ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — 2020 has made many of us Zoom and video conferencing experts. Two cohorts of Marymount University students are certainly seasoned Zoom pros. Their professor says they’re a lot more empathetic, too.

Assistant professor of English Leigh Johnson and professor (and friend) Noreen Rivera teach over 1,700 miles apart from one another, but over the spring and fall semesters, they brought their classrooms together. Johnson’s Literature & Languages students were going to spend the spring semester learning about the U.S. border with Mexico, including a trip to Rivera’s university, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Like many other travel plans, the coronavirus dashed that one. But the students were paired as pen pals to learn about each other’s cultures over email (and exchange a few Tik Tok videos along the way). “I wanted [Rivera’s] students to understand that my students are not what they might picture when they think of D.C. as a metropolitan area,” Johnson said. 

And while her students were studying literature about the border, Johnson wanted them to make personal connections to the stories. “I wanted them to have somebody who they could talk to about the literature that they’re reading,” she said.

Johnson says her students exceeded her expectations. The professor duo decided to bring their classrooms together this fall. Last week, the pen pals finally met “face-to-face” over Zoom. 

Both Marymount and Rio Grande Valley are Hispanic Serving Institutions. “Marymount is very diverse but sometimes our students don’t necessarily see themselves that way,” Johnson said. “So when they’re able to talk to folks from different parts of the country they would say, ‘Wow my cultural identity is stronger after talking with my peer about their cultural identity.’”