Tips for Fostering Intercultural Learning during COVID-19

May 11, 2020

We are all living with a lot of uncertainty right now. International educators are not only dealing with uncertainty in their own lives, but also in the lives of their students. Will students be able to travel abroad in the fall? Will programs need to be shortened? Start dates delayed? Will international students be able to get visas to come to our school? Will they decide not to enroll?

So many unknowns! For us, and our students.

Global mobility might be cancelled or on hold for the time being. But intercultural learning doesn’t have to be! 

In fact, I would argue that intentionally focusing on developing intercultural competence is more important now than ever. Previously, we may have been able to move students around the world and hope that such experiences would lead to deep intercultural learning (if you’ve followed me for more than a minute you know that’s not necessarily a given). But now we have to come up with other ways.

Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned previously, the Coronavirus is highlighting many of the disparities in our world—globally and domestically—and thus the need for greater intercultural competence.

In this blog post, I want to offer a few tips for fostering intercultural learning during these uncertain times, and invite you to share your own ideas.

TIP #1:  Focus on Embracing Uncertainty as Part of the Learning

Instead of thinking about helping students develop intercultural competence despite the current pandemic, what if we think about helping them develop these skills in light of current circumstances?

That is, what if the experience they are focused on learning from becomes our current uncertain times, as opposed to a trip to a different part of the world? In other words, we re-frame this uncertainty as an opportunity for intercultural learning.

Why do people choose to go abroad anyway? There are obviously many reasons, but one reason people often choose to study in another country is to push themselves outside their comfort zone. To try something new and different.

Furthermore, learning how to embrace ambiguity is a critical skill in developing one’s intercultural competence. In addition, intercultural learning involves becoming more self-aware, including tuning into your own physical and emotional cues. These are all skills that are necessary and can be intentionally developed through the current circumstances.

One of the activities I developed that I teach in the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program involves helping students think about what their comfort zone looks like, what types of things push them outside their comfort zone into what we call the “learning zone,” and what might push them so far outside their comfort zone that they shut off to learning.

Such an activity can be adapted to our current circumstances to facilitate a conversation with students about how they are experiencing the current pandemic, increasing their self-awareness and helping them reflect on and learn from what they otherwise might have just thought of as something to endure or get through. By doing so, they become more comfortable engaging ambiguity and uncertainty in the future.

TIP #2:  Think Outside the Box & Collaborate with Colleagues

Higher education tends to be a siloed environment. One thing we can learn from the Coronavirus pandemic is that we are all—around the world—interconnected. Let’s bring a little of that interconnected spirit to our campuses to better support our students without burning out.

The mentality before might have been: the study abroad office helps one population of students, the international student services office helps another, etc., etc. However, we need to recognize that our goals must shift.

Your job is no longer to send students out or welcome student in. Instead, our entire campus or organization must embrace and share a wider goal of supporting students through this pandemic, and the global, international, and multicultural offices can work together toward a shared goal of fostering intercultural development in this new context.

So how can you work with others to do that more effectively? Who could you collaborate with? Most obviously, international student services and study abroad offices could collaborate. Students might not be able to travel right now, but you could bring together any globally- or interculturally-minded students from all around the world (who maybe never interacted all that much even when they were on the same campus) in a new, innovative intercultural learning program.

Other offices and colleagues you might consider collaborating with include the wellness or counseling center, specific academic departments, multicultural offices or similar, your center for teaching and learning, etc. How can you work with colleagues from across campus to think more broadly and holistically about supporting intercultural learning in this new context?

Next Steps

We need to be more innovative and holistic in our approaches to fostering intercultural learning—now more than ever, but we can and should carry that forward even after this pandemic ends.

To explore this idea further and foster conversation on this topic with colleagues, I’d encourage you to check out my free, on-demand training, “Reimagining International Education: Thinking Differently in Times of Crisis.” Click here to register for the training.

If this sounds like a great idea to you, but you feel you lack the confidence, frameworks, language, or experience to intentionally foster intercultural learning, you may want to check out the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program. This innovative twelve-week train-the-trainer program for higher education faculty and staff is offered virtually, so you’ll learn how to facilitate intercultural learning while also experiencing how it can be done online.  At the writing of this post, the next cohort begins June 1st; new cohorts begin approximately every three months. Click here for more information about Facilitating Intercultural Learning.

I’d love to hear more about what you are doing to support students’ intercultural learning during these uncertain times! Please share in the comments section below. 

Join the Conversation!

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.