COVID-19 and the Future of Intercultural Learning in Higher Education


A lot has happened in the world since I wrote my last blog post a month ago, when most colleges and universities were just beginning to consider how to respond to the spreading Coronavirus. Now, most schools have moved instruction and services online. Study abroad programs have been cancelled and students sent home, and many international exchange organizations have laid off hundreds of employees.

Worldwide, people are facing significant hardship and loss, as well as dealing with incredible uncertainty. Most of us are experiencing a wide range of fluctuating emotions, many of them contradictory.

For me personally, this all feels very heavy right now. And yet I’m also feeling hopeful. In this post, I want to acknowledge and make space for the heaviness, while also sharing with you the reasons behind my hopefulness.

An Opportunity to Create a New “Normal”

Lately I’ve heard a lot of references to “when things are back to normal.” Frankly, I don’t know that things will ever go back to how they were before this all started, and I don’t think they should, particularly when it comes to international and intercultural education.

I’d like to humbly suggest that this may be an opportunity for those of us in higher education to begin to re-imagine a new, more intentional, inclusive, and holistic approach to intercultural learning, to replace what has often been a primarily mobility-focused approach, called international education.

It’s an opportunity for us to think deeply about exactly what we’re aiming to achieve through our international education efforts, and to get more intentional and creative about how we go about doing that.

For years now, research has demonstrated that an experience in another culture—even immersion—isn’t necessarily sufficient to help people become more interculturally competent. And yet, most schools have relied on global mobility as the primary means for developing this type of knowledge, skills, and understanding.

Current circumstances both (1) highlight the importance of developing intercultural competence; and (2) demand that educators and institutions get more intentional and creative in their approaches to fostering intercultural learning.

I’ll focus primarily on the latter point, but first want to briefly address the former.

Highlighting the Importance of Intercultural Learning

So far, the situation surrounding the Coronavirus has highlighted many of the inequities, not to mention outright racism and prejudice, within our societies and institutions. Not everyone is impacted equally by the current circumstances. And yet, it also underscores how interconnected we all are.

So even in the midst of all this physical distancing, the need for intercultural competence is as strong as ever.

Getting Intentional and Creative About Fostering Intercultural Learning

Many—if not most—of our higher education institutions recognize the importance of developing what might be framed as intercultural competence, cultural humility, global citizenship, or similar. But the current situation reveals the cracks in our approach.

Most schools have relied too heavily on study abroad and international students as the vehicle for such learning. They send a high percentage of students abroad, or have a large population of students from other countries or diverse cultures, and therefore believe their intercultural learning goals are being met.

But if you’ve followed me for a while or are familiar with research and literature in this area, you know that being in the vicinity of another culture does not always make one more interculturally competent.

Our current circumstances are forcing us to reckon with that now more than ever. This is an invitation for a paradigm shift, or to at least begin asking questions that may ultimately lead to a paradigm shift as the world continues to evolve in still uncertain ways.

To be clear, I’m not negating the value of international exchange and immersion. I’ve been profoundly impacted by my own experiences studying, living, and working abroad, and strongly believe in the transformational powers of such experiences. I’m also not necessarily advocating for or suggesting we shift our focus long-term to virtual exchange or fostering intercultural learning online.

What I’m saying is that, by requiring us to do almost everything virtually for the time being, the Coronavirus creates an opportunity to both reflect on what we’ve been trying to achieve through global mobility all this time, and to think more creatively and intentionally about how we can make that happen. After all, necessity is the mother of invention and constraints often force our brains to be more creative.

While we look forward to a time when global mobility is possible again, let us begin to think more deliberately, innovatively, and holistically about how we can help all students—whether they are engaging with diverse others at home or abroad—develop the capacity to communicate and act more appropriately and effectively across all types of cultural differences.

Of course, now is not a time for long-term planning or taking decisive action. Focusing on staying physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy needs to take top priority right now.

But when it comes to international and intercultural education, this can also be a time for embracing liminality, engaging with ambiguity, asking better questions, considering what’s possible, and letting our inner wisdom emerge.

In that vein, I want to simply leave you with some questions to consider (and possibly discuss with colleagues—from a safe distance, of course):

  • When it comes to international education, what are you really hoping participants will get out of such experiences? That is, what are the core learning objectives?
  • Why does this matter? Why does it matter to you?
  • What are all the possible ways the learning objectives you’ve identified might be achieved? Engage your imagination.
  • What more is possible?
  • What role do you want to play in shaping a new future for intercultural learning in higher education?

This will surely be an ongoing conversation, and I invite you to be a part of it—with me and the True North Intercultural community, as well as in your own circles. Please share your thoughts, comments, ideas, questions, or just how you’re feeling at this point in time in the comments section below.

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