Interculturalization at the Center of Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

March 14, 2023


Diversifying campus communities and creating welcoming and inclusive environments for all students are key components of the U.S. Department of Education’s mission to support competitive education on the global scene (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). In that regard, higher education institutions (HEIs) have been paying more attention to diversity (Banks, 2015; Portes & Vickstorm, 2015; Smith, 2020), equity (Baker, 2019), inclusion (Barkas et al., 2020; Bhopal, 2017; Fuentes et al., 2020), and belonging (Witwer, 2021). However, predominantly White institutions (PWIs) are struggling to meet the needs of their diversified and underrepresented student population (Eakins & Eakins, 2017) and are implementing strategies to make their campuses more inclusive. Increasing students' intercultural communication competence (ICC) is one of the approaches to enhance inclusivity and improve the integration of diverse and marginalized groups in higher education environments while offering all students critical skills to be prepared for the 21st century (Deardorff, 2006).

This paper provides a literature review of the meaning of intercultural communication competence. Various global, intercultural, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts implemented at Michigan State University (MSU) are highlighted, along with sharing the limitations and challenges associated with these efforts. Overall, this paper demonstrates the importance of interculturalization and its significance to DEI efforts in higher education.


  • Ashley Green | Michigan State University
  • Anjam Chaudhary | Michigan State University

Defining intercultural communication competency
Intercultural communication is a field of research, study, practice, and teaching of its  own, but it is also the result of research in various disciplines such as languages, business, health  professions, sociology, anthropology, or education. The multidisciplinary use of the term  resulted in a large set of definitions and correlated words and expressions. While the term  intercultural initially referred to interpersonal contacts between culturally different individuals, it  eventually expanded to other areas such as organizational, relational entities (Ruben, 2015), and  higher education institutions including departments and programs dedicated to intercultural communication development.

The concept of intercultural communication competence (ICC) is complex and tends to  be the object of multidimensional interpretations. Hoff (2016) attempted to reconceptualize  intercultural communication through a focus on literary reading while Avgousti (2018) explored the impact of online exchanges on ICC acquisition. Although ICC is fluid and constantly  evolving, a breadth of empirical and theoretical research has sought to comprehend, define, and  measure intercultural competence (Abdallah-Pretceille, 2006; Bennett; 1986; Chen, 2013;  Deardorff, 2006; Fantini, 2000; Hammer, et al., 1978; Jokikokko, 2005; Ruben et al., 1977).  

The inherent nature of ICC is developmental (Bennett, 1986), and often leads to a “shift  in the internal frame of reference, or relativizing one’s self” (Byram, 1997, p. 34). It is through  Byram (1997) and Bennett’s (1986) definitions that we acknowledge that intercultural  competence is more than mere contact and interaction, it is the development of skills and  competencies to appropriately engage in multicultural interactions. These sets of skills and  competencies are increasingly important to introduce on college campuses where students must  physically and virtually navigate a globally diverse environment.

Traditional first-year college students start their academic journey with an already acquired set of values and social norms. The role of intercultural interaction and engagement through on-campus’ interculturalization and international mobility is to expose students to a  variety of differing worldviews to help them view and experience the world from multiple  lenses. College experiences and exposure to different views often challenge students’  perceptions. Interactions with diverse social groups prompt cognitive disequilibrium critical to learning, which Maffesoli (2006) refers to as the construen part that supports students’  epistemological and ontological development. 

Michigan State University’s efforts to combine intercultural with DEI

 Part of MSU’s efforts, to bridge internationalization and DEI endeavors, is to focus on global DEI, where global perspectives and considerations are intentionally integrated into what  has traditionally been a domestic focus and approach to DEI. This vision gives space to  international voices on campus, creates connection between domestic and international students,  faculty, and staff, and puts ICC development at the center of fostering an inclusive environment.  Intercultural and ICC workshops, offered at MSU are widely implemented to encourage and  facilitate cross-cultural training and interactions while offering tools to nourish these culturally  contrasting encounters. The focus is to learn about diverse cultures, but also within cultures to  understand and navigate various types of post-colonial systems of oppression. In addition to ICC  trainings, another important focal point is understanding and mitigating our biases to help  students and faculty/staff verbalize their worldviews and perspectives while equipping them with  strategies to discuss, rethink, and reconsider some of their beliefs. DEI efforts such as ICC and  mitigating biases work in tandem to support interculturalization and inclusion.

MSU’s global DEI efforts recognize that it is inconceivable, or nearly impossible, to  separate interculturality from internationalization as they both are intertwined in many ways.  Indeed, internationalization materializes the conscious efforts to combine the international and  intercultural dimensions to integrate them into the structural framework of higher education  (NAFSA Task Force on Internationalization, 2008). On many large and decentralized campuses, DEI and international offices work in silo. However, it is necessary, for these offices to closely  collaborate and combine efforts in a structured way to truly advance global diversity and  inclusion. 

An early step to combine internationalization with DEI was to integrate intercultural  communication into campus’ DEI efforts that solidified and expanded the collaboration between  DEI practitioners with the actors responsible for campus-internationalization (Green & Ferguson,  2021). As a result, domestic DEI efforts, traditionally focusing on race, gender, and access, are  expanding to embrace the global aspect, including intersectionality, as well as, cultural  awareness and competency from a global perspective. In a globalized world, where diversity and  inclusion are receiving increased attention, and are seen as collectivistic aspects rather than  separationist ideologies, MSU aims to train students, faculty, and staff, to be thriving global  citizens. 

A tangible example that could be replicated on other campuses is the cross-campus  collaborative efforts that resulted in the creation of workshops and safe spaces encouraging interactions between all student groups. These programs are meant to give voices to the  international minorities present on campus and break the invisible wall being erected between  international and domestic students. These varied initiatives are opportunities for students to  grow their cultural awareness, hear from international peers, prepare for study abroad trips,  strengthen relationships with diverse others, and understand the complexities of navigating cross cultural exchanges. Another example is the MSU Global DEI Conversations Webinar Series where international scholars, practitioners, and students discuss DEI topics through a global lens.  These discussions can result in the creation of resources, changes in policies, and curriculum  expansion to better integrate the perspectives of the international campus communities into  domestic DEI initiatives. The Globally Inclusive Language and Images webinar contributed to  the publication of a cross-campus collaborative living guide for inclusive language. Each Global  DEI or ICC initiative and program, such as these examples are important parts of a larger vision  and goal of campus internationalization. These types of activities should not be viewed and  implemented as stand-alone efforts as their effect will be limited. 

Limitations of Intercultural Training 
While the benefits associated with international and domestic intercultural experiences  are numerous, scholars, practitioners, and users are widely questioning their efficacy as a tool to  promote intercultural competencies (Johnstone et al., 2018). The main concern raised in the  literature and experiences on university campuses is that ICC is not permanent, and its learning  evolves as cultures and practices change. Lee and Song (2019) summarized that intercultural  competence development is a volatile and continuous learning experience, is difficult to grasp  and enquires time and opportunities for refinement. Cultural trainings usually focus on the  performative aspect of cultures rather than exploring the cultures from within through a post colonial lens. In efforts to address these critiques, the Global DEI work at MSU is centering  intercultural exchanges and ICC development to create methods and tools for educators that can  be changed and adapted to the complex cultural diversification of societies in constant movement  (Adballah-Pretceille, 2006; Virkama, 2010). Other overarching critiques of intercultural
competence programming is that it does not reach far enough in addressing structural and  systemic oppression and has limited empirical evidence (Abrams & Moio, 2009). With the  incorporation of the global and intercultural aspects into domestic DEI initiatives, MSU attempts  to respond to that critique by revising and enhancing policies, programs, and practices to address  structural and systematic inequities and exclusion while assessing the effectiveness of ICC  initiatives. MSU implements curricular and co-curricular programs as a means to incorporate,  teach, and foster epistemological, praxis, and ontological elements into students’ training,  ensuring that they graduate with a holistic understanding and acceptance of cultural differences  and are willing to be the actors of a positive difference in the world (De Wit & Leask, 2015). 

Intercultural communication competence is integral to fostering an inclusive environment and engaging appropriately across cultures. Developing all students, faculty, and staff’s  intercultural communication competence is one meaningful practice to bridge  internationalization and DEI efforts at higher education institutions. Growing global awareness  and understanding depends on cognitive development in conjunction with building the capacity  in students, faculty, and staff (providing tools and strategies) to apply and practice that gained  knowledge across locally and globally diverse contexts. By placing interculturalization at the  center of global DEI efforts, MSU is reconciling two approaches traditionally considered  separately. MSU’s Global DEI initiatives include culturally diverse voices and perspectives with  a goal to explore topics and hear stories from distinctive frames of references that promote mindset-growth and a better understanding of self and others.


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