Three Tips for Getting Intentional about Intercultural Learning in 2021

Jan 12, 2021

This past year—and the first few weeks of 2021—have made it abundantly clear just how deeply divided our society is. It’s more evident than ever that just being in the vicinity of people from different backgrounds, cultures, or walks of life—whether on campus, in our communities, or abroad—is not sufficient to help us learn to engage more effectively and appropriately across those differences. Much less to create a more equitable, just society!

As I’ve said before, intercultural competence can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice to have’ skill in our world. It is a ‘need to have.’ That means our educational institutions need to get serious about intentionally facilitating intercultural learning.

In this blog post, I suggest three things you can do to get more intentional and creative about fostering intercultural learning at your institution this year.

#1:  Understand and align with the mission.

Take a look at your institution’s mission statement, strategic plan, or similar. How does it relate, directly or indirectly, to intercultural learning?

Even if the mission doesn’t expressly mention something like ‘intercultural competence’ or ‘global citizenship,’ look for places where it refers to preparing students for the 21st-century and beyond, or similar. We live in a pluralistic society, so it’s not a big stretch to tie any such reference to the need for intercultural competence. But someone who understands what intercultural competence is and why it’s important (i.e. you!) may need to make those connections clear for others.

Now, as you move forward with steps #2 and #3, or any other actions to support intercultural learning, be explicit about tying it back to the mission. Don’t assume others will see these connections; make them clear. Need funding for professional development? Explain how the investment will help you carry out the university’s mission. Seeking support for an innovative intercultural collaboration? Make it clear how the initiative promotes the institution’s vision and values. As much as possible, use actual language from the mission statement or strategic plan.  

To be clear, this isn’t simply about using the mission to get what you want. I’m suggesting you think and talk about your own work in such a way that you and others clearly see how it’s aligned with and actively helps the institution live out its mission.

#2:  Build intercultural capacity.

How and where can you start building intercultural capacity at your institution? So often, we focus only on students’ learning. But if we truly want to integrate intercultural learning into the mission, vision, and life of our institutions (and beyond), we need to start by developing the intercultural capacity of faculty and staff, including our own.

Educators often ask me how to “convince” others of the importance of intercultural learning. The way that this question is asked indicates two important gaps, in my opinion. First, it suggests that the person asking may not fully understand what truly holistic intercultural learning entails or its value. Second, it indicates they probably don’t have the intercultural skills themselves to bridge the gap—to understand the perspectives of those they seek to “convince” and discuss the value of intercultural learning in a way that will resonate with them and others. Focusing on your own intercultural growth can help deepen your understanding of what intercultural learning entails, and develop language and skills to help you bring others onboard. (For more on this topic, read the post "Increasing Buy-in for Intercultural Learning.")

If you’re in a leadership position, I strongly encourage you to invest in developing the intercultural capacity of those you support, directly as well as indirectly. For example, I partner with a number of international education offices to provide intercultural professional development not only to their staff, but also to other staff and faculty across their campuses. By offering intercultural training to faculty and staff in other areas, these leaders and their offices are not only building intercultural capacity at their institutions, but also developing mutually-supportive relationships and opportunities for collaboration, as I’ll discuss in the next section.

True North Intercultural offers a number of resources and professional development programs that can help build intercultural capacity at your institution. Click here to learn more about our programming.

#3:  Build relationships.

Who else on campus shares your interest in promoting intercultural learning? What offices may have similar goals? What people or offices support the same students as you? Build relationships with these individuals, offices, or departments. Figure out where your interests and goals overlap. Discuss possible collaborations and how you can support one another. Be sure to use your intercultural skills to listen with curiosity, rather than simply focusing on your own agenda. Then follow through. Be an ally.

Many educators who participate in our train-the-trainer program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning, do so with colleagues from their institution. My experience is that as educators develop a deeper understanding of what intercultural entails and how to facilitate it, and form relationships with colleagues who share that understanding, there is no limit to the innovative collaborations they come up with. For example, I’ve seen career services and international education offices partner to explore how to better and more inclusively support international students in their job search. Multicultural and LGBTQ student services offices might partner with their peers in study abroad to explore how to support students from these identity groups as they travel abroad. Such collaborations aren’t limited to co-curricular spaces. I’ve also witnessed international education and DEI staff supporting professors in various fields by serving as resources or guest speakers. Another example: two professors—of Spanish and religion—developed an intercultural living and learning community together.


If you’d like to be more intentional about fostering intercultural learning in 2021, I hope these suggestions provide some ideas to get you started. First, be sure you understand your institution’s mission and how it relates to intercultural learning. Focus on building intercultural teaching and learning capacity among faculty and staff at your institution, starting with your own. And develop relationships across campus with colleagues who share your desire to move this aspect of the institution’s mission forward.

I’d love to hear about what you are doing along these lines and how it’s going! Please comment below.

Photo credit: Nadin Mario, Unsplash

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.