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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