February 2021 marks the five-year anniversary of True North Intercultural. I am often asked about my career path and what led me to start this company. It occurred to me that, while I have shared bits and pieces, nowhere have I fully explained in writing how or why I founded this company. This seems a good occasion to share True North Intercultural’s origin story.
As a kid, I wasn’t exposed to much cultural difference. I grew up in a relatively homogeneous (White) suburban area of the United States where most people looked like me. My family didn’t talk about race, and the only international travel we did was to the occasional resort in Mexico that felt more like a U.S. American bubble.
Attending a more diverse college was a welcome culture shock, so to speak, where I learned a lot about myself and the world through interactions and relationships with peers from different backgrounds. I studied Communication, which spurred an interest in culture and how we simultaneously shape it and are shaped by it. I spent my junior year abroad in southern Spain, where I was forced outside my comfort zone daily. After graduating college, I moved back to Spain to pursue a Masters degree (in a program where I was the only student from the U.S.) and teach English (to children, corporate executives, and members of the military). During my years in Spain, I had roommates from Argentina, Peru, England, France, and Spain (all males—a cross-cultural learning experience itself).
Eventually, I married a Spaniard and we moved to the United States, where I embarked on a career in international education (while my spouse focused on learning English, getting acclimated to an unfamiliar culture, and eventually pursuing an MBA). I worked as an international student advisor at two public universities with very large international student populations. My experience advising international students—in addition to my own experience living, working, and studying abroad, and witnessing my spouse’s journey in the United States—taught me many things.
These experiences helped me gain a deep appreciation for the diversity that exists in our world, how much we can learn from engaging across difference, and how important mutual adaptation is. And yet, when I looked around me, it seemed that most people didn’t recognize these learning opportunities. Furthermore, most of the challenge of adapting fell to those from non-dominant groups, whether they were students from other countries or domestic marginalized identities.
Schools actively sought out and recruited students from diverse cultural backgrounds. But once those students got to campus, it fell primarily to a couple of offices to support them. The unspoken assumption seemed to be that with this support, students would effectively assimilate to the campus climate. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “If we value having a diverse student body, why aren’t we all practicing mutual adaptation—learning from and with one another and creating an environment where everyone can thrive?!” It seemed to me a huge opportunity missed. I began exploring ways to address this issue, including starting to offer intercultural training for faculty and staff to help them more effectively serve all students.
Eventually, I decided to pursue PhD studies, and enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s Comparative and International Development Education (CIDE) program, with the late Dr. R. Michael Paige as my advisor. During my years at the University of Minnesota, I was involved with numerous programs and projects focused on intercultural learning. One such experience was being a Teaching Associate for what was first known as Maximizing Study Abroad (and later became Global Identity), a pioneering online course for students studying abroad that was developed as a result of a research project led by Dr. Paige and a team at the University of Minnesota. I was later hired by the Communications Department to teach an upper-level course called Communication and the Intercultural Re-Entry, which I re-designed using everything I was learning about fostering intercultural learning.
My dissertation focused on another innovative intercultural initiative, a one-credit course called the Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad, being piloted at several CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) study centers. For my research, I visited two locations where the seminar was being taught. There I observed several sessions and interviewed the students and facilitators, in addition to collecting pre- and post-program Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) data and interviewing the creators of the seminar, led by Dr. Michael Vande Berg. The purpose of the study was to better understand the complex process of facilitating students’ intercultural learning.
Later, Vande Berg hired me on contract to help provide coaching to the growing team of CIEE resident staff around the world responsible for facilitating the Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad. It had become obvious to his team and to me that having a good curriculum was a necessary but insufficient condition for fostering intercultural learning. One of the most critical factors in this equation seemed to be the educators’ own intercultural development and their skills at facilitating intercultural learning in experiential, developmental, and constructivist ways.
After Vande Berg retired from CIEE, I was eventually hired as the first Academic Director for Intercultural Learning. I expanded the seminar to a three-credit course called Intercultural Communication and Leadership, and provided training, coaching, and support to the growing team of resident staff responsible for facilitating the course and other intercultural initiatives we’d created.
Throughout this time, I was regularly presenting at conferences, discussing the projects I was involved with, sharing our learning, and facilitating workshops. Many educators from other institutions began to ask me if I could provide such trainings for their faculty and staff.
I recognized that there was a wider need for this kind of expertise and training. A growing body of research and literature pointed to the importance of educators actively facilitating students’ learning during intercultural experiences. I knew that intercultural learning experiences existed all around us, not just on study abroad. And I also knew that educators needed to focus not only on improving their facilitation skills, but also on developing their own intercultural competence. Yet most colleges and universities did not have anyone on their campus who specialized in intercultural teaching and learning.
So I decided to start a company that could fill that need for schools and, in the process, help fulfill my goal of creating more inclusive educational environments where we all practice mutual adaptation to learn, grow, and thrive together.
In February 2016, I launched True North Intercultural. While the exact services we provide have evolved with our own learning and growth, the focus has always been on helping educators do the following:
The combination of these two things is what makes True North Intercultural truly unique. I am sometimes asked if I provide intercultural training for other audiences, such as corporations. Sure, I could. But I choose not to. There are a lot of trainers who do that work. Instead, I choose to focus the work of True North Intercultural on the world I know best and feel I have the most to contribute to. I understand the work of faculty and staff in higher education because I have been in their shoes. I have not only studied and researched the intercultural development process, but also actively worked to facilitate students’ intercultural learning before, during, and after having an intercultural experience—both at home and abroad. So True North Intercultural is uniquely positioned to not only provide intercultural training tailored to higher education, but also to help educators learn how to foster intercultural learning through their work.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can work with me and True North Intercultural, visit www.truenorthintercultural.com/learn-with-me.
Photo credit: Mike Petrucci, Unsplash
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