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Moving Beyond Barriers: What if we stopped talking about what’s wrong?

Thursday, December 5, 2019  
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At the latest CIEE conference, Diversity Abroad staff teamed up with local universities to host a workshop titled “Breaking Our Own Barriers: Becoming An Accessible Study Abroad Office.” Unlike most presentations on barriers, we decided not to look at the traditionally accepted 4 F’s which focus on barriers from the diverse student perspective. Instead, we took this as an opportunity to look inwardly, and identify what barriers we may have knowingly or unknowingly put in place that keep students from taking advantage of international opportunities. From staffing and organizational structure, to advising, outreach, and applications, the room of over 100+ study abroad practitioners identified many issues that we have put in place ourselves that may be hindering the very students we want to encourage. Many times, the policies (or lack thereof) are related to organizational habits - doing things the way we’ve always done them because that’s the way they’ve always been done. At other times, the policies came about to make our lives easier without much consideration for the student (morning office hours or information sessions).

After sitting in on a session that is focused on barriers, or everything that’s wrong, it’s easy to get discouraged.  We talk so much about barriers as an industry and try to attack those barriers, but participation rates mostly stay the same. So how can we change the approach? If we’re not going to focus on the negative barriers, what are we going to focus on? Let’s turn our attention to the appreciative inquiry method, as described by Sue Hammond in The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry:

“The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them… Appreciative Inquiry suggests that we look for what works in an organization. The tangible result of the inquiry process is a series of statements that describe where the organization wants to be, based on the high moments of where they have been. Because the statements are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.”

So how can we, as a field, move beyond a conversation focused on the problem, or barriers? How can we identify our strengths, the strengths of our staff, the strengths of other campus partners, and the strengths of our colleagues around the field to shift our focus and build towards a shared vision for international education? Let’s first learn to appreciate that the barriers can be challenges, but not focus all of our attention on them. The appreciative inquiry approach can help us move past these barriers and have open conversations about what is working well to create transformational change. To learn more about appreciative inquiry and find tools you can use in your organization, you can visit any of the appreciative inquiry centers found online including Appreciative Inquiry Commons, The Center for Appreciative Inquiry, and Mind Tools: Appreciative Inquiry.

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