From the Margins to the Center: The Shifting Role of Intercultural Development in a Polarizing Society

Oct 23, 2018

Are you feeling frustrated, dismayed, disillusioned, angry, sad, or powerless about the current state of the world? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But my experience at two conferences recently gives me hope and makes me believe we may actually be able to play a part in turning the tides… 

Last week, I attended a regional NAFSA (Association of International Educators) conference, followed by the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) biennial conference. As I reflected on the week, I came to a powerful realization:  we are in the midst of shift—both as a society, but also within higher education—when it comes to the role of intercultural learning. While developing intercultural competence was once seen as a “nice to have,” growing trends in our society are now forcing individuals and organizations to recognize such capacities are actually “need to haves” and to begin to do something about it.

Let me explain why I say this…

In the early 2000s, I was working in the field of international education and began to recognize that we needed to be doing more to help students—as well as faculty, staff, and others in the community—make the most of the intercultural learning opportunities right in front of them. So in 2006, I began a PhD program to explore how to better foster intercultural learning. At the time, the idea of intentionally designing and facilitating such experiences to help people develop their intercultural competence (rather than assume it was an automatic outcome of such experiences), was relatively new.

Fast forward to 2013, when I was hired by CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) to fill a new role as Academic Director of Intercultural Learning, developing intercultural curriculum for CIEE’s study abroad programs and training resident staff around the world on how to facilitate intercultural learning. At the time, there were very few organizations with positions that included the word “intercultural” in the title or focused primarily on intercultural learning. 

Fast forward to last week. At the NAFSA Region IV conference, I not only met a number of people in international education who have intercultural learning as a core part of their job description, but I was also amazed at the number of presentations focused on intercultural learning. There are now several flagship institutions, such as the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Purdue University (click here to see my previous blog post on what Purdue is doing in this area), that have not one, but multiple people—and even departments—focused on intercultural learning. I was equally impressed to see that many smaller institutions, such as the University of Minnesota-Duluth, are also investing in helping faculty internationalize their curricula. Several faculty members from various disciplines attended the conference to share the work they are doing to create more inclusive classrooms and foster intercultural learning.

Then I went to the IDI conference, which is for people who utilize the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), one of the most widely-used tools for assessing and developing intercultural competence at the individual, group, and organizational levels. The focus of the conference is not just on the instrument, but on how to foster intercultural competence in a developmental way.

Taking a developmental approach means recognizing that people experience cultural differences at varying levels of complexity and meeting learners where they are in order to effectively foster their growth, instead of using a one-size-fits-all method (click here to read a post that provides an overview of the Intercultural Development Continuum).

Participants at the IDI conference came from a wide variety of organizations, including corporations, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and education. The conference was sold out, with about 300 individuals packed into the hotel ballroom. When we were asked for a show of hands based on our field of work, about half the room indicated they work in education! This is fantastic, in my opinion, because it means more educational institutions—and organizations in general—are not only focusing more on intercultural learning, but doing so from a developmental perspective.

What struck me most at the IDI conference is a feeling that the polarizing rhetoric that is so prevalent in our society today, coupled with movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too that are bringing to light negative treatment of certain populations—that these are actually sparking increased awareness and fueling a drive to do more to develop intercultural competence.

One of the things we discussed at the conference is the fact that advocacy and development work are different, yet complementary. Advocacy is about agitation, exposing inequities, and raising awareness. Intercultural development is about meeting people where they are—in a non-judgmental way—and helping them overcome their developmental challenges and move along the intercultural development continuum.

Recent social movements, along with increasing advocacy and activism, have done a good job of bringing societal inequities to light. This has highlighted a need, and opened a lane, for intercultural development work. What’s happening in our society is actually moving intercultural development work from the margins toward the center.

We’d be apt here to learn from a saying I often hear in business, which is: “What got you here, won’t get you there.” The activism and advocacy have brought about a new level of awareness, but to move individuals beyond awareness (and society out of polarization) toward a deeper level of understanding and empathy, a developmental approach is needed.

To take advantage of this growing awareness in a way that fosters intercultural development will not necessarily be easy. As one of the speakers at the IDI conference said, however, “This work may be hard, but it doesn’t have to be heavy.” By building a community of educators who are interested in and understand how to effectively foster intercultural learning—our own (as I always say, this is where we need to start), our colleagues’, and our students’—we can move things forward together. If you are reading this, you are a part of this community.

Intercultural competence is no longer a “nice to have” in our world, but a “need to have,” and that means our educational institutions need to get serious about fostering it. I am happy to see a shift is already beginning to happen. Let’s not squander the opportunity laid before us by countering polarizing statements with more polarizing statements (believe me, I know it can be tempting), but instead focus on doing the difficult but rewarding developmental work that can truly lead to a more interculturally competent world.

Remember, I’m here to partner with you on this journey! Below are relevant professional development resources to consider, offered through True North Intercultural as well as other associations and organizations I respect and recommend. I’m in the process of developing additional opportunities and always welcome your feedback and insights about how to best support you as an educator on your own intercultural learning and teaching journey! Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Professional Development Opportunities (updated June 2020)

Facilitating Intercultural Learning:  A twelve-week professional development program for educators, facilitated by me. The focus is on developing both your own intercultural competence and your capacity to facilitate others’ intercultural learning. You’ll learn to better understand and navigate cultural differences, facilitate others’ intercultural learning, and be a more effective and inspired educator. Learn more:

Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Qualifying Seminars:  Become a Qualified Administrator (QA) of the IDI and learn more about fostering intercultural competence in a developmental way.

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.