Cultural Conversations about COVID-19 | Part 1

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This is the first of two installments of Dr. Grinde’s look at the ways she adapted her Cross-Cultural Psychology course amid a pandemic. You can read part two here.

In March, as Loras transitioned to all online learning due to COVID-19, it quickly became apparent my biggest challenge was adapting my Cross-Cultural Psychology course. The course is discussion and small group-based, and students engage in challenging conversations involving controversial subjects. Transporting this intimate and engaged classroom into the virtual world of online learning was not easy. After the initial transition, I knew I needed to re-focus and find a way to re-engage the students with the course material. I decided I would do that through live online cultural conversations with some of my colleagues, friends and acquaintances who live in or are originally from other cultures around the world. The reactions of different countries and cultures to the global pandemic provided an important case study in cross-cultural psychology. Technology provided my class the opportunity to learn in real-time and connect what they are learning in the course to what is happening in the world around them.

Sr. Rose from Togo, Leo from Myanmar and Seo Hyun from South Korea joined a class discussion of Cross-Cultural Psychology in the spring.

My students and I were able to visit on Zoom with people living in or from: Togo, Kenya, China, Myanmar, South Korea, Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, Spain, France, Ireland, England, Netherlands and Ukraine. Dr. Priyanka Parajuli (’08) joined us from the busy medical clinic at SIU-Springfield to share insight about Nepal’s native culture, from where she had just returned before the country shut its borders due to the pandemic. Loras students in the spring 2020 course, Adele Grenouilleau and Mariana Bayona (’22), had returned home to France and Colombia, respectively, and were able to join us with family members to share insights. Sergio Perez (’13), director of the Center for Inclusion & Advocacy at Loras, also traveled to his family home in the region of Coahuila de Zaragoza, Mexico, during the pandemic and joined us from there. Dr. Eric Miller, former director of Study Abroad at Loras, joined us from his home in Taiyuan, China. Having lived abroad as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine in 2007 and via Loras’s Ireland program in 2013 and 2018, I also called on friends and colleagues in those countries. All other cultures were represented by individuals currently living in Dubuque, but who remain close with family and friends in their native country. These people graciously provided insights into their cultures, their societies, and how different peoples in different places around the globe were dealing with the pandemic.

To accommodate the overwhelming and enthusiastic interest of those invited to share their cultural perceptions, over five weeks, the class held 3-5 cultural conversations each week with individuals from across 14 different cultures. The discussions started with the pandemic and then moved to discussions of some of our main course topics, including but not limited to: education, race/ethnicity, healthcare, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status. During this time, students were assigned to study a specific culture across the semester and write journal entries related to specific topics. Once we moved online, I added the coronavirus and cultural responses to the pandemic as a possible new topic. Many students dug into the pandemic topic and were able to examine the culture through the lens of coronavirus and added to the number of countries we were able to compare and contrast and discuss. The following is a brief sharing of a few of the topics shared in the conversations and journals.

Religion is a central aspect of many cultures, and students were interested in how various countries, especially those with devout Catholic populations, responded to coronavirus during Holy Week. Sergio described how the local Catholic church in his Mexican community took to the streets. “There was basically a pick-up truck with the Eucharist on the back with the Priest walking behind the truck distributing holy water on the local people and homes. The approaching truck was announced via loudspeaker. People stood outside of their homes with face masks waiting to be blessed by the holy water. Once blessed, many fell to their knees in prayer. It was both an explicit and communal representation of devotion to their faith tradition.” Cristina, joining us from Madrid, shared that this was the first time since 1933 that the streets of Spain would not be filled with the well-known processionals of Semana Santa (Holy Week) due to the government canceling all in-person activities. Like Spain, all Holy Week services were moved online in Ireland, and the leaders of the various Christian churches came together to encourage all to pray and join in services online in their own homes.

Despite the more swift response of neighboring Central American countries, as one student reported in her journal, Nicaraguan President Ortega encouraged his citizens to party during Carnival and pack the beaches during Holy Week. This response resonates with other countries that the students were studying and writing about, including the leader of Belarus, who told his citizens to drink vodka and spend time in the sauna to poison the virus, and the leader of Turkmenistan who banned the word ‘coronavirus’ in his country.

While Sr. Rose from Togo did not comment specifically on Holy Week, she shared that her village is 50% Muslim and 50% Christian and there is on-going tension and fighting for land. She was hoping that this crisis might force the two sides to work together and share resources. In smaller villages in Togo and Mexico, without mainstream information and contact, more people were turning to local medicine doctors, using local plants, and witchcraft to ‘ward off’ the virus.

Students are often interested in all aspects of food in other cultures. One of the most notable discussions on this topic was with Priyanka, who had just recently returned from her home country of Nepal, and discussed the impact on citizens, especially those living near poverty, when the local markets (where most people buy and sell goods) had their hours severely restricted to a few hours in the morning (5-8 a.m.) as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus. These restrictions greatly impacted both the livelihood of those who rely on selling at the markets, as well as making it more difficult for families throughout the community to access fresh and affordable food.

As was the case time and time again in our conversations, those living in or near the poverty level were affected most negatively by the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic. Mariana and her sister, Angelica, a medical student in Colombia, voiced their concern about those living outside of the major cities and the many recent Venezuelan immigrants. They specifically discussed many small communities that have no access to healthcare with the nearest hospital five hours away and can only be reached by horse or boat. They addressed the inequality present throughout the country and their responsibility to be aware of and address both the on-going health and economic crisis.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2020, Loras was ranked the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the fourth consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 12th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).