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Virtual Learning and Exchange: Collaborative Relationships, Trust and Power

Virtual Learning and Exchange: Collaborative Relationships, Trust and Power
August 26, 2021

By Katie Butler and Aimée Joséphine Utuza (originally published on January 27, 2021) 

North-South student mobility programs, when done right, have the potential to result in mutually beneficial partnerships of reciprocal intercultural learning. However, Northern institutions engaging in these partnerships without doing their due diligence risk sending students into communities where they may effectively recreate colonial power relations to both party’s detriment. In my own experience as a student from Western University who went to study and volunteer in Rwanda during my second year of my undergraduate program, I greatly appreciated that my school recognized the importance of global ethical engagement and provided me with ample research-based training to navigate these relationships prior to my departure. This motivated me to continue to work with Rwandan partners through the Western Heads East (WHE) internship program.

Western Heads East is a collaboration between Western staff, students and African partners using probiotic foods to contribute to health and sustainable development. As an intern on the Rwanda team, I was prepared to live and work in Rwanda, engaging with the community to help my supervisor start up a probiotic yogurt community kitchen, with a vision to empower women and families by making them more self-sufficient for nutrition and basic economic needs. This, of course, was the plan prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Western University quickly collaborated with our East African partners to adapt the WHE program to a remote, purely virtual internship. I felt very apprehensive about this. All the training I had received about how to practice self-reflexivity and to limit post-colonial power imbalances focused on understanding the local context and immersing oneself in the host community culture, which was not readily adaptable to this virtual internship. Further, upon engaging in a brief scoping review of the existing literature on establishing trust in global virtual teams, there was a significant gap in the research on how post-colonial power dynamics might play into these relationships.

The support and openness of my supervisor UTUZA Aimée Joséphine, a student in Health Promotion at Western University, reassured me that building ethical and trusting relationships virtually would be different, but possible. Besides being a student, Aimée Joséphine, along with her sister Mukashumbusho Clarisse Cechetto, also founded two local non-government organizations (Living with happiness-Icyemezo (LWHI) and Rwandan Mothers-Team (RMT), in 2011 and 2014, respectively). Both organizations are based in Rwanda and contribute to the initiatives which aim to support family harmony. LWHI and RMT are under the Zirikana umbrella. Please visit the Zirikana website on or to learn more about both organizations’ interventions in Rwandan communities.

During the Internship period, 45 trainees, including women and both organizations’ volunteers on the ground, received theoretical and practical training from the three Western University interns working together with two interns from the University of Rwanda. The training focused on the health benefits and production of FITI probiotic yogurt. These trained women are now ready to train others, but there is still a need to secure the training place and materials, establish a market for the produced yogurt, find legal certificates to produce and sell more yogurt, and work with trainees to sell the FITI probiotic yogurt for the women and families’ benefits. During our internship, we were able to work with Aimee to create a detailed sustainable business plan and budget to help facilitate these next steps.

As an intern, I felt connected to and supported by my supervisor. She made an explicit effort to make time for personal communication, where we discussed our stories, interests and goals for the future, rather than only engaging in formal, task-based communication. Still, I was fortunate to have gone to Rwanda in the past because there were not the same opportunities to interact with the community and establish lasting relationships with people on the ground in Rwanda. I missed the in-person interactions, tangible outcomes and cultural experiences that make community health work so rewarding. Additionally, miscommunication and misinterpretation were consistent challenges that required extra careful attention to ensure we were not overstepping and community demands were being prioritized.

Despite the challenges accompanying virtual partnerships, Aimée also felt her relationships with her remote interns were positive, stating: “As a supervisor, I had a great time collaborating and partnering with the students/interns. Being a student helped me be receptive to understanding the interns (academic and personal goals) and assist them in achieving their goals. My experience of more than 15 years working in the health sector in Rwanda and nine years directing Living With Happiness-Icyemezo, offered me a rich background and the facilities to liaise with different collaborators for a win-win partnership. Virtual communication was challenging because of the time difference between the two countries (Rwanda and Canada). The language, socio-cultural difference, and internet connectivity were other factors to control for equilibrated communication to avoid power dynamics. As a supervisor, I was satisfied that the trust was immediately present through connection and communication.”

Following my internship, I felt motivated to use what I had learned from my own experience and that of my fellow interns to begin filling in some of the identified research gaps to inform future training for remote interns. Under Dr. Elysée Nouvet, I have begun conducting qualitative research including an interpretive thematic analysis of intern blogs and semi-structured interviews of WHE interns and supervisors.

While this research is still in its early stages, an interesting emergent finding is that, contrary to what one might expect, practicing self-reflexivity was thought to be even more necessary when working with a community from a distance. Interns voiced that while their working environment in a traditional student mobility program would naturally challenge their biases, practicing self-reflexivity, although still crucially important, was avoidable working remotely. This demonstrates how building mutually beneficial and trusting relationships virtually demands increased intentionality.

About the Authors 

Katie Butler is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western University. After completing a 3-month remote Western Heads East internship under supervisor Aimée Utuza this past summer, she has begun conducting qualitative research on developing trust and building relationships virtually and interculturally. Her experience with student mobility programs in Rwanda has allowed her to be privy to many of the global heath equity conversations between Western University faculty and students.

Aimée Joséphine Utuza is a health professional from Rwanda, with a diploma in general nursing, a mental health specialization, a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, and a Master’s in Public Health. She has more than 15 years’ experience working in Rwanda’s health sector, including the Ministry of Health for Rwanda, the Swiss Cooperation, and international non-governmental organizations working in mental health, refugees’ health, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, and maternal newborn and child health. She is currently studying Health Promotion at Western University with a research focus on the “Intersections among Gender Violence and Disability” with a particular interest in the relevance of trauma and violence informed care.