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Spotlight on Wofford College’s Intercultural Living & Learning Community

Jul 24, 2018
This post is the fourth in a series highlighting how different institutions are supporting intercultural learning. While previous posts have looked at institution-wide approaches, this one discusses one particular project—an intercultural living and learning community—developed by two professors at Wofford College, an independent liberal arts school with approximately 1,700 students in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
At Wofford, first-year students can choose to participate in a living and learning community (LLC), which means they live together while taking two classes linked by a common theme. In Fall of 2017, professors Dan Mathewson and Britt Newman, who teach religion and Spanish respectively, teamed up to offer an intercultural-themed LLC, and invited me to partner with them in the process.
Origins of the Intercultural Living & Learning Community
Mathewson has taught an introductory religion course at Wofford for many years and is always tinkering with it. The course has typically included an experience in which students engage with a local religious community that’s unfamiliar to them. In other words, Mathewson has always incorporated an intercultural element into the course, although he did not necessarily have that language or call it that originally. When the course changed approximately eight years ago to “Introduction to New Religions,” Mathewson decided to move the intercultural experiences in the community from the periphery to the center of the course.
That decision eventually led Mathewson to enroll in a five-day intercultural workshop that I was leading and attend Wake Forest’s Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement (WISE Conference), where he was introduced to the intercultural field and language that helped him better frame what he was doing his course.
At the same time, Britt Newman, a Spanish professor in Wofford’s Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures department, was similarly infusing intercultural learning into his courses—also requiring his students to engage with different cultural groups within their community—and encouraging his department to expand its focus to include intercultural learning in addition to language learning. He too attended the WISE conference and participated in a pre-conference workshop I facilitated, developing an intercultural language and framework similar to Mathewson’s.
Wofford is a small school that encourages creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration among its faculty. Many such collaborations start over lunch in the faculty cafeteria, and that is where Mathewson and Newman discovered their shared interest and approach and eventually began discussing the possibility of developing an intercultural LLC.
Backward Designing an Integrative Experience
Once they applied and were approved to first offer the intercultural LLC, Mathewson and Newman worked together to make sure the LLC was integrative. They backward designed the LLC around their desired learning objectives. A key goal was for participants to understand the intercultural concepts and ideas within the context of their own lives. That would require them to not only engage effectively and appropriately with people from different cultural backgrounds, but to reflect on and make meaning of those experiences. And so the LLC had to be designed to prepare them to do just that.
In order to help students develop the intercultural framework and language that would thread throughout their two courses, Mathewson and Newman invited me to facilitate a full-day intercultural workshop at the beginning of the semester, and to administer and debrief the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) with participants.
All of the participants in the intercultural LLC were required to:
  • Live together in the same freshman dorm.
  • Enroll in both Mathewson’s “Newer Religions of the World” and Newman’s “Intermediate Active Spanish” courses (which meant the LLC was only open to students with the appropriate level of Spanish).
  • Participate in a one-day intercultural retreat, which I facilitated in a beautiful off-campus facility in September.
  • Take the IDI at both the beginning and end of the semester and participate in a one-on-one debrief of their results with me early in the semester.
  • Complete the IDI’s accompanying Individual Development Plan (IDP), which requires them to reflect on past intercultural experiences and develop a plan to continue their own intercultural development.
  • Contribute to an e-portfolio in which they had to articulate how they were achieving the learning outcomes of the LLC.
  • Complete three community engagement assignments across the two courses.
The Community Engagement Assignments
Together, Mathewson and Newman developed three scaffolded community engagement assignments that would increasingly challenge students over the course of the semester. These were:
  1. To visit, observe, then compare and contrast their experiences at a local supermarket they might typically frequent and a Hispanic supermarket in the community.
  2. To apply an adaption of the Describe/Interpret/Evaluate process to a personal experience to help them practice suspending judgment.
  3. To visit a religious community/institution with which they were unfamiliar and write a reflective paper about the experience.
Results of the First Semester
Overall, the first semester of the intercultural LLC was a great success. Mathewson says, “We were thrilled with how it went!”
While the group of 20 first-year students had some racial diversity, most of the students had grown up in relatively homogenous areas in and around South Carolina and said they did not have significant intercultural experience. When students took the IDI at the beginning of the semester, the average score was 80.37, in Polarization. Two students scored in Denial, twelve in Polarization, and six in Minimization. (For an explanation of these orientations, see the July 2017 post.)
When students retook the IDI at the end of the semester, the average score was 94.95, in Minimization—an increase of 14.58 points (the scale has a 90-point range)! (As a point of comparison, the Georgetown Consortium Study, which looked at pre-/post-semester IDI scored of semester-long study abroad participants who did not participate in any type of intentional intercultural facilitation, found an average change score of 1.32.) In other words, through community engagement and intentional intercultural facilitation, participants developed their intercultural competence more than would be expected on an average study abroad program without such intentional facilitation.
At the end of the semester, no students scored in Denial, while five were in Polarization, fourteen in Minimization, and one in Acceptance. Ten students moved up an entire orientation and one even jumped two orientations.
While more challenging to assess, the qualitative data that comes from the e-portfolios and in-class assignments supports the IDI data, demonstrating increasing intercultural maturity on the part of the students. In addition, many of the LLC participants want to take more courses with Mathewson and Newman, several have decided to become religion majors, and a number of others recently participated in an independent short-term study abroad program in Chile.
Not only will the intercultural LLC be repeated in 2018, Mathewson and Newman have also been invited to offer workshops on campus to teach other faculty members to create more integrative LLCs.
The only real challenge Mathewson recalls encountering during the LLC is that halfway through the semester it became evident from the e-portfolios that students didn’t really understand the learning outcomes. “The categories were really fuzzy to them,” recalls Mathewson. So the professors began more explicitly helping students link their experiences with the objectives. For example, while debriefing a class in which several local Mormons visited and discussed their religion, one participant talked about trying to put herself in their shoes and see it from their perspective, at which point Mathewson made the link between what she was doing and a learning outcome related to frame-shifting.
Advice for Fellow Professors
When asked what advice he would give to other professors interested in incorporating intercultural learning into their disciplinary courses, Mathewson is quick to point out that there are opportunities for cross-cultural experiences wherever you are, both on campus and in the local community. Community engagement is a high-impact practice that brings immediacy to a subject matter for students, he says. It’s a way to drive home that the things discussed in class are relevant to their lives.
Of course, such experiences have to be designed in thoughtful and intentional ways. Mathewson recognizes that their final project that requires students to engage with a religious community with which they are unfamiliar “has the potential to go very wrong.” That’s why the LLC is intentionally backward-designed to give students the tools and processes they need to engage effectively and appropriately and achieve the desired learning outcomes. Preparation is a semester-long process to create a context in which the vast majority of students and the communities with which they engage have a positive experience.
What Have You Learned?
This blog series has discussed several different intercultural efforts at Taylor, Purdue, Augsburg, and Wofford. What themes are you noticing? What have you learned? Next month’s post will examine some of the themes that have emerged from these institutional spotlights, so I’d love to hear from you about what stands out or resonates most! Please post a comment below.
Paige, R.M. & Vande Berg, M. (2012). Why students are and are not learning abroad: A review of recent research. In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it (pp. 29-58). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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