Crisis as Opportunity: A Paradigm Shift for Intercultural Learning?

Jul 15, 2020

It seems uncertainty is the new norm. In many ways, this is incredibly scary. But it also presents opportunity.

Author Arundhati Roy recently wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

I believe that we are in the midst of a potential paradigm shift in higher education, particularly around intercultural learning. I have been advocating for years that we expand the focus on global mobility in higher education to intercultural learning more broadly. Not because international education and exchange are not important and transformational, but because this is an insufficient approach to truly cultivate a society that can engage effectively, appropriately, and with compassion across all our differences.

Current circumstances present an opportunity, in my opinion, to leave behind the luggage of the past and not only imagine—but intentionally shape—a new world when it comes to preparing more interculturally competent students.

A Fourth Intercultural Paradigm?

In their book, “Student Learning Abroad,” Vande Berg, Paige, and Lou discuss the evolution of three stories—or paradigms—around intercultural learning in higher education. Essentially, these are beliefs about how intercultural learning occurs. These stories, in chronological order of their prevalence, can be summarized as follows:

  1. We learn by being exposed to more “cultured” people and places.
  2. Greater exposure to and immersion in other cultures leads to greater intercultural learning.
  3. Intercultural experience needs to be coupled with intentional facilitation to effectively and consistently engender intercultural learning.

It is my humble opinion that current circumstances could potentially result in a mindset shift for some educators and institutions into a fourth paradigm (while others’ beliefs may still stay squarely rooted in the third or second stories).

The best way to describe this new paradigm I envision is that it will entail a more inclusive, equity-focused approach to intercultural learning that is deeply integrated into the curriculum and co-curriculum.

Intercultural competence will be treated as a critical “soft skill” (for lack of a better term) necessary in all aspects of life and work, and therefore intercultural learning will be integrated throughout the higher education curriculum and co-curriculum. In addition, the approach to intercultural learning will be more expansive and inclusive, with a greater emphasis on equity, than what has been typical in the past. It will bring together global and local DEI efforts through a more synergistic approach.

Crisis as Opportunity

Let’s explore why I believe we are potentially in the midst of a paradigm shift. In the past six months, we have experienced a series of challenges that uniquely impact higher education and intercultural learning:

  • There is, of course, the backdrop of the Coronavirus, which is highlighting inequities around the world and forcing us all to live with incredible uncertainty.
  • The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd (and many others), along with the protests and growing activism that have followed, are increasing awareness of systemic racism and the need for more intentional anti-racism efforts in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Most recently, the United States Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that people in the country on student visas would not be allowed to remain here in the fall if their courses are offered online. This decision was subsequently rescinded due largely to pushback from schools, but is perhaps a sign of similar things to come.

I do not mean to equate or lump these issues together, but instead to point out the mounting challenges we are currently facing. All of these issues highlight how important it is for higher education institutions to have well-defined values and be willing to stand up for those values and their students’ well-being, especially those who are most marginalized.

One positive outcome, and the reason I suggest we may experience a paradigm shift, is that these challenges are increasing awareness and forcing intentionality and innovation in the intercultural learning space.

As my fellow interculturalist and mentor, Beth Zemsky, says: never waste a crisis. In a recent piece responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beth explains, “In times of crisis, systems are disrupted enough for real change to happen – for people to see and hear things that were invisible to them before, to experiment with new behaviors and ways to show up for each other, and to shift structural aspects of interactions that significantly heal and alter the system. In short, intentionally utilizing the disruptive aspects of a crisis presents an opportunity to accelerate systemic growth and change.

And so I want to suggest those of us in higher education dedicated to creating a more inclusive, equitable, and interculturally competent society consider how we can use the multi-faceted crisis we’re currently experiencing to accelerate this paradigm shift and support the kind of systemic change we believe is necessary.

Questions I’m Considering

While I recognize the opportunity currently before us, right now I have more questions than answers. But I am committed to exploring these questions, and doing so in community with other impact-driven educators. One place I’ll be exploring these questions over the coming months and beyond is via this blog, and I’d like to invite you to engage in the conversation with me.

The following are some of the key questions I’m currently asking myself, discussing with colleagues, and planning to explore in upcoming blog posts:

How can we widen the focus from global mobility to intercultural learning? A common assumption in higher education has often been that the best means for achieving our goals of increasing intercultural competence is to send students abroad. How can we—especially now that global mobility is restricted—increase our intercultural learning efforts in such a way that they include, but are not limited to, international exchange?

How can we take a more inclusive, equity-based approach to intercultural learning? Historically, higher education has taken a bifurcated approach, essentially pitting “international/global diversity” against “local/domestic diversity.” There are some very valid, important reasons this has occurred. But the bifurcated approach is becoming increasingly outdated, out-of-touch, and insufficient. Intercultural learning offers a potential bridge when done well. We need to explore how to take a more inclusive, synergistic both/and approach without losing anything in the process (one that could actually be greater than the sum of its parts).

How can we most effectively lead during these challenging, uncertain times, without sacrificing ourselves in the process? How can working on our own intercultural development help us be better leaders and educators in the face of current and future uncertainties and challenges?

How can we best foster intercultural learning in the absence of in-person engagement? Technology can enable us to engage and develop relationships with people we might not otherwise even meet. But how do we do that most effectively? How can we authentically connect and build community in virtual spaces? How do we take into account cultural differences, as well as accessibility, to create truly inclusive, equitable learning spaces in an online format?

Engaging in Conversation

How about you? Which of these questions speak to you most? What are your burning questions? What possibilities can you envision or would you like to see result from our current situation?

As I said, I will be exploring many of these questions in more depth over the coming months. If you’d like to receive updates when new posts are published and participate in the conversation, be sure to subscribe to the True North Intercultural newsletter if you haven’t already (and get a free Educator's Guide to Intercultural Learning when you do).

References & Related Resources

Beth’s Zemsky’s guest blog post, “Implementing diversity, inclusion, and equity during a pandemic”

The Eclectic Inclusion Podcast, with Dr. Amer Ahmed

Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal”

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (Eds.) (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.