Building Intercultural Capacity at Your Institution: Where to Begin?

Jan 10, 2023

If your college or university is interested in building faculty and staff’s intercultural capacity, you might be wondering: Where should we start?

This is one of the questions I’m most commonly asked during strategy sessions with higher education institutions.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as it depends on the institution and context. But there are several questions I tend to ask and tips I offer to help educators decide where to start. I’m sharing that information here so you can think strategically about how to build intercultural capacity at your college, university, or higher education organization.

Who is interested? That is, who are the educators who want to develop their intercultural capacity? If you don’t yet know, ask. And be careful not to make assumptions about who is or isn’t interested. Some people may not demonstrate interest in getting involved in DEI or intercultural initiatives because they feel they don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge. But that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the importance of such work, and they might be very interested in relevant professional development.

I advise first offering intercultural learning opportunities to educators who want them, not making anything mandatory. However, it’s important to move beyond “preaching to the choir.” You can build on initial efforts organically, yet strategically. Consider how those who participate in intercultural capacity-building opportunities can help expand the circle of interest by sharing what they learned and its relevance to their work with their colleagues. For example, when Drake University chooses faculty members to participate in True North Intercultural’s train-the-trainer program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning, those educators are expected to serve as intercultural ambassadors to others in their department (see this case study for more information). In this blog post, Becki Maurio discusses her happy surprise at the interest she found when she started inviting participation from folks she considered “choir adjacent” on her campus. 

It’s also beneficial to highlight the efforts and successes of those who participate in training. This can help other educators recognize the relevance to their field or work, as well as see the value in potentially investing in their own intercultural development. Look at the systems you already have in place at your institution and consider how they might support participation in intercultural capacity-building initiatives. For example, can you tie such professional development to the school’s mission statement, aspects of the tenure process, employee goal-setting and reviews, or similar?

What’s the breadth and depth of current interest in intercultural capacity building? Regarding breadth, I ask questions such as: How many people are interested? Are they scattered across campus? Or is there a specific department, office, or committee that is wanting to develop their capacity together? Some people assume they need a large grant and/or institution-wide interest to get started building intercultural capacity. But you can begin by enrolling just a couple of educators in one of True North Intercultural’s public programs (click here for info on public programs), or choose to have a larger group learning together (click here to explore those options).

Related to depth, I ask: Are educators interested in learning how to integrate intercultural learning into their courses, programs, or other work, and needing to develop their capacity to facilitate intercultural development? Or do they primarily want to develop their own intercultural competence to create more inclusive campuses and communities? Maybe you have some educators that fall into each of those categories. All of True North Intercultural’s programming focuses on helping educators develop their own intercultural competence; more advanced programs combine this with building educators’ capacity to facilitate others’ intercultural learning (you can’t do the latter without the former).

Some schools I speak with have a small (or large) contingent of educators wanting to integrate intercultural learning into their courses, programs, or other work. They recognize how it important it is for their students to develop interculturally, but are unsure how to help them do so. They are looking for professional development that will give them the tools, frameworks, and confidence to facilitate intercultural learning. Other institutions have many faculty and staff interested in developing their intercultural competence, but they aren’t looking to integrate intercultural learning into their work (at least not yet). They mainly want to understand what intercultural learning entails and make their courses or programs more inclusive. Understanding the breadth and depth of interest helps me advise educators on the best options for their particular institution and situation.

How might leadership be involved? Are leaders at the institution behind this inquiry? Are they interested in being involved? To truly build an interculturally competent institution, it’s critical that leadership get involved at some point—not just by supporting the initiative, but by actually participating. However, as I’ve mentioned, it’s important to start with those educators who are most interested and ready to invest time and energy in their development. That may not be the leadership. If that’s the case, I encourage those educators I’m talking with to think about how they could involve leadership more as the initiative progresses. Again, this can occur somewhat organically, partly because as educators develop their intercultural competence, they build skills that can help them better understand different perspectives on campus and build bridges to support their efforts.

To summarize, building intercultural capacity should be approached as an ongoing process. Where you start and how that process unfolds will depend on your institution and context. I suggest considering which educators are interested in developing interculturally—both the breadth and depth of their interest—and supporting them in doing so. You can build organically yet strategically from there. The most important thing is not where you get started, but that you get started.

One last point I want to make is that building interculturally competent institutions is not just about individual development. It also entails shifting organizational culture and systems. However, systems and culture are changed by people. So, as we develop the intercultural competence of our people, we’re building the necessary foundation for creating more inclusive and equitable organizational systems and culture.

Below are a few related resources and ideas for next steps:


Photo credit: Clemens van Lay, Unsplash

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Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.