Enhancing Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence involves the ability to adapt behaviour and communication to intercultural contexts using a variety of skills, knowledge and attitudes (Bennett, 2009; Deardorff, 2006).

Within short term study abroad, such as International Field Schools, there is opportunity to develop greater intercultural competence in our students. However, this does not happen simply by being in a different country or culture nor does it happen in an ad-hoc, or add-on way.  Research has shown that intentional program structures that include well defined activities and assignments, meaningful local interaction and planned reflection and re-entry exercises, all assist to increase intercultural competence. (Nyguen, 2017; Vande Berg, et al., 2009; Hunter, 2004).

There is a great deal of research and theory developed on intercultural competence and there are several assessment tools to measure intercultural competence development over time. Darla Deardorff (2006) developed an Intercultural Competence Model and Framework that may assist in thinking about the concept and how one moves through the process.

How best to create an integrated, comprehensive approach to developing intercultural competence?

Here is a brief introduction to some of the recommended practices and educational interventions often used in field school design:

1. Incorporate Interventions to Develop intercultural competence before, during and after an international field school travel experience.

In spite of its short term nature, significant gains in intercultural competence can be made within an International Field School when it is integrated fully in the programming, including before and after travel has occurred. Providing sufficient preparation for students on intercultural learning before study abroad opportunities take place allows students to better communicate the growth occurring during these programs. For those returning from study abroad, additional intercultural training can improve reflection, understanding and skill building.

Example: The Global Orientation (GO!) initiative at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides students with comprehensive intercultural and ethical training prior to their departure and after their return to help students get the most out of their cultural experiences.

2. Critical and guided reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool in the process of intercultural competence development. In the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,  Senge et al. (1996) describe reflecting as:

…becoming an observer of your own thinking and acting. This phase might start with a postmortem about a previous action: How well did it go? What were we thinking and feeling during the process? What underlying beliefs (what "theories in use") seemed to affect the way we handled it? Do we see our goals differently now? (p. 60)

Use of reflection activities pre, during and post International Field School experience can significantly enhance understanding, even in short term experiences.

Example: Faculty accompanying students on a University of Washington International Field School for Nursing in India developed and delivered an intercultural competency curriculum as a component of the 3 week experience. The curriculum included a pre-departure session, personal development plan based on individual results from intercultural pretests, reflection journals, and facilitated group sessions. This curriculum emphasized internal processing of experiences through structured reflection journals and facilitated group sessions. Intercultural frameworks were integrated in the reflection journals.

3. Targeted Language Instruction

When students are travelling to a country where the native language is not English, there should also be a commitment to some basic language training. This can begin prior to departure and continue during an International Field School experience.  The expectation is not to gain fluency, but rather provides a greater appreciation and interest in the culture and allows students to attempt limited interactions with locals if they do not speak English.

4. Mixed populations of SFU and host country students

Designing an International Field School where SFU students can learn with (and from) local students creates a rich intercultural experience for students.  This can mean some learning activities within a course that are shared between groups, or that a course is fully shared. Learning technologies can assist in group work prior to students travelling to the host country.  These arrangements are often possible when you leverage existing institutional international partnerships.

5. Group mentoring pre and post travel

The mentor provides advice, knowledge and insight into the culture prior to departure, and can be used as a resource for reflection during the International Field School as well as on return. This individual could be an SFU faculty or staff member, or could be a member of a diaspora community, for example.

6. Use of an onsite cultural mentor

Having a cultural mentor during the in-field component of an International Field School can be helpful in providing space for students to reflect and ask questions about a different culture. This individual could be a faculty/staff member of the host institution/organization, for example.

7. Time spent with host families or host nationals

Beyond peer to peer interaction in a classroom, opportunities to interact with host nationals can enrich the intercultural experience.  If some or part of an International Field School experience can involve interacting with or staying with a family, this can have significant benefits to intercultural learning. When engaging with host families and host nationals it is important to consider principles of ethical engagement

8. Participating in “intercultural pedagogy”

International educators often tell students that one of the advantages of longer term study abroad is to experience a different system and way of learning.  International Field Schools can also incorporate this experience of “intercultural pedagogy” into their design by providing opportunities for students to learn from others who have a different, and often culturally based, approach to their teaching.  The use of co-teaching, reciprocal teaching or onsite mentorship are all ways that can give students first-hand experience of different teaching approaches. This can often be arranged through international partnerships. When this is combined with reflective and comparative learning, studies have found gains to intercultural competence.



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Deardorff, Darla K. 2008. Intercultural Competence:  A Definition, Model and Implications for Education Abroad. In Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research, and Application in International Education, ed. Victor Savicki.  pp. 32-52. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Deardorff, Darla K. , ed.  2009. The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nyguen, A. (2017). Intercultural Competence in Short Term Study Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXIX, Issue 2, (November 2017): pp. 109-127.

Pedersen, P. J. (2010). Assessing intercultural effectiveness outcomes in a year-long study abroad program. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 34(1), 70-80.

Richards, C. A., & Doorenbos, A. Z. (2016). Intercultural competency development of health professions students during study abroad in India. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 6(12), 89.

Savicki, V. (Ed.). (2008). Intercultural competence and transformation: Theory, research, and

application in international education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Schaettim, B. F., Ramsey, S. J., & Watanabe, G. C. (2009). From Intercultural Knowledge to Intercultural Competence: Developing an Intercultural Practice. In M. A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations (pp. 125-144). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday.