DEI & Intercultural Learning in Higher Ed: Where Do We Go From Here?

Jun 16, 2021
Four young people looking into distance

This is the second post in a multi-part series on the relationship between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and intercultural learning in higher education. Last month, I discussed the bifurcated approach higher education tends to take toward international and domestic diversity. In this post, I explore why a broader, more holistic approach is needed and how I think intercultural learning can help address this need.

One thing that is true for both international and domestic diversity is that contact with other cultures is not sufficient. Having diversity on our campuses does not equate to people engaging effectively and appropriately across difference. Similarly, research demonstrates that participating in international exchange doesn’t consistently lead to intercultural development.

If an institution is doing DEI work or engaging in international exchange and not seeing the impacts they’d like, it may well be because there’s not sufficient intercultural competence to support it. Literally, we can think about intercultural competence like a foundation that must be laid before building on top of it. There is much that we seek to do in higher education that could benefit from such a foundation.

Focusing on intentionally developing the intercultural competence of students, faculty, and staff can support and catalyze DEI initiatives, multicultural education, international exchange, and much more.

Defining Intercultural Learning

Let’s first define ‘intercultural learning,’ starting with the term ‘culture.’ There are many different definitions for culture. In the context of intercultural learning, culture means a learned, shared set of beliefs, values, norms, and social practices that affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people (Lustig & Koester, 2006). A cultural group, then, does not just refer to a national or ethnic group, but could also be related to gender, socio-economic status, religion, ability, vocation, etc.

I use the term ‘intercultural learning’ to refer to the process of developing one’s intercultural competence, which means increasing the complexity with which one experiences cultural differences and similarities—of all types. Developing intercultural competence helps us engage more appropriately and effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds, while still remaining authentic to ourselves.

When facilitating intercultural learning, I first focus on helping people understand their own meaning-making process and how others may experience the world in very different, yet equally rich and complex ways. We use that awareness to help us slow down and respond more intentionally, rather than simply reacting. Ultimately, we aim to better bridge cultural differences. (For a free training on this framework, click here.)

In other words, intercultural learning involves developing a mindset, heart set, and skillset that can help us better engage with people who are different from us—at home and abroad.

Preparing Students for an Ever-Changing World

Intercultural competence is a critical skill for the 21st century and beyond. Our world is not only increasingly diverse, but also more complex and uncertain. We face more complex problems, and today’s students may work in areas and roles that don’t currently exist.  

Our differences, while often viewed as an obstacle to be overcome, can absolutely be an asset to help meet these challenges… if we have the skills to engage effectively and appropriately across difference. For example, diverse teams have a greater capacity to solve problems and come up with solutions than more homogeneous groups (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000). However, these benefits are accessible only to teams with the skills to effectively navigate and harness their differences (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000).

More individuals today identify as biracial and bicultural. Recognizing the intersectionality of our diverse identities further complicates any attempts to separate international and domestic diversity, and supports the need for a broader approach. Quoting William and Binta Cross, Beverly Tatum (2017) says, “It is clear that ‘racial, ethnic, and cultural identity overlap at the level of lived experience’ to the point that there is little reason to discuss them separately.”

All students can benefit from engaging in such racial-ethnic-cultural (REC) identity development work. A 2021 report conducted by the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) declared, “The concept of cultural identity should be embedded in education, including an understanding of one’s own cultural identity in order to better understand that of others.” Intercultural learning can play a role in REC identity development by increasing students’ self-awareness and understanding of the ways they experience and make meaning of the world and how these are socially- and culturally-constructed.

Traditionally, in the U.S. and much of the world, we’ve taken an assimilationist approach to diversity. That is, immigrants, newcomers, or anyone not from the dominant majority are expected to assimilate—to adapt to the dominant or majority group’s ways of doing things. In the U.S., this is often referred to as the melting pot ideology.

However, the assimilationist approach not only robs people of their own culture, identity, and sense of self-worth, it also robs society of the benefits of diversity. It prioritizes homogeneity. Kathryn Sorrells (2016) explains, “The myth of the melting pot prevails today, masking the ways that some migrants are not allowed to ‘melt’ and casting suspicion on those who do not want to shed their cultural norms, values, and practices” (p. 134).

Pluralism, on the other hand, values heterogeneity, diversity. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pluralism as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” Sorrells (2016) explains, “More recently, an ideology of pluralism that emphasizes the maintenance of ethnic and cultural values, norms, and practice within a multicultural society has emerged as a result of the civil rights movement, anticolonial movements, and immigrant rights movements, challenging the inaccurate myth of the melting pot” (p. 134). In today’s increasingly diverse, complex, and uncertain world, pluralism is necessary to thrive. 

The Role of Higher Education

Daryl Smith (2020) calls on education to prepare students for such a world, stating, “I believe that higher education must play a critical role if we are to achieve the promise of our democracy: developing a pluralistic society that works. Although few of us have lived or worked in such a setting, this is one of the foremost challenges of our day” (p. vii).

Higher education needs to prepare students to work in areas and on problems that may not even exist today, and to do so in diverse teams that can take advantage of their differing perspectives, approaches, and lived experiences within the group to think creatively and innovate. This requires people to have a complex experience of cultural differences; it requires intercultural competence.

By intentionally focusing on developing the intercultural competence of faculty, staff, and students in higher education, we’re able to better meet the DEI and international education goals of today. But even more important, we’re building the necessary foundation to prepare graduates to contribute to and thrive in the increasingly complex and diverse world of tomorrow.


References & Related Resources

DiStefano, J. & Maznevski, M.L. (2000). Creating value with diverse teams in global management. In Organizational Dynamics, 29(1), pp. 45-63.

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.

Lustig, M.W & Koester, J. (2006). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures. New York: Pearson.

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).

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

Sorrells, K. (2016). Intercultural communication: Globalization and social justice, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Stylus.

Tatum, B.D. (2017). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.

Rosenbaum, K. (Spring 2021). Global learning and intercultural competence as imperatives for the future of higher education: Reducing inequities and creating effective global problem-solvers. A report from the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) to the UNESCO Futures of Education Initiative.

Photo credit: Ernest Brillo, Unsplash

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