Developing Intercultural Competence: If Not Now, When?

May 07, 2024
tree on grassy plain with blue sky

Lately, as I read the news about campus protests, student encampments, and the various ways universities are handling these responses to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, I keep thinking about the expression:  The best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second-best time is now.

Of course, I’m not thinking about planting trees, but developing intercultural competence. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Intercultural competence can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice to have’ skill in our world. It’s a ‘must have.’

I applaud the many educators and institutions who are demonstrating significant intercultural competence during these challenging times—navigating complex, emotionally-charged situations that involve numerous stakeholders with differing interests and perspectives with empathy, vulnerability, and courage. At the same time, I can’t help but think that more universities and leaders might be better equipped to navigate the current challenges if they’d seriously invested in fostering intercultural competence—among students as well as faculty and administrators—years ago.

Polarized thinking and approaches to difference—us/them, good/bad—are incredibly inadequate when it comes to tackling the challenges of today’s complex world. But equally inadequate are approaches that focus simply on celebrating cultural differences or treating others as we want to be treated. We all need to develop the capacity to navigate deeper differences that make a difference effectively, appropriately, and authentically. That requires an ability to understand and empathize with perspectives and lived experiences that differ from our own—even those with which we may disagree. It also involves being able to skillfully bridge the cultural gaps to achieve our goals in such a way that other stakeholders feel seen and respected. I’m not saying intercultural competence will solve all the world’s problems, but we won’t get very far without it.

This is a mindset, heart set, and skillset that must be intentionally fostered. Colleges and universities are uniquely situated to help develop intercultural competence because they bring together people from many different backgrounds and have learning and personal development as a primary goal. Institutions of higher education must take seriously the responsibility of developing intercultural competence. If not now, when?

Photo credit: Johann Siemens, Unsplash

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