Developing Faculty’s Intercultural Capacity: Spotlight on Drake University

May 10, 2022

Last month in the blog, I started exploring a frequently-asked question:  How can we increase faculty involvement in intercultural learning? In this post, I’d like to highlight what one university I work with is doing in this regard. I hope this information might give you some useful ideas or inspiration.

Drake University—a private institution of approximately 5,000 students in Des Moines, Iowa—started what’s known as the Nelson Fellows program in 2020. Each semester, a number of faculty members are selected as Nelson Fellows. These Fellows participate in True North Intercultural’s 12-week train-the-trainer program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning, in order to develop their own intercultural competence and explore how they can integrate intercultural learning into their work as educators.

How the Program Began

The initiative began when Dr. Jimmy Senteza, Associate Professor of Finance at Drake, was appointed as faculty director of the Rolland and Mary Nelson Institute. The purpose of the Nelson Institute, according to its website, “is to provide in-depth international knowledge and experiences to Drake students, faculty, and staff.”

Dr. Senteza, who is originally from Uganda and has taken groups of students and faculty from Drake there as part of a study seminar for 15 years, believes it’s critical for people to have experiences that push them outside their comfort zone, and to develop the skills and mindset to succeed in a global world. Yet he recognizes many faculty may not be comfortable or feel they don’t have the tools to effectively help students become global citizens.

The Nelson Institute’s responsibilities revolve around three pillars, one of which is to support faculty. So when Dr. Senteza stepped into the role of faculty director, he saw it as an opportunity to help faculty members develop their capacity to do this kind of work. Senteza says his interest in starting the Nelson Fellows program was due in part to his own background, his understanding of the issues and where inertia exists, and his desire to have an impact.

Garnering Faculty Interest

Dr. Senteza tries to recruit Nelson Fellows from across Drake’s six units. In order to do so, he shares information about the program in the university news outlet and talks about it at the faculty senate. He not only discusses the opportunity, but also emphasizes the critical importance of preparing students for a globalized world.

According to Dr. Senteza, his initial efforts drew a good deal of interest. Since that first semester, past participants have served as ambassadors in their units, making it even easier to recruit for subsequent semesters. For example, Associate Professor of Social and Administrative Pharmacy, Andrea Kjos says she applied to the program because a colleague recommended it.

To be chosen as a Nelson Fellow, interested faculty must complete a short application, which asks about why they are interested in the program and how they foresee it helping them in their work.

Faculty’s reasons for applying are diverse. In their applications, many mention links between what they want to do in their work and what the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program offers. Others cite experiences they’ve had, often with students or colleagues, that helped them understand the importance of developing interculturally competent global citizens.

For example, when asked why he applied, Dr. Daniel Connolly, Professor of Management, explains, “I was interested in learning more about intercultural communications in order to try to relate better to international students and students from different backgrounds than me. Also, as a business professor, I wanted to be able to enhance the global nature of my courses.”

Many applicants recognize the opportunity to develop both personally and professionally. Dr. Doug Stilwell explains, “I teach in Drake's Educational Leadership program and with the ever-increasing diversity in Iowa schools, I wanted to continue my own learning so that I could help prepare future leaders to understand and meet the needs of the students and communities they serve. (…) On a more personal side, as a 64-year-old white male, I know I need to continue my own learning journey; to understand myself better and to challenge my assumptions about how I see the world.”

Incentivizing Participation

Of course, faculty are quite busy and participating in a 12-week professional development program does require a commitment. As an incentive and show of appreciation, the Nelson Institute provides a stipend of $1,000 to participants. In addition, they are recognized as “Nelson Fellows,” featured on the institute’s website, and receive a note of congratulations and appreciation from the Provost upon their selection.

How Fellows Are Using Their Learning

Nelson Fellows are expected to serve as ambassadors within their units—to share their new knowledge, awareness, and skills with their colleagues. They are doing that and more. Fellows report that participating in the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program has impacted their teaching, other aspects of their work, and even their personal lives.

In some cases, Fellows are taking exercises, concepts, or theories learned in the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program and incorporating them directly into their own classes. For example, Dr. Sally Haack, Professor of Pharmacy Practice, says she has implemented many of the activities she participated in during Facilitating Intercultural Learning into her experiential learning site and also in her classroom teaching. Mary McCarthy, Professor of Political Science and one of this semester’s Nelson Fellows, said she is already “creating a new first-year seminar that would be focused on a subset of what we learned.”

Others say their learning has influenced how they teach, lead, or communicate. For example, Professor of Information Systems (and current Department Chair), Dr. Alanah Mitchell, reports, “What I learned in the program not only impacted my classroom, but I also benefited in my role as a university leader.” Education Professor Dr. Stilwell reports, “I have paid closer attention to the diversity of our students and how I can better ensure that I create a classroom environment that is inclusive and also challenges people to examine themselves in order to better serve students.” Professor Kjos says simply, “It has forced me to become more reflective in all aspects of my work.”

Dr. DeDe Small, Professor of Education, has incorporated some things directly into her classes, and has also “tried to acknowledge and emphasize the cultural components that are a part of everything we do as educators and encourage students to be more aware of this dynamic.” Her School of Education colleague, Dr. Jen Thoma, says, “Through the work of this program, I have developed more self-awareness around my own cultural biases, developed activities to incorporate into my classes, and strategies to help myself as I work with other professionals and students.”

An added benefit, according to Dr. Haack and several others, has been the ability “to develop a network of colleagues (at Drake and other institutions) who are passionate about similar areas.” Many Fellows are now using those connections, as well as their shared language and frameworks around intercultural learning, to explore how they might work together to build intercultural competence within their departments or more broadly at Drake.

Nelson Fellows’ Advice to Faculty

I asked the Nelson Fellows what they’d like to share with other faculty considering getting involved with intercultural teaching and learning.

Management Professor, Dr. Connolly, says, “I would encourage faculty to embrace the idea that we are all part of a global society, and with increased diversity in our classrooms, we need to be equipped with effective tools to engage people from different backgrounds and cultures and that we all should strive to be more global and inclusive.”

Others mentioned that participating in the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program has helped them realize intercultural learning is much broader and more holistic than they’d previously thought. As Education Professor Dr. Thoma explains, “I thought I knew a few things about cultural awareness, but this work has taught me that I lack awareness in this area. There is so much to learn and in fact, the learning never really stops.”

Professor McCarthy directly addresses some typical misconceptions, stating, “This program is about a lot more than what we commonly perceive of as intercultural learning. It's about meeting our students where they are so that they can be most likely to enter the ‘learning zone.’ It is not specific to study abroad or courses related to culture in the common use of the term. It is applicable to all classroom experiences but also to how we interact with our colleagues.”

Dr. Kjos’s advice to other faculty members is straight forward: “If you want to get better in how you do your work and how to work better with others, then intercultural learning is essential.”

What Can We Learn?

So what can we learn from Drake’s Nelson Fellows program? I asked Dr. Senteza and the Fellows what advice they’d offer other institutions looking to increase faculty engagement in intercultural learning.

Dr. Stilwell suggests following Simon Sinek’s motto:  start with WHY. “Communicating purpose and relevance is of the utmost importance.” Dr. Senteza also emphasizes the importance of why we need to do this work as educators:  “It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that our instructional approaches are very mindful of the world in which our graduates are going to be living, operating in, getting married in, socializing in… if we keep ourselves detached from that, we’re not doing them any favors. This just has to be done; there’s really no question about it.”

It’s a testament to the Nelson Fellows program that many faculty participants suggest replicating the Drake model, and then creating ways for Fellows to stay connected and continue supporting one another after their completion of the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program.

Of course, the reality of most institutions—Drake included—is that resources are limited. Dr. Senteza recognizes this, and the two of us had a good laugh about how, in my experience, private institutions seem to assume public institutions have more funds and public institutions think the same of their private peers. Senteza suggests, “Look at how you’re using your resources. There are always resources dedicated to global engagement. Figure out pragmatic ways of ensuring your faculty can deliver in a manner where they can help students develop a global mindset. Find your dollars and make sure your dollars are working for you to help ensure your students become global citizens. And this is one way to do it, through your faculty.

One final piece of advice from Dr. Senteza, which I couldn’t agree with more, is this:  “It’s a long road. It takes a lot of patience and it doesn’t come very quickly because you don’t see them as bottom-line results. So the dedication has to be consistent and constant. That’s really, I think, how you get that impact.”


What are your take-aways from this institutional spotlight? What have you learned that you could perhaps utilize in your own context? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you’re interested in learning more about how your institution can partner with True North Intercultural to support the intercultural development of faculty and staff, schedule a strategy call today.


To learn more about Drake University’s Nelson Fellows program:

👉🏽 Overview:

👏🏽 Highlighting Past Fellows:

📣 Call for Proposals:

Photo credit:  Jane Carmona, Unsplash

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