More than a Degree: Learning Intercultural Competence

More than a Degree: Learning Intercultural Competence

“Social skills now rank No. 1 among job skills in highest demand.” —Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., author of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills

Gaining Cultural Understanding

Whether you’re planning on getting language training or a degree in the United States, you will find opportunities to develop intercultural understanding while studying in the U.S. International students who study abroad can lose perspective on exactly why they initially chose to study in a foreign country. Without trying, they often find themselves surrounded by people from their own country and speaking their own language. This can create an isolated experience.

Your time in the U.S. gives you a valuable opportunity: to promote your cultural understanding and English language skills.

The jobs of the globalized future will not only require English language ability, but also the ability to communicate effectively within the English-speaking cultures. Employers all over the world are seeking those who have the skills of intercultural competence.

What is intercultural competence?

Intercultural competence minimally includes a set of skills that demonstrate someone is capable of effective communication and relationship-building within another culture. Most students think that intercultural competence can only occur in a language classroom where the teacher engages students in controlled, safe intercultural experiences. However, what happens outside the classroom is just as important as what goes on inside. For example, when you experience a new culture and overcome your homesickness by engaging in the community of the host culture, you learn something valuable about yourself. This makes you better able to adapt to new situations, new people and new work environments.

More than ever before, employers are looking to hire people who can adapt easily, “think on their feet,” and meet new challenges wisely. In the future, being interculturally competent will be one of the most basic skills of any job. Being at the forefront of that trend will give you a competitive edge on job applications, especially in the fields of medicine, business, engineering, and technology.

Working around the obstacles

Depending on your length of stay in the U.S.A., some you may overuse your technological connections to home. Technology makes this very easy, but this can undermine your study abroad experience. For example, many international students chat or connect with friends and family back home in the middle of the night and miss class the next morning. While connection to family and friends is one of the most important factors in keeping you sane abroad, those connections should not interfere with your investment in studying in the U.S.

Instead, enjoy a basketball game or explore the city with an American friend. Ask questions about what is happening around you and why. Take those questions back to your classroom, or to a trusted friend to discuss.

U.S. university entrance requirements can also defer a person’s cultural immersion. Whether it’s the TOEFL or the SAT, if you stay home to study for it, you’re being shortsighted. Those tests only measure your academic abilities. Staying home to study for the test—while good for learning test-taking strategies—cannot predict how well you will do in the “real world” of the U.S.A. University entrance is only one of your goals.

Putting yourself into situations where you can use the English language in “real situations with real people” will help you deal with the “real world.” Interacting and engaging with the local population will not only better your English language skills, it will also give you confidence in your ability to use the language, whether on a test or socially.

Ways to develop intercultural competence while in the U.S.A.

While the classroom is the primary location that structured learning occurs, most English language programs offer a variety of student activities. These activities are designed to expose students to the broader community in which the school is situated. These activities and social gatherings will help the English language come alive and give it context.

Here at the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at the University of Arizona, we organize field trips to local attractions and introduce international students to U.S. families in the Tucson area. Whether you realize it or not, you will be learning and absorbing the surrounding culture as you participate in fun adventures to the Grand Canyon or visits to the state museum.

Other opportunities to experience the culture first-hand at the University of Arizona include: volunteering at the local food bank; attending academic lectures in your field of study; practicing your English via a conversation partners program; or joining a campus club which organizes activities, such as badminton or swing dancing. Check the bulletin boards all over campus and in the hallways, and you’ll find a plethora of opportunities to become more involved.

Making your cultural experiences into learning opportunities

Becoming interculturally competent doesn’t end with mere participation in the local culture. Participation and exposure to American culture is the first step towards dismantling preconceived notions about the culture. Participation is a critical engagement of the cultural world around you. Once you’ve had a cultural experience, you must sit down and ask yourself some fundamental questions: What did you learn from the experience? How does what have you learned challenge your assumptions about people and culture? How will this now change your thinking about the people and culture with which you are living?

When you choose to reflect and examine your experiences, you will create a habit of reflection that is fundamental to being interculturally competent.

The interculturally competent person is capable of building meaningful relationships in another culture. These relationships, whether with academic colleagues or business acquaintances, often lead to lifelong partnerships that are mutually beneficial. If you plan to go to the U.S.A., isolate yourself in your room, and surround yourself with books in English, you’re not looking far enough ahead.

Take risks with the English language; become acquainted with the people who use it and the place they inhabit. In the long-term, this will give you the most valuable experience studying in the U.S.A. Take advantage of every opportunity.

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By Nicholas M. Ferdinandt
Nicholas M. Ferdinandt, Ed.D. is the Associate Director and Teacher Training Coordinator at the Center for English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona.

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