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Reflections on Intercultural Learning & Teaching

One Year In: Reflecting on COVID’s Impact on Intercultural Learning

Mar 09, 2021


We are officially one year into this pandemic. It’s been a challenging year, no doubt. But as any good interculturalist knows, challenges also offer opportunities for learning and growth.

In this blog post, I’m reflecting back on how this year has impacted the area of intercultural learning in higher education and what we can learn, and looking forward to where we go from here.

Looking Back

The following are a few lessons that I hope higher education has learned from the past year.

Lesson #1:  The need for intercultural competence has become glaringly obvious.

This past year—perhaps more than any in my lifetime—has made the injustices of our world startlingly obvious. They’ve always existed, of course, globally and locally. But the pandemic has highlighted the disparities, while cell phones and social media are bringing greater attention to the brutality and oppression many—especially people of color—experience. And at a time when...

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Three Tips for Getting Intentional about Intercultural Learning in 2021

Jan 12, 2021


This past year—and the first few weeks of 2021—have made it abundantly clear just how deeply divided our society is. It’s more evident than ever that just being in the vicinity of people from different backgrounds, cultures, or walks of life—whether on campus, in our communities, or abroad—is not sufficient to help us learn to engage more effectively and appropriately across those differences. Much less to create a more equitable, just society!

As I’ve said before, intercultural competence can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice to have’ skill in our world. It is a ‘need to have.’ That means our educational institutions need to get serious about intentionally facilitating intercultural learning.

In this blog post, I suggest three things you can do to get more intentional and creative about fostering intercultural learning at your institution this year.

#1:  Understand and align with the mission.

Take a look at your...

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Intercultural Terms & What Matters More

Aug 18, 2020


I’ve recently received a number of questions from people about why I use the intercultural terms I use as opposed to others. These questions and the ensuing conversations suggest to me that there is often more focus in higher education on the intercultural terms used than on what it is we’re actually wanting to achieve and what it entails.

For example, a participant in one of my programs recently mentioned that their school chose to focus on ‘cultural humility’ rather than ‘intercultural competence’ because the latter seemed more limiting. Elsewhere, someone mentioned they prefer the term ‘global citizenship’ over ‘intercultural competence’ because they felt the former expressed a mindset, the latter a skillset.

Both of these comments somewhat surprised me, but also didn’t. They surprised me because they run so counter to my understanding of and approach to intercultural competence development.

In my mind, intercultural...

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Crisis as Opportunity: A Paradigm Shift for Intercultural Learning?

Jul 15, 2020


It seems uncertainty is the new norm. In many ways, this is incredibly scary. But it also presents opportunity.

Author Arundhati Roy recently wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

I believe that we are in the midst of a potential paradigm shift in higher education, particularly around intercultural learning. I have been advocating for years that we expand the focus on global mobility in higher education to intercultural learning more broadly. Not because international education and exchange are not important and transformational, but...

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Tips for Fostering Intercultural Learning during COVID-19

May 11, 2020


We are all living with a lot of uncertainty right now. International educators are not only dealing with uncertainty in their own lives, but also in the lives of their students. Will students be able to travel abroad in the fall? Will programs need to be shortened? Start dates delayed? Will international students be able to get visas to come to our school? Will they decide not to enroll?

So many unknowns! For us, and our students.

Global mobility might be cancelled or on hold for the time being. But intercultural learning doesn’t have to be! 

In fact, I would argue that intentionally focusing on developing intercultural competence is more important now than ever. Previously, we may have been able to move students around the world and hope that such experiences would lead to deep intercultural learning (if you’ve followed me for more than a minute you know that’s not necessarily a given). But now we have to come up with other ways.

Furthermore, as I’ve...

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COVID-19 and the Future of Intercultural Learning in Higher Education

Apr 09, 2020


A lot has happened in the world since I wrote my last blog post a month ago, when most colleges and universities were just beginning to consider how to respond to the spreading Coronavirus. Now, most schools have moved instruction and services online. Study abroad programs have been cancelled and students sent home, and many international exchange organizations have laid off hundreds of employees.

Worldwide, people are facing significant hardship and loss, as well as dealing with incredible uncertainty. Most of us are experiencing a wide range of fluctuating emotions, many of them contradictory.

For me personally, this all feels very heavy right now. And yet I’m also feeling hopeful. In this post, I want to acknowledge and make space for the heaviness, while also sharing with you the reasons behind my hopefulness.

An Opportunity to Create a New “Normal”

Lately I’ve heard a lot of references to “when things are back to normal.” Frankly, I don’t...

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2019: A Year of Purposeful Experimentation

Jan 07, 2020


2019 was a year of purposeful experimentation at True North Intercultural.

I started this company in 2016, providing intercultural consulting and training services to institutions of higher education. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what’s most effective in helping institutions achieve their intercultural learning goals. I’ve also learned what my own strengths are—intercultural training and coaching—and the magic that can happen when we work within our strengths. As a result, I've honed in on creating high-impact professional development programs that empower educators to more effectively foster intercultural learning. And I’ve learned a lot in the process.

In this (longer than usual) post, I’d like to share some of the highlights of 2019, what I’ve learned, and what the plans are for 2020.

2019 Highlights

We served a LOT of people. And they are doing amazing things! Through on-campus workshops, one-on-one coaching,...

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Recap of the CILMAR Intercultural Learning Leadership Retreat

Oct 14, 2019

Above (from top left, clockwise): Darla Deardorff, Kris Acheson-Clair, Dawn Whitehead, Hazel Symonette, Mick Vande Berg, Terrrence Harewood, Beth Zemsky, Leigh Stanfield, Amer Ahmed, my empty chair, Chuck Calahan. Also present, but not pictured: Annette Benson, Allan Bird, Chris Cartwright, Joenita Paulrajan.


Wow, my September was busy! One of the things I had the pleasure of doing was spending two days at an Intercultural Learning Leadership Retreat, organized by Purdue University’s Center for Intercultural Learning, Mentorship, Assessment & Research (CILMAR).

CILMAR brought together a diverse group of intercultural educators to brainstorm about the future of professional development related to intercultural learning in higher education, and we enjoyed a lively discussion (and good company).

Although next steps have not yet been determined, I would like to share here three themes that stood out over the course of our two days together.


#1:  The importance of deep...

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Leaning into our Learning Edge During Intercultural Experiences

Jul 08, 2019

Above: My kids, learning (in Spanish) the basics of how to scuba dive.


At the beginning of summer, my spouse and two kids and I typically spend several weeks in Spain, where my spouse’s whole family lives. During our recent trip, I was reminded of the importance of finding and embracing our “learning edge” during intercultural experiences. And also how different that can be for each one of us.

My kids are currently ten and twelve. Anyone who is a parent of—or close with—multiple children knows how different their ways of engaging the world can be.

Our trips to Spain are great opportunities for me to observe my kids’ personalities and strengths in action, and also to see where the new and different starts to make each of them (as well as myself) uncomfortable. That’s what I call the “learning edge.”

In most of my intercultural trainings and online programs, I talk with educators about the importance of helping learners find their...

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The Art of Debriefing for Intercultural Learning

May 13, 2019


In last month’s blog post, I shared some of my favorite resources for intercultural learning activities. This month, I’m following up with a discussion about the importance of effectively debriefing those activities and other intercultural learning experiences. Because the learning really is in the debrief.

This is true whether the “activity” is an intercultural experience—such as a site visit during study abroad or an intercultural dialogue session on your campus—or an in-class activity such as one pulled from the resources mentioned last month.

The activity is where you set the stage. The debrief is where you dig into the learning. 

Why Debriefing is So Important

Experiential Learning Theory tells us that experience alone does not lead to the kind of deep, transformational learning that is the goal of intercultural education. As Kolb (1984) says, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of...

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