Members of the Cornell community interact with university students in Mexico City and Afghanistan via inflatable portal March 7 in the Biotech atrium.

Campus connects to Afghanistan, Mexico via portal

One student performed an intimate improv exercise with someone in Mexico City.

A conversation with university students in Afghanistan veered from their optimism about the future to their views of Americans to their values about making friends and finding partners.

These were among the interactions Cornell students, faculty and staff had with people around the world via an inflatable portal, set up in the Biotech atrium on March 7. The one-day portal offered a preview of what may be in store when a longer-term portal arrives on campus for three months in August.

The portal is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs and the Office of Engagement Initiatives, and coordinated by Cornell University Library.

The portals allow users at locations in the United States and across the globe to have spontaneous, face-to-face conversations and collaborations via life-sized screens. In Biotech, the portal was connected to Herat, Afghanistan and Mexico City.

“Technology made the barrier between the portals so small,” one user wrote after visiting the inflatable portal. Another wrote, “Amazing experience, feels real. Great to improve intercultural understanding.”

The Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) and the Office of Engagement Initiatives are working with faculty this semester to design course programming to make the most of the portal. CTI is also hosting a brainstorming lunch March 23, focused on designing meaningful portal learning experiences.

“This encounter affected me more than I expected,” said Xin Li, associate university librarian, after a conversation with portal users in Herat. “I’m so excited to work with our partners to explore the portal’s many intriguing possibilities that connect us with human beings who are like us and different than us.”

“It was really moving to have the experience of an unfiltered conversation with our colleagues in Afghanistan,” said Wendy Wolford, incoming vice provost for international affairs. “I found it much more affecting than I even thought it would be.”

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

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