Six Years of Building Intercultural Competence in Higher Education

Feb 08, 2022

This month marks the six-year anniversary of True North Intercultural. While I’ve been involved in intercultural education much longer than that, my work through True North Intercultural has given me a window into how intercultural learning is conceptualized and approached in higher education on a much broader scope. I’d like to therefore take this opportunity to reflect on some of the trends I’ve noticed over these past six years, and share a few of my hopes for the future.


More educators are aware of the importance of intercultural learning and want to be involved.

When I began True North Intercultural in 2016, most of the educators participating in my trainings were either international education professionals or faculty involved in study abroad. In recent years, however, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with increasing numbers of faculty from a variety of disciplines (including health sciences, graphic design, art history, library sciences, math, engineering, and more) who may or may not be involved in study abroad, but want to integrate intercultural learning into their regular courses. I’m also working with more student affairs and student services professionals from offices such as career services, the registrar, admissions, human resources, residence life, athletics, and more. While there’s always been strong participation among Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) and DEI professionals, I’ve noticed lately that more people in these roles are actively seeking out professional development in the intercultural field because they recognize how it overlaps with and supports their work.

Intercultural competence is increasingly recognized as necessary and applicable at both the global and local levels.

There’s a growing recognition that intercultural learning and international education are not the same thing, and that building intercultural capacity at our institutions can support DEI and social justice work. I’d say this understanding is still in its infancy, and people have a lot of questions about the relationships between DEI, social justice, intercultural, and international efforts. But the fact that growing numbers of educators and institutions are engaging in these types of conversations is a good sign, in my opinion.

More institutions and educators now see this is an ongoing journey that requires long-term commitment.

When I first started True North Intercultural, I was hired primarily to facilitate one-time workshops. Most of my workshops were a full-day, and even this seemed like a big commitment for many institutions. Six years later, more of my work involves partnering with institutions over longer periods of time to support deeper intercultural capacity-building.

Not long after launching True North Intercultural, I recognized the need to develop training that would allow deeper learning, yet be financially feasible for higher ed institutions. That led to the creation of our signature 12-week program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning. I’m happy to report that this deeper dive professional development program has been very well received. Increasing numbers of institutions are regularly supporting educators to enroll in the publicly-offered cohorts, and also contracting with True North Intercultural to run private cohorts for groups of faculty and staff at their institutions. Again, the trend toward deeper learning and longer-term commitments is still in its infancy, but it’s moving in the right direction.

The Pandemic Effect.

While not necessarily its own “trend,” I think it’s important to point out that the dual pandemics of COVID and systemic racism in the U.S. and worldwide have contributed in part to the shifts I mention above. Both issues are highlighting inequities in society that underscore the importance of learning to engage more effectively, appropriately, and authentically across all kinds of difference. In addition, the pause on international exchange and move to online learning forced educators and institutions to think differently about intercultural learning. Furthermore, all of these experiences highlight the importance of learning to deal with ambiguity, precarity, and complexity. Intercultural competence helps us develop a more complex mindset to better navigate all of these challenges.

Evolution I’d Like to See

Those are some of the trends I’ve noticed as I’ve worked with a wide variety of institutions and educators to build intercultural competence these past six years. The following are some of the ways I hope we will see the field evolve in the coming years.

Continue to broaden and deepen understanding and awareness of what building intercultural competence in higher education entails.

Despite growing understanding in higher education of what intercultural competence is and why it’s important, we still have a long way to go. Many institutions and educators mistake learning about other cultures for intercultural learning, think exposure to other cultures equates to intercultural learning, or assume this work is the job of a few select offices or individuals on campus. (If you’d like to deepen your own understanding of the what, why, and how of intercultural learning in higher education, make sure to watch this free training. And you can help spread awareness at your institution by forwarding the link to a few colleagues!)

Other educators understand why intercultural competence is important and want to help themselves and their students develop it, but they’re unsure how and often lack the support needed to develop their capacity, which brings me to my next point…

Invest in professional development for educators interested in developing intercultural competence (their own and their students’).

I talk to way too many educators who really want to do more to foster intercultural learning, but they don’t know how and lack the funding or support needed to participate in professional development programs that would help them build their capacity. I find it sadly ironic that institutions dedicated to learning seem to be among the organizations who invest the least in their employees’ ongoing learning and development. Higher education needs to become more growth-focused all-around. Good professional development is an investment that can pay huge dividends. I have always made an effort to invest in my own professional development whenever and however possible, and it has paid off immensely (perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve stuck with the employer that invests in my development 😊).

Recognize that what’s needed is adaptive change, not technical change.

In their book, Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey differentiate between what they call “adaptive change” and “technical change.” They explain, “Many, if not most, of the change challenges you face today and will face tomorrow require something more than incorporating new technical skills into your current mindset. These are the ‘adaptive changes,’ and they can only be met by transforming your mindset, by advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development” (Kegan & Lahey, 2009, p. 29). In higher education, we need to focus more on developing our mindsets—our own and our students’—not just acquiring more knowledge or skills. That is, we need to develop more complex ways of thinking, seeing, and engaging with the world. As Kegan & Lahey write, “True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire” (p. 6).  In my opinion, the diversity of our society and our campuses not only necessitates this, but also creates a rich opportunity for fostering this kind of learning and transformation.

Leadership needs to be more involved and model the way.

Adaptive change needs to start with leadership. At many institutions, leadership is “on board” and “supportive” of building intercultural competence. It’s written in the institution’s mission statement or strategic plan. What often happens though is the responsibility for figuring out how to make this vision a reality is handed over to a committee—a committee of folks who already have full-time jobs and who may or may not receive sufficient support. The involvement of top leadership is often limited to reviewing the decisions or recommendations of the committee. While this work certainly takes a village and I’m not advocating for simple top-down approaches, I would like to see more leadership teams investing in their own intercultural development. This is a critical starting point for creating real culture change in an institution.

For leadership teams who are committed to building intercultural competence, I suggest they start by taking the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), participating in group and individual debriefs, and engaging in targeted, developmental training and coaching. (If you’d like to talk with me about engaging your team in such work, click here to schedule a strategy call.)

Focusing on personal and professional development in this area helps leaders better understand what intercultural competence entails, lead more inclusively, and model what they expect of others. We can’t build interculturally competent institutions without interculturally competent leaders.


Those are a few of my thoughts about the trends I’ve noticed over the past six years of working to build intercultural competence in higher education, as well as some shifts I’d like to see in the future. I’d love to hear about your reflections and hopes for the future! Please share in the comments section below.

Photo credit: Hadija Saidi, Unsplash

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