DEI & Intercultural Learning in Higher Ed: Why the Bifurcated Approach?

May 11, 2021

Over the past year or two, I’ve noticed a significant increase in interest and discussion related to the relationship between intercultural (IC) learning/development, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education. This post is the first in a series exploring this relationship.

Traditionally, higher education (unlike many other sectors) has taken a bifurcated approach to topics of international and domestic diversity. Yet there is significant overlap in objectives and opportunity for synergies.

Over the coming months, I’ll explore why this dichotomy exists in higher education, where there’s overlap, and how an intentional, inclusive approach to intercultural learning could potentially bridge the gap—supporting students from a wide variety of backgrounds and helping them all grow in their cultural identity and intercultural competence.

In this first post of the series, I discuss why higher education has historically taken a bifurcated approach to domestic and international diversity issues.

A (Very) Short History of DEI in Higher Education

Domestic diversity efforts in U.S. higher education came to the forefront during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The focus at that time was primarily on increasing access to higher education for historically oppressed groups, mainly African Americans, as well as White women.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus on access expanded to include discussions about student success, campus climate, curriculum, and more. Yet this approach was primarily reactive and deficit-oriented, responding to events in an effort to “help” specific populations of students.

In the past several decades, the diversity on college campuses increased significantly, as did the number and type of groups that DEI initiatives aim to support. In addition, training efforts shifted from focusing on legal compliance to trying to increase our capacity to get along in spite of our differences.

Today, colleges and universities tend to recognize the value of diversity, and focus more on social justice and eliminating inequalities. These efforts, however, are still often peripheral and the responsibility of a small number of offices or individuals.

A (Very) Short History of Intercultural Learning in Higher Education

In higher education, the discussion around intercultural learning has traditionally taken place in and around the international education sphere—primarily study abroad. The ways intercultural learning has been thought of, discussed, and approached, even within the international education sphere, has evolved significantly over time.

Originally, it was assumed that simple contact with other cultures was sufficient to help people learn and grow in ways that would enhance their capacity for peaceful relations and diplomacy. With time, educators came to believe the best approach was to maximize students’ cultural immersion and couple this with information about the cultures they’d be visiting, general cultural differences, and culture shock to help them more effectively navigate those experiences.

While those beliefs are still widely present in higher education, there's now significant research and literature demonstrating that for transformative intercultural development to occur consistently, intercultural experiences (which may take place at home or abroad) must be coupled with intentional and skilled facilitation of learning (not just information).

A Brief Overview of What Intercultural Learning Is (and Isn’t)

Despite this evolution in understanding, many people still assume that intercultural development entails learning about other cultures, and that ‘culture’ is synonymous with ‘country’ or ‘nationality.’

However, intercultural learning involves developing one’s capacity to communicate and engage effectively and appropriately across cultural differences—not just national or ethnic differences, but differences in gender, socio-economic status, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and much more. In other words, developing one’s intercultural competence involves developing culture-general understanding and skills that can be transferred to a wide variety of intercultural situations.

DEI Critique of Intercultural Learning

There are good reasons why approaches to domestic and international diversity have remained separate within higher education. For one, many in the diversity, equity, and inclusion sector are skeptical of intercultural learning for a variety of reasons. They may assume—often rightly so based on what they have witnessed—that intercultural learning focuses only (or too much) on national cultures. A similar common critique is based on an assumption that intercultural learning involves learning about other cultures. Yet another critique we hear from people in the DEI field is that intercultural learning does not sufficiently address power, privilege, and systems of oppression.

These are all, in many ways, valid critiques, and highlight the need for a more sophisticated approach to intercultural learning than the approach many educators and institutions are currently taking. That’s something we’ll explore further throughout this blog series.

Intercultural Critique of DEI Approaches

While those in the domestic diversity sector of higher education may critique intercultural learning for a variety of reasons, the intercultural lens also reveals several blind spots of typical DEI approaches. For one, most diversity and social justice education initiatives in the United States take a U.S.-centric approach. However, this is a topic that can often benefit from a global perspective that takes a wider array of cultural differences into account. Issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion exist worldwide, yet they may need to be approached and discussed differently depending on the cultural context and audience.

An additional critique of DEI trainings is that they often lack a developmental approach. That is, they don’t meet learners where they are to facilitate their learning and growth in a way that is developmentally appropriate and effective, and may instead put people on the defensive. As a result, some DEI approaches may turn off those who could potentially benefit most. After all, shame is not a very good teacher.

Other Tensions to Consider

In addition to the critiques outlined thus far, there is another issue that can make it difficult to bridge the international and domestic diversity divide in higher education. This has to do with the logistical and administrative aspects involved.

As outlined previously, intercultural development and learning were first discussed in higher education in the context of international education—specifically, study abroad (and this is typically still the case). As a result, intercultural learning is often associated with international education and seen to be “owned” by these offices. On the other hand, the need for higher education to address issues of domestic diversity arose for different reasons and were addressed in different ways.

Thus, responsibility for DEI efforts falls to certain offices, whereas intercultural learning is owned by others. Oftentimes these offices are housed in very different parts of the university, with domestic approaches sometimes being in student affairs and international education under academic affairs. This alone can create a challenging power dynamic.

These offices may be pitted against each other—consciously or unconsciously—in a fight for resources and importance. For example, focus on recruitment in one area may detract from recruitment efforts in the other.

In addition, many universities still take a deficit-focused approach to DEI work, whereas they may view international education efforts—to which intercultural learning is tied—though an asset-based lens.

The following quote, from Geller (2017), aptly summarizes the potential challenges:

"A source of tension between multicultural and international education can arise, however, from the different structural reporting lines used and the potential inequity in resource allocation between them (Olson, Evans, and Shoenberg, 2007, p. 21). Additionally, international education is perceived by some stakeholders as glamorous, fun and an asset to an institution, while multicultural education is hard work that addresses difficult past wrongs and serves as a deficit (cost) to an institution (Olson, Evans, and Shoenberg, 2007, p. 30)."


In summary, there exists a very real tension in higher education between domestic and international diversity sectors. However, I’d argue that this bifurcation is also inhibiting our ability to make greater strides in graduating students with the capacity to engage effectively and appropriately in a pluralistic society.  

Intercultural learning can potentially serve as a needed bridge, but only if we’re able to recognize and appreciate the different perspectives involved. In future posts in this DEI & IC Series, we’ll dive deeper into why this bifurcated approach is insufficient, explore the shared learning objectives and potential synergies of these two approaches, and discuss where to go from here.

Please share your perspective and relevant questions in the comments section below!

Resources & References

Olson, C.L, Evans, R., & Shoenberg, R.F. (2007). At home in the world: Bridging the gap between internationalization and multicultural education. Washington, DC: American Council on Education (ACE).

Geller, J.R. (2017). Terminology and intersections. In B. Kappler Mikk & I.E. Steglitz (Eds.), Learning across cultures: Locally and globally, 3rd ed. Washington, DC: NAFSA & Stylus.

Smith, D.G. (2020). Diversity's promise for higher education: Making it work. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R.M., & Lou, K. (2012). Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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.