Chapter 7: Developing Intercultural Competence

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Ben Cecil

November 7, 2017

Reflections on Chapter 7 – Developing Intercultural Competence in Supporting Students Globally

Written by Ben Cecil, M.S. – Assistant Director, International Student Life – University of Georgia, USA

Intercultural competence is a buzzword that student affairs practitioners  often hear about related to outcomes of an undergraduate education, but what does it actually mean? How do we actually achieve intercultural competence when students arrive to colleges and universities in different places developmentally and with a breadth of various life experiences? Darla Deardorff’s chapter in Supporting Students Globally begins the conversation about developing intercultural competence for college students, working to debunk the myths and misconceptions surrounding intercultural competency development (pg. 127). At its core, this chapter reminds us to focus on the core of what intercultural competence means, and challenges us to remember that much of the work and information surrounding intercultural competency development in college students is U.S.-based and U.S.-centric.

One of the biggest takeaways from this chapter is a reminder that developing intercultural competence takes work. Deardorff highlights this in the first part of her chapter, noting that many of the ‘intercultural myths’ (pg. 127) she identifies are ways that higher education believes intercultural competence can be developed. It is important to remember that intercultural competency development is a lifelong process, and the time when a student begins development of these skills in a collegiate setting may be merely laying their foundation. Intercultural competence is not something that develops because of attendance at one program, taking one academic course, experiencing one co-curricular opportunity, or participating in an abroad experience. Of course, these can be critical components to developing intercultural competence, but are not part of some ‘magic formula’ that will ultimately allow a student to suddenly be  an interculturally competent person.

The chapter provides a chance to explore the different definitions of intercultural competence as well as the various models and theoretical perspectives that relate to this work. Many of us know or already use the iceberg concept of culture in intercultural education work. Deardorff offers this model as an example of a way in which we can explain culture, but not necessarily the best way to develop intercultural competence. As Deardorff notes, focusing on only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ – or those elements of culture that are more easily seen or accessible, such as festivals, food, music, or dance only offer a brief glimpse into specific cultures, and perhaps close the door to opportunities for more enriching dialogue (p. 130). The best opportunities to learn from others about their stories and perspectives, Deardorff cites, are often found in more informal settings (p. 131). However, recognizing the different myths and misconceptions at the beginning of the chapter, we must challenge ourselves as student affairs professionals to not just assume that creating the space for this dialogue automatically assumes that the ‘magic’ will happen. Utilizing the models presented in the chapter (p. 134) in order to understand how intercultural competence develops from a process-based perspective is critical in developing programs, services, and opportunities for students to engage around these topics.  

The process model of intercultural competence (p. 134) by Deardorff provides a way for us to visualize the way in which we all can develop intercultural competency skills. There different areas of focus that ultimately seek to create positive internal and external outcomes as interculturally competent people. You can see below the ways in which our attitudes and knowledge affect the desired internal and external outcomes. You also are likely able to see areas in which student affairs professionals can impact learning in these different areas to allow students the chance to explore their own attitudes and further develop intercultural knowledge.

  • Attitudes: developing respect (valuing other cultures), openness (withholding judgment), and curiosity & discovery (tolerating ambiguity)

  • Knowledge: cultural self-awareness, deep cultural knowledge, other world views, sociolinguistic awareness; being able to listen, observe, and evaluate; being able to analyze, interpret, and relate

  • Desired Internal Outcomes: Informed frame of reference shift to create adaptability, flexibility, ethnorelative view, empathy skills

  • Desired External outcomes: Effective and appropriate communication and behavior in an intercultural situation

Adapted from Figure 7.2 on page 134 (Deardorff, 2016).

After reading and reflecting on this chapter, one area of immense importance that needs to be recognized is that intercultural competence development is a process that occurs over a lifetime. Although I consider myself an interculturally competent person based on the work that I do daily, I also am aware of my own areas of non-understanding and areas of growth. As educators, we often want to be the source of answers, of knowledge, and the best resource for our students. When working with intercultural competency development, we need to remember that we are all experts on only one culture: the culture of our own lived experiences. One of the best parts about my current position is working with students from across the world and a wide range of cultures. However, even as an advisor for many international student organizations, the students and their perspectives often assist in further developing my own intercultural competence. When working with intercultural education and intercultural competency development, there is a baseline of understanding that we as educators should know. At the same time, we need to be open to the idea that we also are on the lifelong journey of developing intercultural competence ourselves, and should be open to learning and listening from others and modeling this way of learning and humility for our students.

Lasly, this chapter is a poignant reminder for those s who work in intercultural education to continue to approach this work in new ways that frame the information in a relevant and applicable way. Deardorff identifies a number of critical questions that outline ways we can continue to impact student learning and development through intercultural competency development toward the end of the chapter (p. 140). Some of the questions focus more on determining attitudes to other cultures, while others focus on developing our own knowledge and skills related to intercultural competence. In addition, a reminder of the power and importance of reflection in student learning with a wide variety of examples of reflection questions are included to reiterate the importance of reflection in intercultural competency development. As this work continues to be critically important in the global dialogue, student affairs professionals as well as higher education administrators need to remember the power of collaborative partnerships across the university, understanding that intercultural competency development cannot be the sole responsibility of one or two offices within student affairs, or even the Division of Student Affairs. Developing intercultural competence is a goal requiring a multi-lateral focus from the University In which students, faculty, and staff engage in the process of intercultural competency development both inside and outside of the classroom.

Ben Cecil is the Assistant Director of International Student Life at the University of Georgia. In this role, Ben advises international student organizations, oversees international student orientation and the World Leader program, creates opportunities for program and outreach on campus and within the community, and oversees an annual tax-assistance program for international students.

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