinary patterns of education have made this, Dr. Mazzucelli said, “without a doubt the most memorable semester in my experience, in large part because of the way in which the students have demonstrated their commitment and their dedication to studies in a very surreal time.” Although the in-person educational experience is invaluable and irreplaceable, in this time when it is not available, “we can imagine the community in different ways.”

Today’s students are, in her opinion, ideally equipped for this work of reimagination. “You are coming into a world which is challenged in many different ways,” she says, “and you are digital natives, whereas my generation are immigrants to that world. We don’t know it from the inside out. We learned it from the outside in.” 

Before the pandemic, Dr. Mazzucelli appreciated the flexibility she was given to use technology in her teaching. Once technology became the only tool for teaching, she became the learner, relying on her students for feedback as to what works and what doesn’t. Her seminars are now “student centric endeavors.” And the idea of “classroom” is being reimagined in terms of “community.” “A classroom has walls, a community is expansive.” The frontiers are pushed out and “inclusion becomes central to the experience.”

This new focus on inclusion brings a new set of challenges. “How does one build a community now that can mean going in and connecting to a local classroom in Nigeria, in Kenya?” The “digital divide” is experienced particularly acutely when learning opportunities become almost entirely digital. Conversations about, for instance, Europe or Asia can happen in multiple places at once, but “whatever the dialogue is, it means reaching into the local to make the world learning experience more relevant…So the challenge in our world is to make that local experience one that we can share.” The digital divide complicates this effort by reinforcing a level of exclusionism. “Inclusionism is the basis for everything that we do, and in learning today, inclusionism is about mitigating the digital divide.”

Once again, Dr. Mazzucelli sees this challenge as one for today’s students. Before long, “your generation will come into the positions of responsibility, and it will be in those positions of responsibility that that digital divide is addressed.”

Asked about how people who are drawn to work in the field of international relations identify themselves, Dr. Mazzucelli suggested that many of them see themselves as “citizens of the world.” She also suggested that this is a field where reimagining one’s identity is encouraged,

“because one in this world does not necessarily have just one identity. One is from Asia. One is from India. One is female. One is a climate activist. There are so many different ways that your generation has to identify oneself that there is no need to narrow down to one. Identity today is plural, and should be plural, because we live in a plural world.”

In response to a question about whether it is more important for a “global citizen” to accept or to influence society, Dr. Mazzucelli turned to philosophy, citing the Aristotelian idea that “the acorn wants to become a tree.” Society is always becoming, always reimagining itself, always evolving. Sometimes evolution is the result of revolution, a word that implies violence, and she notes that “the pandemic is introducing a certain type of violence into our societies,” the  violence of “its ability to kill the innocent and the defenseless.” This calls upon us to reimagine our commitment to society and, as citizens of the world, “we are beholden to use our talents to influence society proactively.”

The pandemic has exposed the asymmetries and vulnerabilities of virtually every nation in the world, affecting most particularly those that have previously felt themselves to be invulnerable.

“The outcome of the pandemic, I believe,” says Dr. Mazzucelli, “as we return to a new normal, whenever that is, will mean a redefinition of social movements.” The asymmetries will need to be addressed. The world order will need to be reimagined. It will be the work of a generation. “It is a process, and it’s incumbent again on your generation to influence that process.”

Dr. Mazzucelli sees the Pioneer experience as ideal preparation for this work. “In community building in the academic world, I would say that Pioneer Academics is the most innovative, the most inclusive, and the most engaged in terms of bringing young people together, allowing them to realize their own passions and their dreams of studying.” And that, she says, is why she has, since 2013, returned year after year to work with Pioneer Scholars.

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