Last week I attended the WISE Conference (Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement), hosted by Wake Forest University, which was held in-person for the first time since February 2020. WISE is particularly meaningful to me because it marks the anniversary of True North Intercultural. On February 1, 2016, I wrapped up my job as Academic Director of Intercultural Learning with CIEE. The next day—my first as a full-time, independent business-owner—I flew to North Carolina to present at WISE.
It also feels fitting that the anniversary of True North Intercultural falls during Black History month every year, which invites me to reflect on my role as an intercultural educator who holds several privileged identities—such as being White and U.S. American—and consider how I can best contribute to building the kind of world I envision. I’m reminded that practicing intercultural competence requires embracing learning opportunities, even—or especially—when they involve challenge, discomfort, or ambiguity.
It's in this context of reflection that I share here one thing that excited me and one thing that I’m still thinking about from the conference.
Intercultural Learning is Expanding Beyond International Education
First of all, I was very happy to see that the conversations around intercultural learning in higher education continue to expand beyond study abroad and international education. When I first started in this field, international education and intercultural learning were often assumed to be synonymous. At WISE this past week, we were engaging in conversations about fostering intercultural learning during study away, yes, but also on our home campuses—in and out of the classroom, locally and globally, and among faculty and staff in addition to students.
We grappled with questions such as: Why has U.S. higher education historically taken a bifurcated approach to international and domestic diversity? How does that serve us and how does it not? How might DEI and IE professionals work together toward shared goals and learning objectives? How can we decolonize internationalization efforts? What’s our relationship to power and place? How could we get more faculty invested in intercultural learning? What intercultural ”superpowers” might individuals with marginalized identities gain through their lived experiences that make them especially well-suited for leadership? How can educators prepare students to succeed and lead in a highly diverse, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world? (And that was just in the sessions I attended!)
Intercultural Learning Not Consistently Approached in Constructivist-Developmental Way
Personally, I’ve been exploring the relationship between DEI work, multicultural education, international education, and intercultural learning for a while (this was the topic of my presentation at WISE). I’m also very aware this type of work has long lived at the margins of higher education and must move from being peripheral to an integral part of education if we want to prepare future generations to build and nurture a sustainable, pluralistic world.
This leads me to my second observation, which is more of a musing than a fully-formed thought at this time. During the conference, I was reminded that the constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning I find so useful is still not widely understood or consistently utilized (for more information, see previous posts about constructivist and developmental approaches to intercultural teaching and learning).
For example, when Dr. Amer Ahmed was presenting a model that weaves together and builds upon several other DEI and intercultural frameworks, an audience member commented that they appreciate how the model includes the important “inner work.” They also lamented how hard it can be to do that work. I thought to myself, “That’s exactly where intercultural development comes in!” That is, the way I approach intercultural learning is all about that inner work, and doing it in a way that’s developmentally appropriate (i.e. that provides an appropriate balance of challenge and support for learners). By doing this developmental inner work, we build our capacity to engage in difficult conversations, address injustices, and build more inclusive environments.
Similarly, in the session I facilitated, I felt the need to point out that personal development work is not the same as systems change work, but that some degree of the former is required for the latter. That is, if we want diversity to lead to equity and inclusion, we need intercultural competence. These experiences and other conversations I engaged in at WISE reminded me that intercultural learning isn’t widely thought of in this way, likely because such constructivist-developmental approaches are not yet the norm.
I’m not saying intercultural development work is or should be just focused on the self—after all, it’s about developing our capacity to engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across cultural differences, locally and globally. I’m also not implying that DEI work and training only directs our focus outward, and not inward. In fact, many DEI and social justice trainings help participants become more aware of their own power, privilege, and positionality. But I do think that the developmentally-appropriate inner work of intercultural learning and more outer-focused social justice and systems change work are both necessary and highly complementary.
I know my own intercultural practice helps me be a better learner, especially in situations where I feel challenged or uncomfortable. The keynote speaker at WISE, Dr. Joel Davis Brown, discussed the fact that being a leader means showing up as your best self. As the world grows increasingly diverse, complex, and uncertain, developing our intercultural capacity helps us learn who our “best self” is, how to more consistently show up in that way, and how we can work across differences to embrace these challenges effectively and appropriately together. In other words, we all need to do the inner work in order to be more effective with the outward work required of us.
I’ll end this musing with a quote I included in my own WISE session:
“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.”
- Daryl Smith
What are your reflections?
If you attended the WISE Conference last week, what were your take-aways? What are you still thinking about?
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