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Students Gain Virtual Study Abroad Experience Through “Economics of Disasters”

Without a chance to travel this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ursinus students have gained a global perspective in a new course co-taught by instructors in the U.S. and Australia.

Vera Brusentsev, a visiting professor of business and economics at Ursinus, leads the course with Julia Miller, who is director of academic affairs in Sydney for CAPA: The Global Education Network. Miller co-teaches the course from Australia.

“The unique feature of this class is that it’s multidisciplinary,” Brusentsev said. “I am an economist and Julia is an environmental historian who adds a cultural perspective. The wealth of knowledge our students bring to the class is diverse with majors in economics, environmental studies, international studies, and hard sciences. And we’re talking about issues with which everyone can identify. Our role is to facilitate student learning. We want to let them explore and investigate and bring their prior knowledge to these topics.”

“Economics of Disasters” is funded in part by Ursinus donor and friend of the college Juan Espadas Jr., whose late father, Juan Espadas, was a professor of romance languages at Ursinus.

“Our students are intellectually curious and are continuing to develop cognitive skills of analysis, interpretation and synthesis in this course,” Brusentsev said. “Disasters often follow hazards. They occur when households and assets are both exposed and vulnerable to hazards. By understanding the dynamics of disasters, we can see the underlying causes, apply lessons from one disaster to others, and ultimately arrive at personal and collective decisions and policies to minimize the effects of disasters in our lives.”

In one case study, students investigated hazards, both natural and anthropogenic. They then applied their knowledge and understanding in a comparison of the responses to wildfires in California and Australia. Another application was the responses to COVID-19 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Students also compared responses to climate change in major world cities they selected: Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki, New York City, Seoul, and Venice. The focus of the investigation is the disaster preparedness of each city and, for example, “the cost of preparing for the rising sea level and changes in climate,” Brusentsev said.

“We can conclude that disaster preparedness must be global, credible, scientifically based, and be sensitive to cultural, economic, political, and religious values,” she said. “Everyone recognizes that much remains to be done. Individually, we can start by applying the concepts explored in the class to our lives. If we have the collective will to think about ourselves and our relation to the planet, not only can we greatly reduce the impact of disasters, but also our impact on the resources of the planet.”

And it’s brought upon an opportunity to provide a global experience in the absence of studying abroad.