One Year In: Reflecting on COVID’s Impact on Intercultural Learning

Mar 09, 2021

We are officially one year into this pandemic. It’s been a challenging year, no doubt. But as any good interculturalist knows, challenges also offer opportunities for learning and growth.

In this blog post, I’m reflecting back on how this year has impacted the area of intercultural learning in higher education and what we can learn, and looking forward to where we go from here.

Looking Back

The following are a few lessons that I hope higher education has learned from the past year.

Lesson #1:  The need for intercultural competence has become glaringly obvious.

This past year—perhaps more than any in my lifetime—has made the injustices of our world startlingly obvious. They’ve always existed, of course, globally and locally. But the pandemic has highlighted the disparities, while cell phones and social media are bringing greater attention to the brutality and oppression many—especially people of color—experience. And at a time when it’s increasingly obvious just how interconnected we all are, it’s also clear that we’re extremely polarized.

Developing one’s intercultural competence (a process I often simply refer to as “intercultural learning”) involves cultivating a mindset, heart set, and skill set to engage more effectively and appropriately with people who are different from us—whether in race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, religion, or other ways—while also remaining authentic to ourselves.

In today’s world, where intercultural interactions are ubiquitous, intercultural competence is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ but a ‘need to have.’ Not simply because it improves interpersonal relations, but also to help us get better at seeing systemic oppression and the role we may play in contributing to it, and working together to dismantle it.

Lesson #2:  This has offered a needed push to move beyond global mobility. 

Historically, at least in the United States, many institutions of higher education have implicitly relied on contact with diversity as a primary strategy for promoting intercultural competence. Our mission statements say we graduate “interculturally competent students” or “global citizens.” Our primary means of achieving such a goal is by increasing participation in study abroad. Or we focus on building a diverse student body, with the assumption that this will produce more interculturally competent students. But exposure, contact, and even immersion in cultural difference, are not sufficient to consistently develop intercultural competence.

This past year we have been forced to look beyond global mobility, and test out new and different means for achieving our intercultural learning goals. In addition, we’ve had to embrace online learning; instead of asking can or should something be done virtually, we simply had to figure out how to do it.

They say that limitations foster creativity, and this has definitely been the case when it comes to intercultural learning during COVID. Many schools and organizations have developed virtual global exchanges and/or internships. More professors are experimenting with collaborative online international learning (COIL) in their courses. Other educators are exploring ways to connect students in this virtual environment across the diversity that exists within their own student body in ways they might not have on campus. Educators have been experimenting and innovating in this area more than ever before.

While some efforts have been more successful than others, they all offer opportunities for learning and iteration. Many virtual programs have had unexpected positive outcomes. Increased access is one of the most important, in my opinion. Students who may not have studied abroad are participating in virtual global programs, for example. Thus, more students are getting a “taste” of such learning experiences, which is likely to whet their appetite for more.

Lesson #3:  Recognition of the need to intentionally facilitate intercultural learning is increasing.   

One thing I hope has become more obvious through this experimentation is the importance of intentional facilitation. For years, research and literature have supported the need to intentionally facilitate intercultural learning before, during, and after an experience, rather than just relying on intercultural contact alone. But, as I mentioned before, that hadn’t yet become common practice.

In the absence of global mobility, the importance of intentional facilitation has become more obvious.  Thus, more educators and institutions are thinking about how to accompany intercultural experiences—whether in-person or virtual, global or local—with intentional facilitation or mentoring to help students develop intercultural mindsets, heart sets, and skill sets.

Looking Forward

Let’s not focus on going “back to the way things were,” but instead on moving forward with the new knowledge, understanding, and skills that we have gained as educators and institutions during this liminal time.

I’ve talked to many educators who are worried that “international education as we know it has disappeared.” What if we were to instead think, “the intentional, integrated, inclusive approach to intercultural learning of the future is just beginning”?

The following tips are meant to help as we move forward.

Tip #1:  Consider how online learning can enhance, not replace, in-person intercultural experiences.

Online learning is here to stay. But that doesn’t mean it will replace in-person intercultural experiences. Instead, we should embrace online and in-person intercultural learning opportunities as synergistic—a both/and.

Online learning can be used to enhance in-person experiences. In addition, virtual intercultural experiences could serve as a gateway to increase interest, access, and participation in in-person intercultural experiences.

Let’s continue to innovate, coming up with new and better ways to utilize both in-person and online opportunities to support all students’ intercultural development.

Tip #2:  Explore intercultural learning opportunities closer to home.

We don’t necessarily have to board a plane to have an in-person intercultural experience. Opportunities to get outside our comfort zone and engage with people who are different from us abound in most of our communities and campuses.

In fact, college campuses offer great opportunities to create intercultural living and learning laboratories. But this must be done with care. Educators need to intentionally design and facilitate effective and appropriate opportunities for engagement and dialogue, rather than just expecting or hoping intercultural learning will happen naturally. 

Which brings me to the next point…

Tip #3: Focus on capacity-building to shift intercultural learning from periphery to core.

Institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to prepare people to live and work in a pluralistic world—where individuals and organizations are self-aware, able to harness diversity for collaboration and innovation, and recognize and disrupt systemic oppression.

For that to happen, intercultural learning can’t just be something under the purview of one or two offices or departments. It needs to be core to our mission—academic and co-curricular—a fundamental aspect of institutional excellence. This does not mean we do away with international education or diversity, equity, and inclusion offices or initiatives. It simply means we don’t rely on them alone to fulfill such a fundamental aspect of the institutional mission.

We need to develop the intercultural competence of our institutions—at the individual and organizational levels. If we want to move beyond global mobility programs for some students to intercultural development for all students, educators and institutions have to value and practice intercultural learning. This includes faculty, staff, and leadership.

I encourage institutions, as we move forward, to consider how they can invest in developing the intercultural capacity of their people—the faculty and staff that carry out the mission—over the coming years. Higher education leaders are always welcome to schedule a free strategy call with me to explore how True North Intercultural can support you in these efforts.


This has been a hard year. One of the silver linings, I believe, is that the pandemic and many other critical events of the past year have forced higher education to approach and think differently about intercultural learning.

Let’s take this time to reflect on what we’ve learned, what’s worked, and what hasn’t. Who has benefited from the changes? Who has suffered? How can we take what we’ve learned and offer a greater variety of scaffolded options—virtual and in-person, at home and abroad—for all students to learn and grow interculturally? How can we provide more support to faculty and staff to help them develop their own intercultural competence and integrate intercultural learning into their classes, programs, and other aspects of their work?

I’d love to hear from you on this topic! What have you learned? How are you approaching intercultural learning differently as a result of this past year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Photo credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski, Unsplash

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