Izzy Rousmaniere (M’20) majored in Humanities Applications and minored in Government, Politics, and Society. She used her Capstone Project to research the obstacles and approaches to building intercultural competence and consciousness at Minerva. This is her Capstone Project.
The Minerva Schools at KGI aspires to create a revolutionary model for a higher education that creates global citizens and leaders by “nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world.” Intercultural competence, or the ability to exhibit self-awareness and appropriate behavior in cross-cultural contexts, is widely acknowledged as crucial to this goal but has only recently become a serious pedagogical focus in the institution. In this paper, I analyze how both interpersonal and organizational patterns of ethnocentrism at Minerva might be developed into ethnorelative frameworks for thinking and acting, and I advocate for Minerva to integrate morality into to its cultural pedagogy aim for intercultural consciousness, not just competence, in the interest of both student well-being and global citizenship. I conclude with a list of recommendations that could be implemented across the institution’s pedagogy and operations to contribute to creating interculturally competent and conscious graduates.
I owe much gratitude to my advisor, Dr. Erin Kamler, my Capstone advising group (Bella, Ximena, Aleezae, and Uyen), and every professor and academic mentor who provided resources or insights in this process, especially Prof. Scott Wisor, Prof. Suzanne Kern, and Prof. Dollie Davis.
Gratitude also to my mother, Wendy Morris, who was a source of wisdom and a research mentor throughout this process, but who has been a sounding board and an inspiration to me on issues of culture and consciousness for much, much longer. This project would not exist without her (and neither would I).
Many thanks to everyone who contributed interviews and comments to this project, and to every student and staff member whose thoughts, questions, and rants over the last four years made their way into our conversations and then into this Capstone. None of this project is mine alone.
This Capstone is dedicated to the Class of 2020. This isn’t the ending we expected, but then no part of it was really what we expected. It was all still magical. Thank you.
The Minerva Schools at KGI have an incredible opportunity and responsibility: to educate bright and driven young people from around the world, in the diverse contexts of vibrant global cities. Building intercultural competence (abbreviated ICC) is a crucial part of that education for several reasons. First, to prepare students for the particular kind of sensitivity and self-awareness required to live in a global community and a foreign context without unintentionally creating harm or hurting those around them. Second, because strong intercultural communication and competency will not only be advantageous but likely necessary for students’ careers regardless of their sector or location (Davies, et al., 2020) (Krajewsky, 2011). And third, because ICC is an important part of personal growth and development, especially in an increasingly interconnected world where any decision we make reaches far beyond our immediate communities.
However, in its early years of operation, Minerva’s practice has been to demand the development of intercultural skills without directly teaching them. By dropping young people into a global community and rotation with few concrete pedagogical tools, the institution has expected that students will learn by osmosis. As has become clear to both staff and students, this has not allowed students or the institution to reach maximum potential with regard to intercultural competence. Without guidance as to how to build one’s capacity to interact with culturally different classmates and contexts, students fall into patterns of self-segregation in both the community and the city, and often respond to difference with insensitivity or disrespect rather than adaptation. This project explores cultural development at Minerva from a variety of angles: by investigating the theoretical and practical literature on intercultural competence and consciousness; by interviewing students and staff about how Minerva’s model has served their engagement with cultural issues; and by examining the ethical implications of institutional views of ICC both for students and for Minerva’s mission.
Minerva’s administration is aware of this issue and of the critical importance of addressing it. Since spring 2019, staff and administration have significantly increased focus on ICC pedagogy, including developing and implementing a mandatory for-credit course that first-year students are in process of taking. This shift is an important and laudable step, and so far, the course seems to be going well. Despite this progress, I have chosen to work on this project because I think (and members of the administration agree) there is a value in incorporating student perspectives as programs are built and evolved. In the rest of this paper, I will argue that there are still unaddressed issues and problematic mental models at the core of how Minerva as an institution engages with culture; it will take more than a change in student- facing pedagogy before Minerva is able to fully and responsibly serve its students and mission in this area. If Minerva truly wants to create better future leaders and global citizens, the institution will need to transition its pedagogy from an overly simplistic, historically isolationist, and extractive view of culture to an engaged and integrated approach that challenges students and staff alike to see their cultural identities and experiences as relative and interlinked with both moral responsibilities and global systems.
I have, on some level, been thinking about this project since before beginning at Minerva. I chose this institution because it provided me an opportunity to help build something new and interesting and important—an entirely unique and ambitious university, which in many ways made much more sense than the status-quo alternatives around me. I also had a sense even before enrolling that there were gaps in the cultural education model and that I wanted to use my time here to help steer this young institution toward a culturally ethical and effective pedagogy. I have spent an abundance of time and energy at Minerva working to understand the complex forces and dynamics that shape the community and organization. Through experiences running community programs and conversations in and out of class, with staff and students as well as mentors outside of Minerva, I formed some initial ideas about the scope and potential solutions to the challenge of cultural skills development. This Capstone process has provided me the opportunity to investigate, test, and expand those intuitions through structured interviews as well as in-depth academic research.
I hope to present this project to the Minerva community as an opportunity to spark conversation among staff and students; to inform faculty and administrative perspectives on the past and present status of intercultural competence at Minerva; to provide a marker for where Minerva is at this point in its development with regard to engaging with culture; and to be a jumping-off point for institutional solutions and progressive action around culture. In short, my goal for this project is to change the conversation at Minerva about culture.
I begin with an overview of the abundance of literature on intercultural skills development, including in educational organizations. This literature provides some scholarly context for my project, and draws from many disciplines including philosophy, communication studies, and education. It includes definitions of intercultural competence and consciousness; discussions of the importance of cultural skills in an increasingly diverse society and workforce, and arguments for viewing culture in conjunction with dynamics of history, politics, and power.
I follow by introducing the multiple frameworks and ideas that form my analysis, including the strategic value of intercultural competence for Minerva as an institution; concepts of ethnorelativism vs. ethnocentrism; global citizenship; critical consciousness; and intersections of educational philosophy and democratic theory.
The rest of my project is an analysis of the past, present, and (proposed) future of intercultural competence at Minerva. I argue that Minerva has transitioned through multiple phases in the institution’s relationship to culture—from misconceiving of intercultural development as something that “just happens” with opportunity, to building an intentional and research-based pedagogy for intercultural skills. I conclude that Minerva’s next phase of pedagogical development should take into account a critical approach to intercultural competence that sees interaction between members of different cultures as occurring within complex sociopolitical and historical contexts and has as its goal the development of critically conscious global citizens.
WHAT IS INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE?
A review of terminologies, theories, and critical approaches
Intercultural competence (abbreviated ICC) is a complex and broadly discussed topic. It is not always clearly defined, and people around the world have done related work with widely varying goals, contexts, and assumptions. There are books written about intercultural competence for business leaders and teachers, doctors and diplomats, in addition to the wide academic literature debating what exactly the concept does or should entail and how best to develop it. Countless companies and organizations purport to be able to accurately assess and train cultural skills. This is all to say that there is no way I can, nor do I intend to, review all of the literature related to this concept, or even all of the major schools of thought about it. Rather, I aim to situate Minerva’s ICC effort within its academic and theoretical contexts and to introduce the models, questions, and bodies of work I will draw on throughout this project. In every section of this review, I have selected only a few examples of the existing literature— enough to introduce a reader with little knowledge of ICC contexts to the basic terminologies and theories of the field as they are relevant to the institution of Minerva.
The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence describes its subject as “a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts” (Bennett, 2015). This is the terminology and approximate definition that Minerva uses and that I will use to frame my analysis. The definition is fairly broad, general, and widely accepted; its author, Janet M. Bennett, is a major scholar in the field, whose work Minerva course developers leaned on heavily in their initial research process. However, it is far from the only descriptor of the concept.
In line with the theme of complexity and extensiveness, types of literature on ICC are highly varied. (A few) questions this literature aims to answer include: why ICC is important, how cultural diversity affects teams and organizations in various settings, what comprises intercultural skills, and how best to develop those skills for individuals and groups. An abundance of research, including much of the literature Minerva used to develop its ICC program, focuses on the benefits of intercultural experiences and diverse teams for both individuals and organizations. Prevailing scholarship links the development of intercultural competence and/or organizational diversity to creativity, personal growth, and many other positive outcomes (Leung, et al., 2008, 2014) (Davies, et al., 2020). This, along with the rapid internationalization of almost every field, has accounted for the massive growth in intercultural competence scholarship in recent decades.
A particular focus of my (and Minerva’s) research was, unsurprisingly, intercultural competence in higher education and specifically in multicultural or international student programs. This is in itself a broad set of literature with a variety of aims and perspectives. As globalization has grown as a driver of systemic and organizational change, many scholars argue that universities are (or should be) becoming internationalized, in both demographics and curricula (Stier, 2003, 2006, 2010) (Ryan, 2012) (Deardorff, 2006). In Cross-Cultural Teaching and Learning for Home and International Students, a number of scholars discuss the challenges and opportunities facing growing international student populations at many universities around the world, as well as the influence of international experiences on students’ identities, skills, and learning (Ryan, 2012). Cabrera, et al. (2016) explores the topic of culture from a racial justice perspective, arguing that a centering of whiteness in higher education institutions in the U.S. contributes to campus cultures of racism and exclusivity. In their monograph Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development, Chun and Evans (2016) also discuss culture specifically in the context of U.S. universities, defining intercultural competence in part as the ability to build relationships across difference and examining the systemic and structural issues that either prevent or support healthy (inter)cultural engagement on campuses.
In the rest of this analysis, I will lean heavily on the existing literature about the structures and systems that drive efforts for inclusion and ICC development, especially in higher education. As an institution that arguably embodies the internationalization of education, Minerva has always highly valued theories on the tangible impacts of study abroad and diverse student communities for building skills of employability. However, it is only in the last year or so that Minerva has begun to consider ICC research conclusions that the presence of diversity does not in itself necessarily lead to competence, and that targeted efforts must be made by organizations to integrate inclusion efforts, build critical awareness, and prompt skills development. This body of literature was essential in Minerva’s choice to develop ICC pedagogy, and will serve as valuable research in the next steps toward building out sustainable changes in the way the institution and its students engage with culture.
TERMINOLOGIES AND DISCIPLINES
The terminology used to describe various theories and measures of a person’s skill in engaging across cultures is a mix-and-match of prefixes and synonyms, which often come with their own nuanced connotations. These connotations are not only complex, they are also inconsistently used throughout the vast literature. In non-academic literature especially, many authors do not explain or justify their preferred terminology. The term “culture” is almost always present, but may be prefixed by “inter-” or “cross-”, and followed by “awareness,” “effectiveness,” “dexterity,” “maturity,” “sensitivity,” or simply “skills.”
In many cases, different terminologies of intercultural competence have enough difference—in the ways they are theorized, their goals, and their contexts—as to be completely divergent versions of a still-related concept. There is a clear common thread among these: they aim to teach individuals and groups working in diverse contexts the skills to communicate and interact effectively and appropriately across cultural difference. However, the assumptions, values, and goals signified by these terminologies vary in meaningful ways, which means no choice of phrasing can be completely neutral. Although there is little clear-cut division, some terms emerge from or are used more consistently in specific fields. For instance, “cultural competence” in healthcare includes awareness of the historical legacies of inequality that underlie a need for medical professionals to better support communities that have been underserved and marginalized by the medical field (Jowsey, 2019). In contrast, “cultural intelligence” or “CQ” is used by business and government leaders to learn how best to partner with foreign leaders or subsidiaries, or manage diversity on workplace teams (Early & Mosakowski, 2004). From a distance, these two concepts might seem like a simple difference in phrasing, but when examined more closely we see that their priorities—the needs they are designed to fill—are significantly different. One concept sees people from other cultures as patients in need of service; the other, as either adversaries or partners for achieving self- interested outcomes.
This table summarizes various versions of the intercultural competence concept as they are commonly utilized in different fields:
|Title||Related Field(s)||Goals & Values|
|Intercultural Competence||Widely used, including in education, organizational development, business||Develop attitudes and behaviors that allow individuals and teams to act effectively and appropriately in contexts of cultural diversity (J. Bennett, 2015) (Wolff & Borzikowsky, 2018) (Deardorff, 2011) (M. Bennett, 2004). Values: learning, respect, effectiveness|
|Cultural Competence||Medicine, social work, mental health, & nursing||Provide equal, quality care for underserved communities; interact effectively with diverse patients (Dean, 2001) (Kumagai & Lypson, 2009).Values: service, equity|
|Cultural Relevance/ Cultural Responsiveness||Education||Engage and support students and families from diverse backgrounds (often specifically regarding education in urban and/or African-American communities) (LadsonBillings, 1995) (Gay, 2013). Values: equity, achievement, identity development|
|Cultural Intelligence (CQ)||Business, leadership, government/ diplomacy||Understanding and implementing effective communication with culturally different individuals and groups in order to achieve better outcomes (Early & Mosakowski, 2004) (Ahn & Ettner, 2013). Values: knowledge, results, appropriateness|
|Global Competence||Engineering||Work effectively with teams and individuals from other cultural contexts who perceive the field and work differently (Klein-Gardner & Walker, 2011). Values: results, problem-solving|
|Intercultural Communication||Communication studies, cultural studies||Study how culture affects the ways that people perceive and communicate with those around them; aims to evaluate what it means to communicate appropriately and effectively (Moon, 2011). Values: observation, understanding, sensitivity, appropriateness/ respect|
|Intercultural consciousness||Critical studies||Apply intercultural competence skills ethically and self-reflexively in order to connect, collaborate, and share with others who are different (Karim, 2003) (M.J. Bennett, 2015) Values: social justice, global citizenship, understanding, appropriateness|
Minerva students and staff may remember when the institution approached this concept as “global dexterity” or “cultural dexterity.” Neither of these terms is frequently used in the prevailing academic literature. Where “cultural dexterity” appears, it is usually in the context of a popular article or professional development book, often attached to leadership or business training (Hazard, 2014) (Molinsky, 2013). Minerva moved away from this terminology in part because of its uncommonness, but the word “global” was also dropped due to its limiting definition of culture (Personal Interview, 2019). Prevailing scholars in cultural studies fields, including ICC, typically define culture as consisting of dimensions beyond the global-versus- local, aiming to be inclusive and aware of how differences in race, gender, religion, sexuality, and age can be incorporated into culture. This broader lens is also relevant for Minerva, as students must be prepared to interact across multiple kinds of difference, not just nationality.
METHODOLOGIES OF ICC
Intercultural competence as a concept has lineage in communication studies, cultural studies, business, sociology, and many other fields. There are a wide variety of theories and methodologies influencing ICC concepts, but most approaches see ICC as a set of attitudes and behaviors that can help individuals either succeed or fail to act appropriately in diverse contexts. Krajewski (2011) summarizes shared elements of most ICC models:
“There cannot be a ‘one size fits all model’, but most models include similar dimensions and vary in emphasis and detail of components. Many scholars identify multiple components of ICC, including versions that divide the concept into psychosocial, cognitive, and interpersonal elements; or into internal traits (like adaptability, empathy, and ethnorelativism) and external manifestations (like appropriate behavior) (Salisbury, 2013). Some frameworks add a moral dimension. Almost all models include awareness (of the self, of the other), an open-minded attitude, intercultural knowledge and skills that lead to effective communication and behaviour as an outcome.” (p. 138)
Other attitudes commonly included are curiosity, incorporating an inquisitiveness and intrinsic motivation to learn about other cultures; tolerance of ambiguity and resilience to change; and cultural humility and suspension of judgment (Bennett, 2009) (Deardorff, 2006). Most major theorists agree that development of one’s own cultural identity is a critical aspect of developing an ability to understand and relate to other cultures, but exactly how this process occurs is widely discussed and debated.
This paper focuses mainly on culture-general, rather than culture-specific, approaches to intercultural competence. Culture-general models address ICC with regard to abstract skills that can be applied in any cultural context—i.e., curiosity or self-knowledge. In contrast, culture-specific models are based on knowledge of a particular target culture we are aiming to understand—for example, understanding appropriate behavior in China versus Sweden (p. 6, Bennett, 2009). While I will discuss this in more depth later on, in short, Minerva’s developing pedagogy aims at both, but with a curricular focus on gaining culture-specific knowledge as a means of building culture-general skills. For instance, the ICC curriculum for first-year students attempts to teach high-level competencies like open-mindedness through activities addressing knowledge gaps about the history and culture of San Francisco and the United States.
One major concept in the field of intercultural competence is the idea of intercultural positioning system or culture mapping. This ICC tool involves observing different dimensions of cultures that individuals, institutions, and societies can use to gain awareness about their own cultural patterns relative to others (Bennett, 2009). This concept was heavily influenced by culture theorist Geert Hofstede, whose six dimensions of national cultures are: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism/Collectivism, Masculinity/Femininity, Long/Short Term Orientation, and Indulgence/Restraint. Within this framework, any given national culture exists on a continuum of each of these characteristics, and knowing where an individual or group lies (including the self) can help to determine the most effective and appropriate way to interact (Hofstede, 2011). Chinese culture, for example, is famously collectivist and hierarchical; U.S. American culture skews strongly toward individualism and egalitarianism. Mainstream ICC literature argues that without observing and allowing for these differences, individuals and organizations from each culture will struggle to understand and work with one another effectively. Various theorists have proposed their own subtly or drastically different models in addition to Hofstede’s, and the debate about exactly what kind of patterns make up a culture is ongoing (Bennett, 2009). Critics of culture mapping argue that it can slide into essentialism and stereotyping (Jones, 2007). In Minerva’s new ICC pedagogy, students are assessed on both intercultural skill sets and on their own cultural positioning, using the former as a benchmark for skill development and the latter for personal and interpersonal understanding. The section below discusses one prominent framework for development that links both these outcomes to support enhanced self-awareness and authentic, effective intercultural interaction.
STAGES OF INTERCULTURAL DEVELOPMENT
The model I rely on most heavily in this paper is Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (abbreviated DMIS), introduced in 1986.1 I chose this over other models for three primary reasons: its natural use of a growth mindset as a development-based model; its flexibility in terms of defining culture for a global setting, but without having to do exclusively with national identity; and its framing around the paradigms of ethnorelativism and ethnocentrism, or the distinction between avoiding versus seeking difference. These characteristics seem to me to fit with the ideals of culture at Minerva, and although I’m certain that of the hundreds of models of intercultural competence it’s likely not the only one that combines these three qualities, it is a prominent example that has both contributed to and been evaluated by ICC literature to a great extent over the past several decades, and for which resources are abundant.
First, Milton Bennett’s model employs a growth mindset which fits it easily into an educational context and into Minerva’s pedagogy specifically. The DMIS consists of 6 stages of intercultural development; the first three stages take place in a paradigm of ethnocentrism, or the centering of one’s own cultural context; and the second three take place in a paradigm of ethnorelativism, in which one sees other cultures with complexity and in a framework detached from their personal cultural identification (M.J. Bennett, 1986). The developmental aspect of the model means that it classifies individuals based on where they are on the scale, not by any measure of who they are inherently. One critical aspect of Bennett’s developmental model is that it is linear but not unidirectional; capacity can be lost as well as gained, and individuals can regress to earlier parts of the scale. This is appropriate for an educational setting, and specifically for Minerva, because it naturally integrates a growth mindset, or the idea that development is possible and that skills and characteristics having to do with cultural sensitivity are malleable and can always be built on improved or changed. The DMIS is a developmental model—that is, emphasizing a process of maturing and progressing over time—as opposed to a compositional model, which identifies component parts presumed to make up the whole of intercultural competence (Borzikowsi & Wolff, 2018). The Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES)—the model which Minerva has this year started using to assess students’ intercultural competence— is an example of the latter; it identifies competence as the constituent result of multiple natural tendencies such as self-awareness, emotional resilience, and motivation to learn (IES, 2019). Although it discusses ways to increase or compensate for these characteristics, the framework fits less easily into a growth-mindset way of learning.
Second, the DMIS defines culture broadly in a way that can be used seamlessly across identity categories and in a global as well as domestic context. Another development model of ICC is King and Magolda’s (2005) Developmental Model of Intercultural Maturity. This model defines intercultural maturity as a combination of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal skills that results in not only a recognition of other cultures’ legitimacy but also of their interactions with one another and with social systems, for instance of race and class (Reid, 2013) (King & Magolda, 2005). The model employs a critical approach to intercultural issues that engages with inequality, rights, and power dynamics; however, it largely does so within a U.S.- based context of race, defining intercultural maturity in large part as an ability to understand and deconstruct whiteness in relation to other social groups and power structures. This could limit the model’s applicability in an international context such as Minerva where race is undoubtedly a conversation, but may not be the conversation; and it centers the development of white American students potentially at the expense of other identities, thereby limiting the scope of discussion of other forms of privilege relevant within the community and context of Minerva.
On the other hand, the IES and similar ICC assessments designed for a multinational business context tend to center the idea of culture as national identity in a way that limits its applicability to other contexts. Because these assessments are typically built for students studying abroad or (more often) for companies looking to go global, the definition of culture they employ is often, as in the case of the IES, built around an individual’s ability to understand or adapt to different national cultures. In the IES, this takes the form of the dimension “World Orientation,” which allegedly measures an individual’s level of interest in foreign cultures, as expressed through a desire to travel or expose oneself to media from different countries (IES, 2019). This does not mean the models cannot be used for domestic or non-ethnic definitions of culture (i.e., gender, sexuality, generation, etc.), but they are not built for it and therefore privilege one definition over others. The DMIS, by defining culture in terms of developmental stages that apply to any definition, avoids trapping itself either in a domestic American context or in an international definition of culture.
Third, the DMIS uses the paradigms of ethnorelativism and ethnocentrism, which provide a useful framework for describing in broad terms how individuals and institutions engage with identity and cultural difference. One critical aspect of ethnorelativism as a paradigm is that it does not require knowledge of a particular culture. Rather, ethnorelativism is an overarching state of understanding that cultures differ and that other cultures are as important and valid as one’s own. Ethnorelativism is empathetic; it allows one to make a decision based not on the golden rule of “treat others the way you want to be treated” but rather “treat others the way they want to be treated.” It makes space for cultural difference rather than suppressing, oversimplifying, or demonizing it. At the other end of the scale, ethnocentrism is a starting point for individuals in their engagement with culture. We tend to center our own cultural experience in our view of the world by default; all we know is what it is like to be us. However, when engaging across difference—and especially when leading— behavior from a place of ethnocentrism can lead us to forget that others have different experiences; to write them off as less valid than our own; or to aim to understand them solely through frameworks we are familiar with. In an example from the Minerva context, it was the use of ethnocentric frameworks on the part of (mostly American) staff that led to a failure to properly introduce students to the cultural norms and histories of the U.S. before Foundation Year and to consider Seoul the first city in the “global rotation” rather than San Francisco, despite more than 80% of the student body experiencing the U.S. as a foreign country.
The DMIS is organized into three ethnocentric stages of Denial, Defense, and Minimization and three ethnorelative stages of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration (Paige & J.M. Bennett, 2015). Individuals in the first stage, Denial, display a lack of concern for cultural difference—a sense that it doesn’t exist in their world or, if it does, that it is not particularly relevant. This is often supported by a monocultural setting of isolation or (perhaps intentional) separation from other groups. Segregation can both signify and perpetuate denial, since the stage is only sustainable when one need not pay attention to or interact much with individuals from other cultures (Paige & J.M. Bennett, 2015). Individuals in this stage may say something like “culture isn’t an issue in my life because it doesn’t exist here.” (this was something a Minerva alumnus who signed up to talk to me about this project said about their life pre-Minerva life in a mostly white U.S. suburb).
The second stage, Defense, is defined by a polarized us-vs.-them mentality characterized and maintained by stereotypes and judgmental thinking. The stage can take three forms: denigration (negative or overly critical judgment of other cultures), superiority (positive or uncritical judgment of one’s own culture), and reversal (negative judgment of one’s own culture and uncritical evaluation of another, often an oppressed group). An example statement from this stage might be something like, “Asian people are so hardworking. My culture should be more like theirs,” or “That person is probably like that because of their sexist culture.”
Minimization, the third stage, is characterized by a growing recognition of cultural difference but also by an overemphasis on similarities. These similarities could take the form of physical universalism (sourcing from the biology of being human) or transcendent universalism (shared commitment to overarching principles or laws like human rights or religion). This stage is ethnocentric because the perception of similarity is “based on one’s own version of the transcendent principle or understanding of what constitutes being human: ‘Everyone is all alike, and they are all like me.’” (Paige & J.M. Bennett, p. 522). This stage is also characterized by avoidance of conflict or judgment in favor of tolerance and respect. A quintessential statement from this stage is “We’re all part of one race—the human race.”
These three stages are ethnocentric because they all represent a worldview that prioritizes and centers the self; that revolves around the individual’s cultural experiences as the default to which all else is compared (and ignored, judged, or minimized). These stages may also be referred to as Difference Avoidance, “[representing] monocultural orientations where one’s own culture is central to reality and serves as the point of reference for evaluating and interpreting other cultures” (ibid., p. 521). The following three ethnorelative stages, or Difference Seeking, are intercultural orientations, “where one’s own culture is only one of the many possible organizations of culture, where meaning is derived from other cultures on their own terms, and where evaluations are relative to the cultural context” (ibid., p. 521).
The fourth stage of Bennett’s DMIS, Acceptance, is also the first to occur past the paradigmatic shift toward ethnorelativism. Acceptance is characterized by an interest in learning about and experiencing other cultures and by an understanding that cultures can be different from one another without being better or worse. It incorporates both respect for cultural differences in behavior and for differences in values. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with value differences, but rather accepting diverse ways of organizing cultures and seeing them as complex, relative, and valid (“‘I see how this value difference fits into the whole of this culture. While I don’t want to adopt it as my own, I can place it in perspective.’” (ibid., p. 523).
In the fifth stage, Adaptation, individuals are able to adapt their thinking and behavior to the patterns of another culture. This can allow them to interact and communicate more effectively across cultural difference. Milton Bennett takes care to differentiate adaptation from assimilation; adaptation is additive, meaning that by learning new cultural patterns one is not losing their core cultural worldview or identity. The two dimensions of adaptation are empathy and pluralism; the ability to take the perspective of another and the commitment to experience living and working in other cultures and to expand one’s frame of reference. It follows the cultural learning from the acceptance stage with an acting on, or enactment of, cultural understanding (ibid., p. 523). Bennett also clarifies that this stage requires not just memorizing a list of “dos and don’ts” for a particular culture, but rather generating authentic, appropriate behavior in various cultural contexts based on one’s ability to shift perspective and develop a “sense of appropriateness” in any context:
“When the goal is to generate authentic, appropriate behavior in a different cultural context, we need first to seek to move our experience into that cultural context. We need to ask questions such as ‘What do people pay attention to in that culture? What status people have, or what they’ve accomplished? What people say, or how people act? These and a myriad of similar questions can allow us to shift our perception into categories that are more like those of the other culture, and in so doing, to shift our experience into that context” (M.J. Bennett, 2015).
The sixth and final stage, Integration, represents an expansion of an individual’s identity beyond their primary cultural affiliation to include the movement between cultures and bridging of diverse cultural perspectives (Paige & J.M. Bennett, p. 523). Individuals in the integration stage are reliably and sustainably able to shift their behavior and decision making to act appropriately and ethnically across cultural contexts (M.J. Bennett, 2015).
Bennett uses the term “sensitivity” over “competence” because he sees sensitivity, or consciousness of cultural factors and difference, as underlying competence action. He uses the term ‘‘intercultural sensitivity’’ to refer to “the ability to discriminate and experience relevant cultural differences” and the term ‘‘intercultural competence’’ to mean “the ability to think and act in interculturally appropriate ways,” and argues that “greater intercultural sensitivity is associated with greater potential for exercising intercultural competence.” (Hammer et al., 2003). Sensitivity could also be considered a more broadly applicable term than intercultural “effectiveness,” the latter of which inherently comes alongside connotations of productivity, implying that one must be effective at something, that culture is a goal to be accomplished and that could occur either effectively or ineffectively. Sensitivity, in contrast, is valuable in relation to any context, action, or being—it simply refers to one’s awareness of the conditions surrounding them.
The DMIS can apply not only to individuals but also to organizations and groups (M.J. Bennett, 1986). In this context, the mark of an organization that has transcended ethnocentrism is one that neither suppresses cultural difference, nor emphasizes it to the expense of unity, but rather that invites the creation of “third cultures” out of diverse groups’ aims to adapt to one another. In this way, an interculturally competent organization embraces both cultural difference and unifying shared values (M.J. Bennett, 2015). Both individuals and groups have proven extremely likely to overestimate their capacity for intercultural sensitivity; based on my research and observation, I believe this is the case for both Minerva as an institution and for many staff, faculty, and students.
In recent decades, scholars in and around the field of ICC and intercultural communication have begun to question the (in)efficacy of the field’s mainstream for addressing questions of global power dynamics and intersectional identities. They are concerned that stated issues of “differentness” obscure actual issues of oppression, and that addressing the latter with skills designed for the former can only have the effect of further entrenching unjust structures (Dean, 2001). This approach criticizes the field as one that portrays intercultural communication as “a privatized, interpersonal (one on one), equalized and neutral encounter/transaction between comparable national group members (and in some cases, racial/ethnic group members within a nation) and as such, in terms of individual (interpersonal) skill development to bridge equalized differences among cultures regardless of the context, setting, or historical/political moment” (Halualani & Nakayama, 2010, p. 2-3).
It may be more comfortable for dominant group members to see intercultural competence as an equal playing field of cultural confusion and learning, but this comfort is misleading and distracting from the reality of the social and power structures that impact intercultural interaction. The real aim where there are dynamics of both culture and power at play should not be to make everyone comfortable but to “spread the discomfort around” (Zemsky, 2019). The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication defines a critical approach as one which “foregrounds issues of power, context, socio-economic relations and historical/structural forces as constituting and shaping culture and intercultural communication encounters, relationships, and contexts” (Halualani & Nakayama, 2010, p. 1).
Many of the scholars who discuss culture from a critical perspective have aims of social justice, or rectifying imbalances of power in light of historical and present-day inequities (Cabrera, et. al, 2016) (Dean, 2001) (Moon, 2011). Others express concerns that aspects of ICC exist to fulfill a culturally American wish to make everything “knowable” and that instead professionals should become comfortable with not knowing, while growing familiar with their own biases and perspectives (Dean, 2001). Similarly, in the care-centered framework of cultural competence, practitioners worry that a focus on essentializing and understanding cultures will overpower a commitment to interrogating one’s own biases; some advocate “cultural humility” as a framework that automatically accounts for dimensions of bias and power (Jowsey, 2019) (Waters & Asbill, 2013).
With regard to some conceptions of intercultural competence, scholars have argued for education to go beyond intercultural competence and toward critical consciousness, a concept from philosopher Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed which places in focus how a subject does not exist in isolation but in relation to the rest of the world, including to historical and present-day dynamics of power and oppression (Kumagai & Lypson, 2009) (Freire, 1974) (Diemer, et al., 2016). As theorized by Freire, critical consciousness allows individuals (particularly those from oppressed groups) to develop an understanding of how complex social structures impact their conditions of life, which is the first step in changing those conditions. Critical consciousness requires three core elements: critical reflection, critical motivation, and critical action (Diemer, et al., 2016). The first refers to one’s ability to question, recognize, and analyze social structures, including those of power and marginalization; the second, to the development of a sense of agency and capacity for changing those structures; and the third, a commitment to action. Research has shown positive links between critical consciousness development and academic achievement at the high school level, particularly among students who identify with marginalized groups (El-Amin et al., 2017).
Combining these ideas, Karim (2003) uses the concept of “intercultural consciousness” to discuss the morally responsible application of intercultural competence, arguing that competence is more conceptually useful when coupled with a commitment to “consistent, caring, and ethical application of those skills and knowledge” (p. 36). Leaders who are culturally competent may also be unethical, egocentric, or ethnocentrically motivated, and may act at the expense of cultural “others.” Most professional- or business-centered frameworks of intercultural competence focus on the development of skills, not on the moral framework through which they are used. Often, the point of intercultural competence according to businesses is to engage more effectively with international customers, partners, and competitors so as to extract the highest possible value from them. Critical theorists argue—and I agree—that which to approach cross-cultural interaction, a framework which allows for the denial of moral responsibility and ignores the consequences of exploitation.
The field of critical intercultural communication is one that Minerva seems not to have explored at all, and one that the institution may not even be aware of. It raises questions and theories that I will engage with closely in the following analysis, as I think they fall in precisely the spaces that tend to be institutional blind spots. I will draw on this literature to argue for the value of a critical approach to culture that specifically addresses values of justice, equity, and context, and will identify ways in which this perspective is both missing from, and crucial to, Minerva’s approach to intercultural competence.
INTERCULTURAL CONSCIOUSNESS FOR GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP
Conceptual frameworks for understanding
Minerva has historically treated intercultural competence primarily as a mechanism for students’ career development, despite formally describing that development as personal. The institution has viewed ICC development as one of its foremost unique value propositions for prospective students, partners, and employers. As an outcome of the 7 cities model and global student body, ICC development would prepare Minerva students for citizenship in a globally interconnected world. In practice, however, the institution’s engagement with culture has aimed more toward preparing students for professional success in a globalized business marketplace, through a focus on extractive learning and quick, superficial engagement, largely focusing on surface-level adaptation—moving between, versus developing understandings of, different cultures. Many of the approaches Minerva has taken to culture and intercultural skills have sourced from business worlds which view cultural difference as a barrier to overcome in
order to get what you want from a juxtaposed “other.”
My framework for this project rejects this extraction-oriented approach to ICC and instead argues that for Minerva to truly fulfill its mission of preparing students for the world of the 21st century, the school must take a more holistic approach to culture. I propose an ethnorelative orientation as an ultimate goal for student development—that is, the ability to de- center one’s own cultural context—and argue that not only students, but the institution itself must strive toward this goal in order to be effective. True global citizenship requires empathetic, not just “appropriate” behavior; as I will discuss later Minerva and its students have historically often fallen short of even the latter.
CULTURE AS A STRATEGIC VALUE PROPOSITION
This project, at its core, rests on several statements of intention by the Minerva Schools at KGI and on several understandings which naturally follow about the institution’s obligations to students and the world in light of those statements. Minerva aims to nurture critical wisdom for the sake of the world. This is the mission that all branches of the institution lead with, the statement highlighted at the top of the “About” page on the website, the one-sentence context internalized and repeated by students and staff almost to the point of cliché. The Minerva Schools express this aim by teaching students at a rigorous level with a focus on practical, applied skills; science-based pedagogy; and experiential learning—and by leaning into the challenges and opportunities of globalization to a nearly unprecedented degree compared to other higher education institutions. One of Minerva’s many unique features—one that draws many students, staff, and funders to be interested in it—is the school’s international student body and 7-city global rotation model. The institution’s website claims that “Real understanding of the world and its people only comes from exposure to the realities of life in different cities with diverse cultures.”
Of course, marketing material like text on a webpage is just that: marketing. But the stories Minerva tells about itself—which are repeated in documents and speeches to members of the community far beyond the admissions process—are an important cue toward the institution’s goals, priorities, and unique selling points for students, staff, and partners. And for every place that Minerva currently falls short, there are an abundance of opportunities for growth. This paper is about that growth.
Minerva’s reasons for expanding and integrating its ICC pedagogy are fundamental to the school’s reason for being and its unique selling points. Profiles of Minerva by The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the World Economic Forum all cite Minerva’s international travel and global student body as exciting innovation points; students’ experiences in the global rotation have been profiled by their local newspapers as well as by online influencers (Miller, 2015) (Esposito, 2017) (Binsky, 2019). The global aspect of a Minerva education is not just glamorous and intriguing to prospective students, funders, and partners—it is also one of the most unique and critical ways the program is preparing students for the future. Globalization is impacting every industry, and will continue to blur borders and identities to an unprecedented degree. Not only do industries increasingly look past borders, but so do critical challenges like climate change, economic development, and global health management. International education is important, and increasingly seen as such by major institutions around the world, because the only way we will be able to solve global problems is by creating a global community that knows and cares to work together (Salisbury, 2013) (Chun & Evans, 2016). This is a version of ICC that must prioritize empathy, service, and sensitivity; in the long term, all of our futures are bound together, so in the short term, leaders must make decisions that deeply consider and account for their impact on everyone.
However, within the framework of intercultural competence as strategic advantage, Minerva, like much of the ICC literature, has tended to focus on the purpose of intercultural skills as self-serving—that is, what students gain, in terms of career and future benefits, from ICC development. This is the view of intercultural competence that Minerva staff and administration have built over the last year or so and which has led to the development of the ICC course. It has also led to a tendency to overlook the importance of intercultural competence development at the organizational level, which undermines the institution’s ability to model ICC and to serve students’ diverse needs. Therefore, I argue that while the strategic value of ICC is important to consider, it is not enough to fulfill Minerva’s stated mission. The view of intercultural competence as a tool for personal career development leads to an ICC that does not take into account service or justice, only extraction and exploitation. This allows Minerva to create future leaders who may be skilled at extracting from members of other cultures but who are not necessarily better at building alongside them—that is, there is no real transformation. If Minerva truly seeks to mold future leaders and global citizens, its cultural pedagogy will need to be critical rather than conventional; integrated rather than historically isolationist; and service-oriented rather than extractive. In short, Minerva will need to engage with intercultural consciousness, not just competence.
FUTURE LEADERS / GLOBAL CITIZENS
First and foremost: I am assuming that Minerva does indeed want to create better future leaders and global citizens, as stated in the materials above and as implied by the fact that almost every and member of administration, staff, and faculty I have ever spoken to has said that something to this effect is the reason they came to, or stayed at, Minerva: a better way of doing education; bright, diverse students with the potential to go far; a curriculum and experience designed to foster global citizenry. If we need to have a serious conversation about whether Minerva hopes to create ethical, diverse, and well-prepared future leaders and citizens in its quest to “reinvent higher education,” then I will have deeply misunderstood the intentions of this institution and those who are part of it. As introduced to students, the new ICC course itself has been “designed to support Minerva students in their journey to become aware of their own intercultural competence and worldview frameworks and to build the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes to become the global citizens the world needs” (Minerva curriculum, 2019).
That aside, Minerva’s stated commitment to creating better future leaders and global citizens comes alongside important obligations. First, with the direction in which the globalized and globalizing world is heading, leaders and citizens of the future will need to know how to make decisions that reach far beyond themselves and what is familiar to them. Whether through the channels of business, science, governance, media, or software engineering, the university-level students of today will, tomorrow, be designing solutions for and with people whose experiences, values, and ways of understanding are fundamentally different from their own. In many (perhaps most) cases, these others will come to the table with significantly less advantage in their background—or will not be invited to the table at all. The decision-making power structures of global society are designed in such a way that advantage typically, consciously or unconsciously, reproduces itself. Individuals born with advantages due to their class, ethnicity, or gender usually experience far fewer systemic barriers in navigating the path to powerful positions; and holding those positions grants them the opportunity to design changes (or lack thereof) to those same systems in which they succeeded. This is one feedback loop of inequality.
This is a foundational point that is not given enough credit within the institution of Minerva: that individuals within the Minerva community bring widely different backgrounds and experiences, including different levels of advantage and access to power. The school needs to take this into account for two reasons: first, to provide an equitable experience of Minerva for all students; and second, to instill values and skills that will capitalize on this unique coming- together of diverse experiences and different degrees of access.
In her paper Fair Opportunity in Education: A Democratic Equality Perspective (1995), philosopher Elizabeth Anderson makes a case for reframing the discussion of education quality and access “by shifting our focus from the good education is supposed to do for the individuals who have it to the good the more educated are supposed to do for everyone else.” (p. 596). She argues that in a democratic society, “elites” who hold positions of influence and leadership must be able and willing to effectively lead in service of the entire society, not just themselves. This requires “that elites be so constituted as to be systematically responsive to the interests and concerns of people from all walks of life.” (ibid., p. 596).
Anderson defines the advantaged as “those who systematically enjoy relatively superior access to resources, social esteem, power, and influence (including elite status) in virtue of their socially ascribed group identities.” Although theoretically designed for a national or societal scale, these categories can work at the level of international society as well, especially in light of globalization. A middle-class, white Canadian family is likely to have access to much more power, opportunity, and wealth than a middle-class family in Bangladesh. We can see that even in a globally intertwined world, these identities to some extent transcend the temporary condition of location—that is, the national political and economic system one is living under at any moment—by proposing hypothetical changes to these families’ geographic conditions. If that Bangladeshi family immigrates to Canada, they still will not automatically be ascribed the same level of power and wealth that the “native-born” Canadians have. They are likely to leave behind their middle-class status and add a new identity of “immigrant”; to live in certain, less affluent, neighborhoods; to hold lower-level jobs despite the education level they attained in their home country and send their children to subpar schools; they will be held to high standards of language fluency and may be judged as unintelligent, uncivilized, or (almost certainly) “other” by virtue of their accent and customs; and will be barred from participation in politics and perhaps even from traveling freely outside the country until or unless they attain citizenship. In contrast, a middle-class Canadian family that immigrates to Bangladesh will still benefit from the power and privilege ascribed to their nationality, and may feel its effects even more in contrast to their new context. Both the global economic and passport systems, and domestically-controlled immigration systems, ascribe superior access to resources and influence to those who are born under certain national group identities. This is all to say that despite the broader scale of international vs. intranational interactions, Anderson’s conceptions of advantaged and disadvantaged social groups is highly relevant to this discussion.
Minerva students, as attendees at a private secondary institution in the U.S., can uniformly be considered highly advantaged by the standards of much of the world, and are fairly likely to have access to elite decision-making positions at some point in their careers. However, because of the global nature of systems of advantage, this access varies from student to student. Minervans who hold a U.S. or European passport have easier means of entry to the largely Western institutions that wield disproportionate global power; Minervans who come from families of considerable financial resources, or who did not have to take out loans to support their education, have greater opportunity to choose jobs that fit their desired impact in the world rather than going to any industry or role that will help them pay off their debt or send coveted U.S. dollars home to their parents.
As defined by Anderson, the elite must be drawn from all sectors of society in order to effectively represent and lead society (p. 597). There are clear practical constraints to a truly representative sample of especially a global society, and Minerva already selects with a broader and more inclusive standard than many universities. In the admissions process, students may define their own accomplishments to supplement or replace traditional test scores and academic transcripts, and acceptance is not barred or limited (at least on the institution’s end) by nationality or race. The only universally limiting requirements for admission to Minerva are access to the Internet and fluency in English. These requirements are substantially limiting— about 20% of the world’s population speaks English, and far fewer speak it at a native level. However, there is not much Minerva can do about these barriers—at least without completely abandoning its current model and goals, which is not the solution this project is advocating.
What is in the institution’s power is to ensure that the bright, hardworking—and, crucially, lucky—students who make it to Minerva leave better prepared than before to be the best leaders they can be. This includes instilling values of representation and service, or, at the very least, of transcending stereotype and ignorance, when designing solutions that will inevitably impact communities far beyond their own.
Global citizenship refers to a worldview that sees membership in society as transcending national borders, in recognition of the increasing interconnectedness of world systems (IDEAS, n.d.). Citizens have certain rights and responsibilities as members of their societies. When we see ourselves as members of a global society, these rights and responsibilities extend such that we are accountable, in some sense, to not only ourselves and our own national society but to everyone with whom we share a world. Like intercultural competence, global citizenship is a broad concept with countless definitions and a diverse literature, but frequent themes characterizing the idea of a “global citizen” include intergroup empathy (or a sense of connection with and care for those outside one’s “ingroup”); appreciation of diversity; valuing of sustainability; social justice, or the idea that all people are deserving of certain rights and equity; and a general felt moral duty to act for the betterment of the world (Blake et al., 2015).3 Essentially, if Minerva wants to truly prepare students to be global citizens, the school must approach intercultural interaction from a perspective of cocitizenship: what we owe to one another and to our global society. Students must be encouraged to develop critical and intercultural consciousness, to identify and take action on injustices, to lead with morality and intergroup empathy as well as intercultural skill. Like intercultural consciousness, global citizenship requires both intercultural competence and a sense of moral obligation.
THE RELEVANCE OF DIFFERENCE
The past, present, and future are all global. Intercultural interactions got us to where we are—through trade, imperialism, and exchanges of systems and ideas; intercultural interactions shape the present through exports and imports of politics, wealth, and media; and intercultural interactions will shape the future of problem-solving. The global past shapes the global present. The power structures put in place by imperial and colonial systems have largely lived on in modern systems of wealth and global governance. The wealth and development that today’s global powers enjoy were built largely through the exploitation of today’s poor countries and at the expense of the world’s climate (Halualani & Nakayama, 2010). One tool used in this process was the division and differentiation of humans through structures like ethnic and religious oppression. These tools and structures still leave legacies in the way we interact at both interpersonal and systemic levels, including at Minerva.
As mentioned earlier, Minerva students come to this community and experience with vastly different levels of advantage. These differences range from the power of our passports and our currencies; to the social and economic positions of our families; the qualities of our previous educations and prestige of our communities; and the challenges or opportunities handed to us by virtue of our religions, skin colors, or sexualities in whatever place we have come from before this. This diversity is proof that Minerva’s admissions process is doing something right—this institution is accessible to a (fairly) wide range of people from around the world, with varying backgrounds and levels of access to social and economic power.
However, it also produces an obligation: Minerva owes its students to not provide any of them a lesser experience or education based on their cultural or socioeconomic background. Of course, Minerva cannot fix global patterns of injustice, nor shelter students from its impacts. But it remains within the school’s obligation (and its interest) to do what it can not to compound on the struggles disadvantaged students face, and to make the school a safe and supportive learning environment for every student. Intercultural competence at the organizational level is part of this. The suppression or minimization of cultural difference has real, tangible, and powerful consequences for students (Chun & Evans, 2016). Lack of recognition of students’ identities and experiences adds undue stress and can make students feel as though their school does not understand or care for them. It can also erode families’ trust in their students’ institutions if the school is unable or unwilling to reach across barriers of culture or advantage.
CONSCIOUSNESS IS COMPETENCE PLUS MORALITY
If Minerva hopes to create global citizens and leaders, the institution needs to value, exhibit, and teach morality as much as competence with regard to intercultural interactions—in short, it needs to value intercultural consciousness. At the core of my analysis is a conception of this gap between the current state, Minerva’s goal, and my proposed goal.
We can characterize the current state of culture at Minerva with the following qualities, all leading to a general state of low intercultural competence:
- Students often engage in social groups primarily made up of others who share their cultural background.
- Global rotation cities are discussed and judged according to standards and assumptions of Western culture.
- Cultural difference/adaptation is a problem to be solved or hurdle to overcome.
Minerva has acknowledged the problems that have created this state and adjusted their practices and beliefs to support a goal state of intercultural competence that we could characterize like this:
- Students engage in diverse social groups to learn important professional and personal skills of intercultural interaction.
- Students are open-minded about the global rotation and able to connect and communicate with locals in every city.
- Cultural difference/adaptation is seen as a way to learn about yourself and the world.
I admire this progress, but believe the goal state should be adjusted (based on the above conceptual and ethical frameworks) if Minerva is truly to create leaders and global citizens and to live up to the expectations and opportunities of a 21st century education. Essentially, I propose that Minerva must strive not just for intercultural competence but for morally integrated intercultural competence—for intercultural consciousness.
- Students engage in diverse social groups to learn about the structures and systems that impact all of us together as well as separately
- Students are curious to connect with diverse locals and work on projects in global rotation cities, can contextualize cultural differences and interactions, and generate authentically appropriate behavior.
- Cultural difference/adaptation is seen as a way to make the world better
All this is to say: Minerva students come from the world, and will go back to the world. This seems obvious at any number of levels. Where else would people come from? Minerva students, especially, can be said to come from the world—from dozens of countries and every configuration of continents. And throughout as well as after our four years we scatter around the world again, to home countries and global rotation cities and places most of us have never heard of. But what I mean by this is that we are shaped by the structures of global history and power that also impact our politics, systems, and cultures. And, we will spend the rest of our lives interacting with those structures—ideally, making them better. To be a global citizen involves some degree of citizen’s obligation: to participate, to engage, to build. To grow a global citizen involves instilling that sense of citizenship, teaching our interconnectedness, and building a consciousness that goes beyond competence.
ETHNOCENTRISM AT MINERVA
Structures and implications
In the following sections, I analyze the past, present, and future of intercultural competence at Minerva to discuss how structural and systemic factors within the institution manifest in students’ relationships to one another and to the cities in the global rotation, as well as the impact of staff and organizational culture on the pedagogy of global citizenship.
THE SEED & THE SOIL: MISCONCEPTIONS OF INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE
To grow a tree, the seed must typically first be placed in nutritious soil (I think; I am not a science major and am open to correction on this subject). However, the seed will not automatically soak in the nutrition, take root, and grow; it also requires water, carbon dioxide, and sun to facilitate this process. The soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for growth of the tree; without the support of external forces, that soil is relatively useless to the seedling for anything but a nice resting place. Conversely, if the young tree is soaked in water through downpour after downpour, it will be so busy drowning that it will also not be able to make use of the soil, no matter how nutritious it is. A similar principle applies to intercultural development; access to diversity is a necessary (or at least supportive) but not sufficient component of holistic intercultural competence growth. Targeted education is an important supplement; additionally, if students are overwhelmed by challenge with insufficient support, they will be unable to make use of their diverse surroundings to develop the intended skills
In its early years, Minerva fell into a common misconception, assuming that surrounding students with cultural diversity would inevitably lead to the holistic development of intercultural competence (Personal Interview, 2019). Research has been largely inconclusive as to whether international experiences like study abroad programs significantly impact the development of intercultural competence. Some studies have shown a positive link between study abroad and specific outcomes related to ICC—for instance, a more positive view of their host culture, or an increase in world-mindedness. However, where causal inference is possible it seems this impact is most closely linked to an increased inclination toward diverse contact; study abroad may not have any impact on students’ comfort with diverse interactions or on measures of ethnorelativism (Salisbury, 2013). This illustrates that culturally diverse experiences like an international learning environment may contribute to building some but not all components of ICC, and that more targeted educational efforts are likely required for holistic intercultural development (Gregersen-Hermans, 2015).
The belief that study abroad increases intercultural competence is grounded in the contact hypothesis, or the idea that inter-group prejudice can be reduced if individuals from both groups engage in sustained interpersonal contact. This hypothesis is supported by evidence; however, there are several conditions under which contact is more likely to have a positive impact. Some of these include equal (formal and social) status during contact; collaboration toward a shared goal; the support of authority figures; and the opportunity to develop a level of intimacy deep enough to counter pre-existing stereotypes (Salisbury, 2013). However, under other conditions contact can increase prejudice. If Minerva is to successfully facilitate students’ growth into global citizens, the school must do the work to create healthy conditions for intercultural development; that is, to make the contact hypothesis true for students’ specific context.
Minerva is especially susceptible to the mythology of osmosis because of the perceived intercultural exceptionalism of a student body that signed up to spend 4 years traveling the world. Throughout my interviews, I noticed a prevailing attitude among Minerva students and staff that the nature of Minerva students as a self-selecting group makes the community largely immune from challenges of prejudice, lack of cultural curiosity, and ethnocentrism. As a member of the Class of 2021 told me:
However, Although Minerva students are more likely than the general population to have had previous experiences with international living and tend to be—to some extent—open-minded and curious by virtue of choosing this institution, these characteristics alone do not equate to intercultural competence or consciousness.
A consequence of Minerva’s lack of targeted pedagogy for ICC development is that students in the classes of 2019-2022 describe their education on intercultural competence at Minerva mostly in terms of one-off events—presentations or workshops during Foundation Week and various Elevations, led mostly by members of the Student Experience and Student Affairs staff. Often, these events were in response to intercultural conflict arising in the community, rather than introduced by default as a preventative or foundational education.
Sustained engagement with ideas about culture have tended to focus on surface-level aspects of cultural identity and difference. The weekly Sunday tradition of 10:01s, where students from one cultural or national group prepare food and informational presentations or activities for their classmates, has been the only structured space at Minerva where students explicitly discuss where they come from. Discussion of culture at 10:01s tends to be limited to relatively superficial elements of culture such as traditional dance, demographic and political data, and, often most centrally, food. The events are facilitated by students and typically take a more presentational than interactive or discussion-based format. Attendance at 10:01s is not mandatory and tends to drop off following the first year, especially among certain (often culturally segregated) social groups. For the classes of 2019-2022, these events have been the only spaces at Minerva where students are provided with a structure to study and discuss one another’s background and cultural context.
GLOBAL AND CULTURAL DEXTERITY
In 2018, Minerva introduced the Integrated Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for the purpose of providing a “holistic, cross-contextual framework” for student development in a variety of areas of intellectual, personal, professional, and interpersonal growth. These learning outcomes were designed over many months of targeted work by staff from a variety of Minerva teams for the purpose of unifying goals across the institution, as well as guiding and assessing growth progress on many possible areas of students’ development.
The ILO focused on “Global and Cultural Dexterity” was the first time a targeted learning goal around intercultural competence (or a similar idea) was officially expressed at Minerva. But the ILO was not based in research on ICC, and its stated goals and assessment processes were too inconsistent to be really useful for students.
At the time it was presented to students in Seoul, London, and Buenos Aires, Minerva’s Global and Cultural Dexterity ILO was limited in both scope and implementation. That version of the Learning Outcome centered around predominantly superficial or self-serving engagement with the global rotation and community, including finding essential resources in the city and adhering to basic local professional and social norms. There was a distinct lack of transparent intentionality around the definitions of “cultural dexterity” and even around the choice of the term itself; as discussed in an earlier section, the term “cultural dexterity” is rarely used in ICC and related fields of literature. The word “dexterity” has a connotation of quickness, of flexibility and agility. Coupled with the definition of the ILO, this manifested in an expressed understanding of intercultural skills in relation to a context of superficiality. The fact that “cultural/global dexterity” is most often used in the context of business implied that Minerva approaches ICC from a lens of preparing students to make cross-cultural business deals or attend global conferences, and the definitions and assessments in the ILO support this. One could reach a 5—“mastery” level—on the ILO rubric by functioning well on an international business trip where the goal is to extract a benefit from the other party, and ICC is a requirement simply to ease that process by not offending anyone along the way. This view risks detaching the development of intercultural competence skills from the morality of applying them, which is one surefire way to limit the authenticity of intercultural interaction and curtail effective long-term collaboration; certainly it does not reflect a critical understanding of the power structures and contexts involved in intercultural engagement. The standards of the ILO may have assessed students’ ability to survive relatively successfully in the challenge of the global rotation, but it did not assess the values or responsibilities of true global citizenship. Overall, the “Global and Cultural Dexterity” ILO expressed a flawed institutional view of both the goals and constituent elements of intercultural competence. In moving beyond it to build the ICC course, Minerva staff have recognized the superficiality of the ILO but have not necessarily questioned the values and assumptions behind it.
WHAT’S WATER? U.S. VALUES AND THE ROLE OF STAFF
It’s helpful to apply this cartoon (adapted from a joke made famous by David Foster Wallace) to our views of our own cultural systems, values, and knowledge structures, with which we are so deeply surrounded we rarely notice they are there. It is often only when we leave our local waters that we become aware of their unique properties; however, that means when we host newcomers in our cultural context we may not automatically know how to prepare or support them through the change.
Despite having a large majority of non-U.S. students, staff and administration clarify in increasingly certain terms that Minerva is an American institution, based in the U.S. and on predominantly American systems and values. Only recently has the school engaged with pedagogy about the details of those systems and values, through the culture mapping aspect of the profile as well as the curriculum designed to prepare students for San Francisco. For students and staff to understand the American values ingrained in Minerva’s model is an important step to developing both organizational and individual cultural self-awareness.
It can be difficult to identify the shared values and belief systems that form the base of a culture, especially for those within the culture and especially when the culture creates and exports dominant narratives, as the U.S. does. However renowned intercultural expert and trainer L. Robert Kohls (1984) identified 13 values which define Americans’ worldviews and choices and which each have certain drawbacks, despite also having contributed to the U.S.’ significant record of technological achievement and innovation.6 In brief, and as written to educate foreigners visiting the U.S., these are:
- Personal Control over the Environment: Humans have (or should strive to have) control over nature, rather than the other way around. Personal actions rather than fate create outcomes for any individual (Kohls describes how “Americans have literally gone to the moon, because they refused to accept earthly limitations”).
- Change: Change is a positive, linked to development, progress, and growth rather than to disruption or instability. Tradition and heritage are less valued than in other cultures.
- Time & Its Control: Schedules are meant to be planned and followed, as “wasting” time limits productivity and the accomplishment of goals. Interaction may be curtailed in the name of punctuality.
- Equality: All people were “created equal” and are deserving of an equal opportunity to succeed in life. People are treated with (approximately) equal importance regardless of their position or rank in society.
- Individualism/Privacy: Every individual is unique and important, regardless of any groups they are a part of. Privacy is considered a basic necessity of life and of membership in society.
- Self-Help: The “self-made man” who climbs the social ladder through sacrifice and hard work, regardless of starting position, is the ideal. A person can only take credit for what they have accomplished themself, not for “accidents of birth.”
- Competition: Competition challenges people to be their best. The free enterprise economic system comes alongside this and manifests in most fields, from education to medicine to the arts.
- Future Orientation: The future will bring improvement and so is more highly valued than the past and present. Energy is directed toward accomplishing goals and creating the future.
- Action/Work Orientation: Action is superior to inaction, and schedules are planned to be as active as possible—even relaxation is aimed toward increasing productivity later. Work or profession is closely associated with identity.
- Informality: Americans are informal, even when engaging with authority. Employees often call their bosses by their first names; and it is typical for dress, greetings, and many other types of interaction to be casual.
- Directness/Openness/Honesty: Bluntness, honesty, and directness are normal, including when delivering negative information, and are considered to help build trust and confidence rather than to lose face.
- Practicality/Efficiency: Pragmatism and practicality are given high priority in decisionmaking. The practical is valued over the theoretical, and rationality and objectivity are valued higher than sentimentality and subjectivity.
- Materialism/Acquisitiveness: Material objects are a natural reward for hard work and industriousness; this outlook leads Americans to collect a higher number of material objects than people in most other cultures, and to give high priority to obtaining and protecting these objects, sometimes over developing interpersonal relationships.
Anyone familiar with Minerva’s model may be able to easily identify certain fundamental aspects of the institution as closely linked to these values, beginning with the founding ideas of fundamentally changing higher education to create a better future by building a practical, active education open to all. The fact that every Minerva student has chosen to attend this institution likely means they resonate with at least some of Minerva’s expressed values (such as the value on change and progress), but many of these beliefs will still be non-obvious, confusing, or contradictory to a large number of students and staff, not to mention families.
It is not a problem that Minerva holds these values; the difficulty is in a lack of awareness of the institution’s deep American-ness. This can create dynamics of exclusion and othering of students who come from very different contexts or who do not easily conform to American values. In one well-remembered instance from early in the Class of 2020’s first year, a member of staff gave students a stern and heated lecture about arriving late to events, which the staff member interpreted as rudeness and lack of consideration. The students, many of whom had trickled into the room casually 10 or 15 minutes after the supposed start of the event, were stunned (Personal Interview, 2020). A large number of them were from countries where arriving later than the agreed-upon time is not considered disrespectful but a normal part of a plan (J. Bennett, 2015). The staff’s lack of understanding for the significant shift in customs students were experiencing in their first few days in San Francisco illustrates the educational and relational cost of ethnocentrism. Rather than preemptively re-setting expectations based on U.S. standards of punctuality and creating a safe space for students to learn and adjust in the new context, the staff members publicly shamed students and assumed their negative intent (lack of respect) based on the staff’s own cultural context. A culture of ethnorelativism in the institution might have prompted staff members to first consider how their assumptions about the relationship between punctuality and rudeness relate to American valuations of time, and then to place students’ lateness in a context relative to their own rather than the U.S. culture. This would not mean Minerva could never set an expectation of punctuality, but rather that such an expectation must be introduced explicitly to students (and placed in cultural context) at the beginning, rather than assumed.
In any education context, staff and faculty build the models that frame student experience, as well as serving as role models for student behavior and skill-building. Staff should be advocates for the importance of ICC and should, to the greatest extent possible, exhibit the kind of skills and sensitivity that students are expected to develop. This is not only essential for student success in ICC, but also for building a safe, equitable, and supportive educational space for all students regardless of culture. Below, I highlight the impact that staff in many areas of the institution have on students and on Minerva’s overall organizational level of intercultural consciousness, including both the benefits of a diverse and interculturally competent team and the drawbacks of falling short.
Faculty: Faculty design and facilitate the academic learning experience that makes up likely the most substantial part of both students’ time and outcomes at Minerva. Their impact on students is far-reaching; it includes everything from building the curricula that shape students’ perception of their fields, to helping students find their own place in those fields through access to professional connections and references. Achieving a culturally equitable institution requires acknowledging that faculty diversity matters not just for ideological diversity but also for student experience and achievement; studies in a variety of educational levels and contexts have reported a link between students’ academic performance and their access to teachers that look like or relate to them (Davis & Fry, 2019).
Ground staff: Ground staff are students’ direct contacts for most day-to-day issues, as well as their first and most structured window into a city. The perspective that staff from the Student Affairs and Operations (SAO) and Student Experience (SXP) teams display about a rotation city can have a significant impact on students’ experience of the place. A staff member who is familiar and comfortable in the city, who is able and willing to refer students to both local and expat communities and businesses, and who is passionate about the city/country and its culture can help students feel at ease and excited to immerse in the community. A staff member who keeps an excessively professional distance from students; who degrades the city, country, or culture they represent; or who cannot empathize with both outsider and insider experiences of the city is substantially less able to play this crucial host role. Most of all, ground staff need to be able to “code switch” between the predominantly American working style of the institution and HQ, and the local culture of the city, including partners, building staff, etc. The most effective ground staff at Minerva have also been able and willing to explain political, social, and historical context to students—but this would perhaps be less important to that role if there were other infrastructure in place for students to gain such an understanding.
Administrators: Administration, and particularly the Senior Team, largely defines Minerva’s values, priorities, and positions—to the extent that (as mentioned at the beginning of the paper) when students and staff refer to “Minerva” they are usually equating the institution in abstract with the beliefs and actions of high-level administrators. Intercultural competence at the highest level of decision-making, then, sends perhaps the most important and far-reaching message about both how the school views ICC, and how or whether it values students’ cultures, experiences, and backgrounds.
Coaching and Professional Development: One fundamental role of coaches is to define and teach the basics of employability; another is to connect students to opportunities that will support their desired impact and career growth. In an institution where students are both coming from and looking to work around the world, an ethnorelative framework is essential for both these tasks. Coaches must be able to understand the cultural differences in hiring practices and work skills and be wary of recommending one-size-fits-all approaches to the job search— for instance, confidently presenting accomplishments is often valued in a U.S. interview process but may be considered uncomfortable or immodest in Japan. A student from a culture that communicates directly may have less trouble adapting to the former approach but struggle with the latter; and vice-versa for a student coming from an indirect culture. At Minerva, coaches must be empathetic and helpful to both. Members of the professional development team also need to effectively build networks with organizations and companies in regions around the world in order to serve students equally, which requires both a priority and a competence around intercultural connection. The team must build networks everywhere from Lagos to Silicon Valley and in fields from finance to the arts in order to meet the needs of a diverse and ambitious student body.
Admissions: Minerva’s international student community is more a byproduct of the institution’s “meritocratic” approach to admissions than a goal in itself. Minerva has a global student body largely because it provides more financial and admissions accessibility to international students than most U.S. universities; that is, the diversity is a result rather than a driving factor of Minerva’s strategic policies. A resulting factor of Minerva’s commitment to “meritocracy” over diversity—or the idea that anyone qualified can get into the school regardless of nationality or background—is that the institution doesn’t seek out diversity and in fact is often unintentionally exclusive of it.
Because Minerva is a close-knit and developing institution, even staff who are not explicitly student-facing play a framing, connecting, and modeling role for students. Staff who are effective in this exhibit empathy and curiosity, and send a message to students that they and their backgrounds are valued and understood.
However, when staff are ineffective, they can model ethnocentric perspectives and behavior or send powerful messages to students about they or their culture’s belonging in the institution. And the problem is not only that Minerva staff tend to bring an American cultural perspective; they also tend to bring a very limited, internally hegemonic (that is, white, upper-class) American cultural perspective. One student told me about a conversation she overheard in which staff members modeled ethnocentrism and a lack of intercultural competence:
To a student with experience seeing the world through frameworks of (U.S.- based) race and class, this interaction tells a clear story of privilege— how individuals at ethnocentric stages of development and within a privileged subculture can unconsciously exhibit model ignorance and disrespect to others. In this kitchen conversation, staff members served as an example of how elite tech culture in San Francisco can be out of touch with other subcultures of the U.S.—coding a less wealthy city as “shithole” to the chagrin of a local from a different class experience. To someone watching without any of the historical and sociopolitical context that informs the interaction, however, many of those layers are lost. For many students, staff provide the first and strongest link to information and context about the U.S.; when they members of staff pass judgment on aspects of the U.S. in ways that come from privileged or highly specific perspectives, they model an incomplete and problematic view of the country to students who may not have access to alternative experiences.
ETHNOCENTRISM AND THE GLOBAL COMMUNITY
THE EMERGENT PROPERTY OF SELF-SEGREGATION
Minerva’s mistaken assumption that organic student interaction would inevitably lead to was in part a failure to consider some basic processes of complex systems, in particular the phenomenon of emergence. When left to themselves without the guidance of the institution on matters of intercultural engagement, students do what is easiest for them. For a student is dropped in a new country, in a new community, with the sudden expectations of a rigorous university—not to mention basic mandates of adulthood like budgeting, grocery shopping, and working to pay tuition—the past of least resistance is self-segregation.
Let’s imagine hypothetical Minerva first-year Lucas is in the U.S. for the first time (besides a family trip to New York or Washington, D.C. when he was much younger); perhaps this is his first time living in a big city and with classmates who have different expectations of social norms and opposing ideologies to the ones with which he grew up; perhaps it is the first time Lucas is surrounded by a language that is not his native one, and expected not only to write essays and read advanced articles in English for class, but to function in it constantly; he speaks to grocery store clerks in English, negotiates roommate rules in English, and build relationships with his new classmates in English. Besides calls home to his family (which quickly transition from every couple of days to every couple of weeks as Lucas’ academic and co-curricular schedule intensify and it gets harder to navigate the time difference with the constraints of his new life at Minerva), Lucas is surrounded by people who do not understand, at even a basic cultural level, where he is from or all that he has known up to this point. The closest he can get to a point of mutual understanding, much less ease of understanding, is to connect with other members of the Minerva community who are going through the same thing from (approximately) the same place he is. That is, he chooses to spend his time with people who remind him of home; people with whom he can speak his native language or at least not worry about the quality of his English; people who share his cultural norms and assumptions or who can relate to the newness of these ones.
Now consider that all of Minerva—at least a substantial majority—is made up of students like Lucas. If each of them takes the path of least resistance, it is easy to tell how many Minerva classes quickly end up with easily definable “groups” made up of students from various cultural origins. It is not abnormal in at least some classes at Minerva to refer to their own or other students’ friend groups in geographic terms—and while in another context language like this might seem uncomfortable at best, within the Minerva social sphere it is primarily descriptive: “She’s hanging out with the Asians tonight”; “Did you hear what happened in the Brazilian group chat?”; “I think it’s mostly Americans who are going to that event.” While no student or staff member at Minerva intends to create a social community segregated by nationality or continental origin, when individual students make the social choices that are easiest for them within a context that puts on a myriad of other pressures, a segregated community is the result.
Ask any Minerva student why they choose to spend time with people from a similar cultural background, and they’ll typically say something like “Because it’s easier.” But when everyone makes their easiest choice to we end up with a collective problem: the emergence of a community that is, at best, not reaching its full potential for cross-cultural interaction and learning, and, at worst, creating lines of exclusivity and distrust that harm students at the identity level and contribute to greater patterns of power inequity in global society. Contact theory tells us that relationships can be a powerful way to break down prejudices and inspire action on the behalf of different “others”; however, these relationships have more potential for change if they are close, and the current pattern of self-segregation at Minerva threatens to undermine the high potential in the community for contact to transform into future change.
This pattern becomes even clearer to understand when we take into account that students are also dealing with preconceived notions of one another, and, complementarily, others’ preconceived notions of themselves. Minerva students don’t come in a blank slate of cultural knowledge; they bring with them a lifetime of stereotypes and biases from their communities, education, and media. Despite the general openness and curiosity with which Minerva students apply and enter the school, they may subconsciously be predisposed toward judgment or suspicion of students from some countries, to curiosity or exoticism toward others. And after dealing with even one instance of lack of understanding from other students regarding one’s cultural background, home, and beliefs, a student may become even less motivated to continue taking steps to connect with people who may just seem judgmental and uncaring.
CULTURAL CONFLICT ONLINE AND OFF
In November of 2019, the world watched—and several Minervans watched up-close—as Hong Kong took to the streets in defense of democracy. Thousands of protesters, many of them students, fought back against increasingly Beijing-friendly policies and a concern for the region’s potential loss of democratic freedoms. This sparked another uproar, one specific to the Minerva community and largely limited to the platform of a cross-class Facebook group. When a student from Hong Kong posted about the protests, multiple students from mainland China pushed back on some of the wording and ideas in the post and the comments. They argued against directing blame toward the Chinese government and in favor of a more balanced view of wrongdoings by the protesters; the way that other (mostly non-Chinese) students responded to this continued to sow distrust and disrespect on both sides. Chinese students accused their peers of discrimination and one-sidedness and were in turn accused of being brainwashed, irrational, and inconsiderate. The Chinese students expressed feeling written off, stereotyped, and unwelcome.
Minerva isn’t the only U.S. university where Chinese students have sensed an unwelcoming space. The drastic difference between Chinese culture and values and those of the U.S.—the two countries are at almost opposite ends of every commonly-mapped dimension of culture—means that it can be difficult for students from the different cultures to understand each other, at least at first. The high American value on freedom, autonomy, and democracy is not shared by the Chinese government or many of its people. Additionally, Chinese and Western media tend to tell very different stories about social and political issues. In many Western universities, Chinese international students self-segregate out of a sense of discomfort with the ideological assumptions and ignorance of their culture in the wider student body (Cui, 2013). Despite its much larger international community, this pattern is present at Minerva too.
One Chinese student spoke to me about the frustration she feels living in a social and academic context where ideologies like democracy are taken for granted:
Minerva’s student community exists as much online as off, and often when important and culturally charged topics are discussed the dialogue (or conflict) occurs across a keyboard or social media platform. Minerva has not yet built structures into its model for acknowledging and resolving these kinds of conflicts, or for bringing them offline. But what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook; tensions that emerge in social media groups or on students’ private pages can lead to distrust and division, often prompting students to retreat into safer (typically, similar) subgroups, which further decreases intimate intercultural interactions and contributes to a feedback loop of division, self-segregation, and disconnection.
ETHNOCENTRISM AND THE GLOBAL ROTATION
Organizational and individual levels of intercultural competence clearly impact students not only in their community interaction but also their interaction with the global rotation cities. Effective and ethical engagement with the rotation requires that students have access to deep and significant background knowledge about the places they will live, as well as training to talk about frameworks that impact those places’ histories, identities, and politics.
Minerva’s frameworks for each global rotation city should emphasize what students can learn from the city both as a model for what can be and as a site of complex challenges. This is the point of the “Global Arcs”—themes and frames designated to facilitate learning in each rotation city—but has not been consistently used in practice. Emphasizing personal reflection and history—values closer to the humanities where Minerva typically endorses the “takeaction” mentality of the tech and business worlds—is essential for building competence and consciousness through the global rotation. Providing students with space to examine their preexisting notions of rotation cities (and the associations those cities might have toward them); focusing on the “learning” rather than just the “doing” aspects of civic projects; and hosting conversations and learning about not just the current cultural context of a country but also its history and students’ relationships to that history; are all steps Minerva can take to build ensure the global rotation serves as a meaningful (and ethical) learning experience for students. Teaching (and modeling) students to lead with humility in their engagement with rotation cities is a critical part of building global citizenship and intercultural consciousness.
STATES OF CULTURE SHOCK IN THE U.S.
Historically, Minerva has expressed a relatively hegemonic, U.S.-centric worldview. A staff and administration largely made up of white Americans, no matter their goals or intentions, inherently leads to some blind spots. Prior to receiving feedback from substantial numbers of upperclassmen regarding their time in San Francisco, Minerva tended to treat the first year in the U.S. as culturally “neutral,” something separate from the global rotation cities of second year and beyond. Many students I interviewed agreed on this—they couldn’t remember receiving a targeted education on the cultural norms and expectations of the United States.
As most students have previously been exposed to American media (like many around the world, due largely to the United States’ global position in setting cultural hegemony), it is easy to assume that experience watching American movies or studying the U.S. in primary and secondary school would be enough to prepare non-U.S. students for their experience in San Francisco. Additionally, many students and staff, especially those from the U.S., see the American (and particularly Californian) ethos of openness and diversity as a sort of cultural neutrality.
However, it isn’t that simple. The United States is not culturally neutral, nor does San Francisco’s international diversity negate its culture. As a result of Minerva’s failure to consider San Francisco as a culturally distinct and non-neutral city in the global rotation, many students were not prepared for or supported in their experience and culture shock there.
I sent out a call for experiences with culture shock in San Francisco and received a deluge of responses, including some from Americans. These included everything from the presence of poverty, to the Folsom Street Fair, to the large stock of medicines sold in grocery stores:
Over the last year, as part of developing targeted intercultural competence pedagogy, and following feedback from the Class of 2019, Minerva added significantly more introduction to the U.S. in recognition that being an American institution does not mean the school can assume students will enter their first year prepared for the country’s cultural context—and that the diversity and openness of San Francisco are, in themselves, non-neutral cultural elements. As a result, part of the for-credit ICC course piloted in the Class of 2023 is a set of readings and videos about the cultural context of the U.S. It’s designed to facilitate international students’ learning about their new home and help guide them through culture shock, as well as to prompt reflection and self-awareness for American students. These readings, which students are expected to complete before they move into the city in August, cover predominantly “fast facts” and history about the United States and San Francisco, as well as cultural communication styles, societal beliefs, and, to some extent, current cultural and political tensions.
Resources like these will become part of each rotation city’s ICC curriculum. As the San Francisco curriculum is the only one finished at this point, I review it here as an example of the issues and questions we should be concerned with in each city (additionally, I only have indepth knowledge about the U.S. and so would require a much broader scope of research to provide reviews and recommendations about resources for other cities).
Some of the U.S. ICC resources are useful and interesting; others, less so. There is a book designed for newcomers to the United States to study its cultural patterns and beliefs, which, although it occasionally uses considerably outdated language, provides a valuable perspective both for international and American students on the cultural context and communication styles of people from the United States.
This student’s experience illustrates the importance of differentiating between city, country, and region in preparing students for the global rotation (similarly, many students expressed concerns that their peers equated their semester in Hyderabad with a comprehensive understanding of what it is like to live in India—one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world). The new curriculum’s readings specifically focusing on San Francisco are extremely limited. There’s a 5-minute animated video summarizing the city’s history, which leaves out some crucial elements—like San Francisco’s importance to the gay rights movement—and controversially frames the city primarily as a technological and financial center rather than a historical hub of culture, counter-culture, and revolution.
The “fast facts” sheet is the only internally-designed resource on the list (and, presumably, a format that will be repeated for other cities in the rotation). It also looks to be the least intentionally prepared aspect of the curriculum, presenting an incomplete and arbitrary series of categories for information. It includes an overview of the political system and broad economic positions of the two major parties, but excludes their current power… ; it includes names of every major Bay Area professional sports team, but excludes any context about which sports are considered relevant and how Americans engage with them; the “Economy” section includes the names of major companies but nothing about the overarching state or scale of the economy. Most surprising, the fact sheet includes a detailed section on major religions in the U.S. (which includes the simplistic and increasingly questionable claim that “religious prejudice is rare in America,” especially given that another resource for the course tells the story of an anti-Muslim hate crime), but the document excludes any mention of race beyond an ethnic demographic breakdown of the population of San Francisco.
It is this stubborn erasure of race as a driving factor in U.S. history, society, and culture that has been most frustrating and concerning in Minerva’s introduction of the country to international students. Students begin their semester in San Francisco with a broad diversity of experiences behind them. Some are from urban areas in countries with racially diverse populations, or have already been members of international communities such as UWC; others are coming from ethnically homogenous communities or societies. Some have never been exposed to the United States’ complicated and unique racial frameworks; others (like me) grew up with race as a defining factor of identity, community, and everyday life. All bring preexisting awareness, biases, and assumptions related to the role race or ethnicity plays (or does not play) in their own country and in the United States.
Students do not come in a “blank slate” around issues of race and culture. Even if they come from outside a U.S. racial framework, young adults have almost inevitably been exposed to U.S.-style or other forms of racism, through their own cultural backgrounds and the dissemination of American media and ideologies. Many international students grew up learning about the U.S. through American media, in which black Americans are often portrayed as unintelligent, impoverished, and/or criminal in opposition to white Americans’ intelligence, power, and heroism; these racialized images can impact the mental models of international students just as they do Americans, and will only likely be changed through positive, real-life contact (Ritter, 2016).
Minerva students are not immune to this. When asked about culture shock in the U.S., one student described how his shuttle driver from the airport in his first hours in San Francisco was the first black person he’d interacted with:
This student’s quote reflects on the reflection, time, and contact it took him to deconstruct racialized hierarchies whose origins he couldn’t even source. But his consciousness of these biases and effort to undo them comes from him, not from any structured effort on Minerva’s part.
Upon entering the U.S., international students not only may be engaging with new dimensions of diversity, they are also becoming part of the American racial framework, some for the first time. Many students come from countries that are largely ethnically or racially homogenous; often, it is only when a student comes to the U.S., to Minerva, that their “race” becomes relevant to how others see them and how they see themselves (Loo, 2019)
The United States’ fraught and painful history with the social construct of race has made it an inescapable framework for how Americans view identity and culture. The American view of racial hierarchy is rooted in white Europeans’ enslavement of Africans, colonization of Native Americans, and marginalization and exclusion of Asian and Latino immigrants. Today, these histories impact how systems are structured; how Americans read people and interactions; and how opportunities for upward mobility are allocated (Fries-Britt et al., 2014). As soon as they get to the U.S., Minervans will typically be interpreted by locals within the context of U.S. racial frameworks. Black students from Africa or the Caribbean may initially be read as African-American; students from South America will likely be considered Hispanic or Latino regardless of how they identify the color of their skin (Loo, 2019). Most Minerva students come from privileged ethnic and/or socioeconomic groups in their home countries. For students of color (that term in itself a foreign concept to many Minervans), the transition from privilege to being considered part of a “minority” can create confusion that compounds on the discomfort of any discrimination they face in the U.S. Fries-Britt et al. report on this process of racialization for international students of color in the U.S.:
“During interviews, students described encounters that were catalysts for examining their race in the U.S. context. They shared a number of examples from their experiences in the classroom with peers and faculty, being pulled over by police on campus, being called the “N” word, and responding to comments about their hairstyles and dress.” (p. 6)
Experts recommend providing comprehensive and sustained education about the racial framework, context, and history of the U.S. in order to address international students’ (often unconscious) preconceived notions and to prepare them for the American context (Loo, 2019). Discussing the framework of race in the first two semesters of the ICC course could not only help students understand and adjust to life in the United States but also practice analyzing and contextualizing intercultural interactions through locally relevant frameworks, a skill that would serve them throughout the global rotation and into their future careers.
In explaining why the U.S. history part of the ICC curriculum only stretched back through the last century, a member of faculty described how “We’re not teaching [students] about the Civil War, because they’re living in America now.” There is a conception among staff that the long history of rotation countries is less relevant, so historical materials tend to focus on the late 20th century through the present day, despite the critical impact that a country’s origins and national stories have on its modern identity and ethos. Scholars have, indeed, traced the current voting patterns of Southern Americans—precinct-by-precinct—back to the antebellum South (Acharya, et al., 2018). That is, the Civil War is America now, just as colonialism is India now. Ignoring the present-day impact of history on global rotation cities and countries is one way in which Minerva undervalues humanities knowledge and fails to educate students on the complex legacy of interactions that create the systems in which they live, work, and travel.
POLITICAL AND CULTURAL COMPLEXITY IN INDIA
In almost every conversation I had with students from the classes of M19-M21, the Hyderabad semester came up as an example of primarily poor student engagement with a host city and country. Many students I spoke to were disappointed in how they or their classmates had been introduced to the city as well as how Minerva students had behaved while there.
In almost every conversation I had with students from the classes of M19-M21, the Hyderabad semester came up as an example of primarily poor student engagement with a host city and country. Many students I spoke to were disappointed in how they or their classmates had been introduced to the city as well as how Minerva students had behaved while there.
This kind of behavior should not be acceptable within the culture or community of Minerva. We are guests who come into a new city and country with limited long-term investment in the place, and at no point is that more clear than when students from privileged countries or background, who have seen their homes and experiences consistently reflected in the norms of development and globalization, denigrate cultural difference instead of adapting to it. Unfortunately, we learned from our teachers. Minerva students heard administrators and ground staff degrade Indian culture and society under the guise of “preparing” us for months before anyone actually landed at the Hyderabad International Airport. The opening to the first Elevation in Hyderabad was a speech from a staff member warning students to bring toilet paper with them, and many of the sessions immediately following were a crash course to the young women of Minerva on how to deal with the stares of Indian men.
However, the problem is compounded by the complex power dynamic of being an American institution in an Indian context. That Minerva sends students from one of the most expensive cities in a wealthy, developed nation to a city and country with widespread poverty and a history of colonialism means that the school and its students are constantly navigating a complex dynamic of power, privilege, and wealth. Although students’ most substantive interactions tended to stay within wealthier “urban elite” neighborhoods and communities in Hyderabad, their daily interactions with auto drivers, vendors, and other locals from diverse sectors of the city come alongside complicated social, historical, and cultural contexts. So far, Minerva hasn’t provided a space for students to discuss and examine the roles they play in these contexts.9 The diversity within the student body presents added complexity: for some students, India as a “developing” country is the most different-from-home place they’ve ever been; for others, it is the closest place in the rotation to home—or it is home. In perhaps the most extreme departure from the non-introduction to U.S. culture, framing for Hyderabad tended to ignore student diversity and prepared everyone for a “new,” “different,” and “challenging” context with the effect of “othering” students who did not share this experience.
Students who worked on the SXP team in Hyderabad the summer before the city’s pilot semester were surprised and frustrated to find that many of the resources, connections, and framings they had developed for the city were not used once students actually arrived in January. Instead, resources and frameworks for helping students understand the strengths and complex evolutions of Hyderabad and India more broadly, as well as the impact of colonialism on the country and region, were largely missing in favor of a vague nod to “jugaad,” or innovation in chaos.
This problem has seemingly only magnified with each new class. The challenges the Class of 2021 faced in their Hyderabad semester—which many students attributed to a lack of programming or partnerships to provide context and involvement in the city—were widely discussed on Facebook and in the few other cross-class communication mechanisms students use to share information. The anti-Hyderabad sentiment among that class has been so powerfully disseminated that the class of 2022, in beginning their Hyderabad semester, seem to almost expect a negative experience of the city (Minerva Quest, 2020).
When Minerva was able to connect students with civic projects and partners, there was a pattern among those participating to express dissatisfaction with the roles and support work partners had identified as helpful. Students wanted to do more than “grunt work” in their civic projects—they wanted to use and grow hard skills, contribute at high levels of the work, and solve problems for the local organizations (Personal Interview, 2020). Although this was framed as wanting to “contribute more” to the partners’ projects and organizations, it echoed narratives of “white saviorism”, wherein (often untrained) Western outsiders to a developing country assume they, rather than local experts, uniquely possess the skills and solutions needed to solve local problems (Bandyopadhyay, 2019). This also reinforces Minerva’s extractionist view of intercultural interaction, where the priority in partnerships and projects seems to be giving a boost to students’ resumes rather than providing an extra hand for partners’ work. It is this type of one-sided engagement and savior complex that has led to criticisms that international education programs like study abroad can unconsciously re-enact patterns of colonialism and exploitation of communities in developing countries (Sharpe, 2015). On the other hand, targeted development of critical and intercultural consciousness for this context can help students understand and dismantle these patterns by making aware and ethical choices with respect to their work and place in the world (and in their temporary homes).
Several Minerva students reported how they or their classmates circumvented or “protested” Indian cultural customs, behaving according to their own cultural norms when they had been informed (or should have been able to easily infer) how it was inappropriate to do so. For instance, some students chose not to follow cultural norms of modest dress and engaged in public displays of affection, even in religious spaces such as temples. These students often expressed their frustration with India’s “purity culture” or “culture of sexism,” choosing not to engage with the wide theoretical basis of Indian feminism in favor of imported feminist theories from their own cultures. An ethnorelative paradigm does not require one to agree with all values or norms of all cultures; however, it does involve seeing those cultural values as complex and contextual. It is important for students to learn about historical and political dynamics affecting their relationship with a country so as to be able to intentionally and consciously engage with those dynamics. For instance, when discussing the safety of women or queer people in Hyderabad, Minerva should help students contextualize the British colonial origins of anti-LGBTQ prejudice, or the historical implications of narratives describing the danger Indian men pose to foreign women (Teo, 2004). Otherwise, the school risks furthering dangerous stories about Western superiority in opposition to an immoral non-Western “other” and the idea that people, especially women, from these undeveloped societies are in need of outsiders’ rescuing.
At the very least, students should be informed of the current events impacting the global rotation city, country, or region. One clear example of this takes place currently, in the spring of 2020, as Delhi has been rocked by Hindu nationalist violence and riots. A student from India described to me the discomfort and pain she felt watching members of the class of 2022 post on social media about traveling in Delhi and their excitement for the upcoming Holi festival. Watching non-Indian Minervans celebrate the digestible, fun, and “exotic” parts of Indian and Hindu cultures while ignoring complex and painful current events felt like a slap in the face. If not to learn about these tensions and challenges—to really learn, in ways that are uncomfortable and challenging and lead to more questions than answers, why even go to Hyderabad? For the cheap biryani? The colorful powders? The high-potential startups? Without historical and political awareness, none of these will magically transform students into interculturally conscious leaders or citizens.
TEACHING AND ASSESSING CULTURE
Growing attention to ICC
When the class of 2019 graduated, Minerva held several listening sessions to collect and synthesize their feedback and experience. Intercultural competence arose over and over again as a theme for further development (Personal Interview, 2019). Students brought up feelings that their engagement with the cities was too superficial or that they did not feel they reached the full potential of learning within a globally diverse student body.
Following the feedback from the first alumni, there was, for the first time, a significant drive among members of Minerva’s senior administration to address the issue of intercultural competence. Individual staff members with influence at the highest levels of Minerva took the time and energy to dive into researching ICC—consulting experts, reading literature, and building a strategic plan for evolving Minerva’s pedagogy on culture.
The foundational shift in Minerva’s focus on ICC occurred when core staff took an interest in studying and developing the pedagogy. The fact that individual staff members were so influential in this process speaks to the crucial importance of hiring and retaining—and listening to—staff from diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds: projects that have advocates get done.
ASSESSING INTERCULTURAL SKILLS
Minerva’s current iteration of ICC moved past the old ILO rubric of self-assessment, in large part based on a general research conclusion in the literature that people consistently overestimate their competence when it comes to intercultural issues (Personal Interview, 2019). For this reason, self-assessment is a much less reliable way to mark progress along goals of intercultural development. The ILO in particular also set a non-research-based (and quite low) bar for intercultural competence—a student could use the fact that they regularly leave their Buenos Aires apartment to buy churros down the street and thank the cashier in Spanish as justification for a high self-assessment. In recognition of these shortcomings, the new ICC pedagogy makes use of two types of assessments: one evaluating intercultural competence as a skill set and another mapping an individual student’s disposition along continuums of several cultural variables. The first of these is the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) and the second, the GlobeSmart Profile (GSP). Both were bought from the same company—Aperion Global— although initially developed by different companies. The fact that the company markets itself primarily to businesses is indicative of Minerva’s continuous use of a primarily businessfocused, U.S.-centric lens for intercultural development.
The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) uses an adapted version of the DMIS and so measures development rather than characteristics or components. For the context of Minerva, I support the IDI rather than the IES for a variety of reasons. First of all, the IDI has been more broadly used and validated than the IES, including in a broader variety of contexts (IDI, 2020) (Kozai, n.d.). It measures cultural skills with more subtlety and employs fewer questions that call for subjective self-assessment, which allows for smaller amounts of bias in test results. Secondly, the language of the IDI explicitly supports a growth mindset, discussing where people are in their cultural development rather than what kind of person they are with regard to seemingly fixed traits related to ICC. Certain aspects of the IES assessment don’t appear to address meaningful components of intercultural consciousness or ethnorelativism.
For instance, the “World Orientation” component assesses interest in “other cultures and the people who live in them” (IES Report, 2019). An individual may be extremely curious about other cultures and seek out movies or histories of them without ever stepping outside their own cultural framework to do so. Exposure to information about foreign cultures does not equate to a deep understanding of cultural differences or intercultural dynamics. It certainly does not equate to a way of viewing the world that takes into consideration alternative cultural experiences and ways of knowing; most of all, it does not account for the relationships between cultures and never allows for a culture to become less “foreign.” It also posits the idea that knowledge of a “foreign” culture is the same as (or required for) competence. Similarly, the “Positive Regard” component is meant to assess an individual’s propensity to negative stereotypes. But stereotypes are often deeply ingrained and culturally taught, not consciously built (and positive stereotypes can be just as harmful as negative ones). This also measures whether the test-taker “naturally assume(s) people are trustworthy, hardworking and generally good”—traits which seem arbitrarily selected and culturally non-neutral in themselves.
Doubtless, these attributes are all important, including for developing an open-minded and culturally curious intentionality, but they do not necessarily function the way the test claims them to.
‘MANDATORY, SUSTAINED LEARNING”: THE ICC COURSE
The response from Minerva staff to the challenge of intercultural competence has been to develop a mandatory, for-credit course that all students must take throughout their time at Minerva. This course is the primary means for the organization to ensure that future Minervans, starting with the class of 2023, have a more complete education in intercultural competence than their predecessors. That Minerva chose for its new ICC pedagogy to be integrated into the academic program is a mark of how critical it finds this aspect of education to be.
The course (the first semester of which, technically titled Intercultural Competency I: Managing Complexity of a Global World, is abbreviated IL91) has been described to first-years as: “An 8-semester curriculum, which prepares students for effective citizenship in a diverse multicultural society by helping students to recognize new perspectives about their own cultural norms and biases and to build the intercultural competencies required for full global citizenship” (IL91 Course Description, 2019). In an attempt to balance the critical importance of structured ICC education with the already extensive demands on first-year students adjusting to life in San Francisco, IL91 and each of the following semesters are limited to about 23 hours of work each, much of which can be completed before the semester starts. The course is graded on a pass/no pass basis, and is designed to hold students accountable to completion without adding excessive pressure. The class doesn’t meet on the Forum, but includes a 3.5-hour session in-person during Foundation Week (with required pre-class work); three city co-curriculars; short assignments on local history, art, and music; and an in-person reflection at semester’s end. The course material for the first semester of Foundation Year, which is the only completed semester plan for the course thus far, focuses primarily on introducing students to U.S. culture and the city of San Francisco.
Although it is IL91 that provides the structure for students to receive and discuss their IES and GSP results, there is still limited space for guidance around what the results mean and how to apply them (Personal Interview, 2019). One aspect of the ICC course is a personal development plan based on students’ IES results. Students are paired with an accountability partner and expected to meet regularly to update one another on their progress according to this plan; however, students I spoke to in the class reported that many have not followed through with this and that the accountability structure has not been helpful to most of them.
The most extensive assignment in the first semester is an ethnography project, in which students are tasked with pairing up to learn about a classmate from a different cultural background and to ask them a series of questions in order to get to know their cultural context (Ethnography Interview Project Description, 2019).
I find aspects of this assignment concerning in how they fail to contradict problematic patterns of ethnography in history. The assignment refers to each classmate as their partner’s “Cultural Informant,” a term I find a bit overly scientific and technical for what seems to be a description of two peers getting to know one another and sharing their backgrounds, and some of the guidance in the description calls back to uncomfortable patterns of exploitation in anthropological research (i.e., asking students to describe in their report “how [they] established rapport” with their informants). Ethnography, and more generally anthropology as a field, has a problematic history of using the study of culturally different “others” for selfserving and often colonialist projects (Pels & Salemnik, 1994). Educating students about the complexity of this practice’s history can provide them with a critical broad context for responsible rather than exploitative cultural learning.
Staff have reported that the ethnography assignments went extremely well, and at least two students I spoke to from the Class of 2023 agreed. One student thought most had chosen partners they did not know well already, and that she and many of her classmates got a lot out of the interview experience, although, she argued, the questions given by Minerva were fairly superficial and students who gained most from the assignment went deeper than the assignment required in their conversations.
Overall, reviews of IL91 so far from both students and staff have been relatively positive, although some members of the Class of 2023 still feel the course has not been the best use of their time and effort alongside an extremely demanding academic schedule. The course is definitely a step forward in students’ access to knowledge and support for developing intercultural competence; however, students still maintain that its value is not inherent to its design and rather fluctuates based on the work a student puts in and their interest in the course. Continuing to expand and develop the course should go hand and hand with integrating its topics and assumptions into all other aspects of a Minerva education.
TOWARD COMPETENCE AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Recommendations for a global citizenship education
Minerva’s mission of building nurturing critical wisdom and global citizenship depends on teaching both those critical consciousness skills and the ethics of citizenship, in addition to appropriate intercultural interaction. Ethnorelativism—or the ability to see beyond one’s own cultural context—must work hand in hand with critical and intercultural consciousness—a sense of ethical obligation in the use of intercultural skills—in order for Minerva to fulfill its extremely admirable goals. The following recommendations are aimed at supporting both students’ and the institution’s capacity for cultural relativity and intercultural consciousness. They are also designed to be a beginning, not an ending point—a start of a wider conversation.
In order to build a critical, engaged, and holistic approach to intercultural development, I propose here an integrated organization-wide effort to re-conceptualize ICC. In the following subsections, I describe a series of potential institutional policies or changes in a variety of areas that I believe develop Minerva’s capacity for intercultural competence and consciousness and begin to close the gaps identified at the beginning of this project. I’ve developed these recommendations as a synthesis of interviews with students and staff, in conjunction with the literature I’ve referenced throughout the project.
PEDAGOGY AND CURRICULUM
The following three recommendations are synthesized or reiterated from earlier in this paper:
- Transition from a component-based framework & assessment of intercultural competence to a developmental framework (I highlight the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity and the Intercultural Development Inventory).
- Incorporate the framework of race into the first year ICC curriculum, both as an educational tool (an example of a framework for dialogue about culture) and an important aspect of life in the U.S.
- Continue expanding the ICC course, but also integrate intercultural consciousness and competence into all academic curricula.
STAFF, LEADERSHIP, AND TRAINING
Recruit and hire staff from diverse backgrounds and identities.
At a fundamental level, the structural factors required for change begin with a shift in the priorities and awareness of the administration. This can come from a change in the knowledge and values of the people in leadership, or it can come from the people themselves— that is, a change in who is in the room and their roles in decision-making. Consistent effort should be made to recruit staff from diverse backgrounds and identities (Wood, 2019).
Expand ICC assessments, development plans, and training to staff and faculty and hold dialogues about culture among the staff as well as student community
All staff should take an assessment of intercultural competence as well as a culture mapping assessment like the GlobeSmart profile. The latter can provide a useful framing for building one’s own cultural self-knowledge, but it does not reveal anything about patterns of engagement with cultural difference. For that, as described earlier, I favor the Intercultural Development Inventory for its growth mindset, broad definition of culture, and framework of ethnorelativism. Requiring staff and faculty to assess their own intercultural competence has multiple purposes. Broadly, it serves a statement of how important ICC is to Minerva as an institution and to staff’s ability to do their jobs effectively and responsibly. Just as critically, it allows staff and faculty to assess and become aware of the patterns and biases they bring to interactions with students, partners, and fellow staff.
Essentially, any conversations about culture that are facilitated for students should happen for staff first. ICC takes targeted practice. Just like students will not gain cultural skills or self-awareness by osmosis, neither will staff. And just like staff can model effective intercultural interaction, they can also model ineffective and problematic practices and harm students with ethnocentric and invalidating comments and policies.
Hire a full-time Director of Intercultural Consciousness with expertise in organizational consulting and facilitation for intercultural competence
A related proposition is that Minerva should hire a full-time, in-house staff member, with specific expertise in intercultural competence issues, as a director of Intercultural and Community Affairs within Student Life. This new hire would, ideally, have experience working with both U.S. domestic and international students and would be able to consult the organization (including staff) on issues of culture as well as build and maintain programming and coordinate a work-study team of peer culture educators. With proper training, they could also be an advocate for equity, diversity, and ICC in Minerva’s hiring practices, thus building a positive feedback loop where more incoming staff are interested in ICC and contribute to a culture that further prioritizes and expects it (Wood, 2019).
Create a work-study team focused on conflict resolution and intercultural competence within Minerva’s student community.
Minerva appears to have room for more work-study positions. Several students from each class are typically placed every year in project-dependent roles like Freelance where they aren’t always able to fulfill hours; opening new student-facing work-study positions focusing on ICC could be an effective use of resources and student and staff time. Therefore, I propose the implementation of a new student work-study team, similar to RAs or Oxygen, specifically focusing on conflict resolution and intercultural competence within the community, and an additional role (related or unrelated) focusing on researching and presenting the historical and social context of the rotation. Even if these teams were only 2-5 students, the role of trained student leadership in this area could be impactful for the student body’s overall receptiveness to ICC-related topics as well as for intercultural development and dialogue to become part of every aspect of student life.
Incorporated into the above or separately, create a work-study team of peer educators focused on the cultural and historical context of the global rotation.
Similarly, student leadership around issues of cultural understanding and respect in the global rotation has a high potential to impact students’ understanding and behavior. Minerva should also express far greater awareness of the continued relevance of historical factors and events on the locations in the global rotation as well as the ways students interact with them. This could be done through a new work study position in which student interns, potentially under the management of the local SXP staff or a member of the Arts & Humanities faculty, hold semester-long positions as cultural ambassadors and resources for their classmates and even staff to build an understanding of the city’s context. This has the added benefit of taking the pressure off of local students so that they can be as involved, or not, as they wish in leading their peers through the semester and the city
Provide space for handling conflicts offline and as they arise in regular meetings of the entire residential community. View tension as an opportunity to teach consciousness, dialogue, and conflict resolution skills.
Culturally-charged arguments (like the recent Facebook debate over Hong Kong and China) can be destructive to students’ sense of community and to their perceived ability to mediate discussions and to handle cultural difference. Minerva should aim to support bringing online arguments offline so that they become an opportunity for students to practice conflict resolution skills and to see those they debate with as complex individuals and members of their same community; trained student mediators can facilitate this process. So far, Minerva has not been able to set a precedent of productive offline dialogues partially because difficult conversations have usually been student-driven and showing up has always been optional and easily avoidable. The monthly residential meetings held this year in San Francisco provides a potential model for changing this pattern. Spearheaded by their RLC, the Class of 2023 has held regular, mandatory meetings of the entire residential community in San Francisco (similar to models used by UWCs). So far, the conversations held at these meetings have typically been limited to residential issues, such as keeping the kitchen clean; but they also present an opportunity to address other issues of living together: students’ concerns over specific arguments or challenges they see in the community; educating one another on culture and background; etc. (Personal Interview, 2020). These meetings should be expanded, supported, and sustained across all four years as an opportunity for students to see themselves and their residential experience as inherently tied to the experiences of those different than them.
Take self-segregation seriously as an issue of student learning and equity; support more research into solutions to emergent patterns of self-segregation.
The question of self-segregation at all levels of education has been investigated by numerous scholars; the details of their analyses are outside the scope of this paper. There is likely not one silver-bullet solution to community integration, although each of the suggestions above (as well as existing initiatives like the ethnography assignment) have the potential to make some level of impact. Overall, Minerva can start by taking this seriously as an issue impacting both community wellbeing and student outcomes and looking further for possible interventions. Understanding how relationships can link to intercultural competence and, in turn, to values of global citizenship and ethnorelative patterns is an important step for building an interculturally competent organization and student body; looking for solutions to the emergent property of student segregation is one way Minerva can expand its integration of ICC into students’ everyday life.
Frame the global rotation through an ethnorelative lens to set and model high expectations for student development in areas of intercultural consciousness and understanding.
If Minerva wants students to develop interculturally, the institution itself must model and expect a high level of competence in the way it introduces students to cities. Framing needs to shift from a U.S.- and Euro-centric way of viewing the global rotation to one that takes into account the diverse backgrounds students come from as well as the relative nature of cultures. This means preparing students for culture shock in San Francisco, London, and Berlin as well as in the less Western cities of Seoul, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, and Taipei. It means hiring not only ground staff but also more core leadership who understand and identify with diverse cultures. It means priming students with openness and excitement, not negativity and “challenge,” for cities that are culturally different by U.S. standards.
Teach students about the historical, social, and political contexts of the global rotation at the city, country, and regional levels.
The above also requires building a greater understanding of the difference between the culture of a city, country, and region in the framing of the rotation. Before leaving the city for the semester—and ideally before the first month is over—students should have an understanding of the city’s cultural role in the country and the political and historical context impacting the past, present, and future of the place at local, national, and regional levels, as well as the relationship they as (diverse) visitors have to these dynamics. Engaging in the “easy” or “fun” parts of a place without understanding its complexities is a form of extractive cultural tourism that Minerva should not endorse or engage in.
Support students to build connections with local community members by initiating homestay or family-based programs in every city and/or by linking students to locals in their age group.
One way to do expand students’ opportunities for ethnorelativism is by building connections between Minervans and local community members. Minerva has always prioritized this to some extent, but has typically focused connection-building on civic partnerships—that is, the pedagogy has seen professional opportunity as the most important driver for connecting with “locals.” This has typically meant that students are connected only to a specific subset of community members: professionals, often young, often expats or immigrants themselves. While it’s valuable for both students’ intercultural development and their career development to learn about organizations and people doing diverse and interesting work in our rotation cities, this view is still vaguely self-serving and elitist—can students only learn from locals who provide prestigious career connections or professional advice?10 What about connecting with local students, over what it is to be a young person in this society? Or with families? Multiple students from the Class of 2021 cited the most meaningful relationships they built in Seoul as being not with civic partners but rather with their neighbors (specifically, neighbors who had dogs). Minerva has not initiated any sort of homestay program, in which students have an opportunity to live with local families in the global rotation, which would allow them to build a more personal connection and a deeper understanding of everyday life in the locations they visit. Beginning semesters with some version of a homestay program could allow students to have a family as “home base” in the rotation city in addition to their residence hall, and to build a more holistic local understanding from community members who are likely more culturally different from Minerva as an institution (and many of its students) than are the local professionals that the school seeks a relationship with.
The closest programming to this was an initiative designed by the Taipei SXP team in the city’s first Elevation. In the first weeks of the semester, on the night of Taiwan’s presidential elections, groups of 2-3 students were paired with families around Taipei to eat dinner and watch the election results, many of them at those families’ homes. This was hugely successful, allowing students to connect to locals with diverse perspectives on Taiwanese politics and society as well as a window into home and family life in Taipei. Several students stayed in touch with their families and spent more time with them as the semester went on, including for the Lunar New Year holiday. Additionally, in the same semester, Minerva’s partnership with National Taiwan University provided students with programming and infrastructure to connect with locals their age for the first time in their four years at Minerva. Many students have found it easier to build friendships with local students—their peers—than with local professionals—and these friendships allow them to learn about the city, country, and culture through a more empathetic and personal lens than they may have otherwise.
Add or plan to add a city in Africa to the global rotation
There is a significant debate across multiple sectors of the Minerva community over whether the seven/city model should remain at all. Many factors—including depth of immersion, climate emissions, psychological stress and wellness, and cost, among others—are involved in this discussion and they are each complex. For this reason, along with the administration’s repeated assurance that they do not plan to change the seven-city model anytime soon, I don’t take a position here on whether four, seven, or any other number of cities should be included in Minerva’s rotation. This question is both fundamental to Minerva’s model (my project is reform, not revolution) and would require significantly greater discussion of the science of well-being than I have space or time for. For the purpose of this paper, Minerva has a seven-city model and will likely continue to for the time being.
It is also unlikely that Minerva will change which cities those are in the immediate future; however, my analysis would be incomplete without clear acknowledgment that, as one African student wrote on a Facebook thread, “until students live in a city in an African country, there is no ‘global rotation’ at Minerva.” Missing an entire continent—a continent that brings multiple unique and rich histories and incalculable cultural contributions to the world, and that is experiencing massive economic and political changes in this century—creates both an incomplete picture of the world and a harmful invalidation to students from that continent. It reinforces the extractive and exploitative lens through which Minerva often sees culture, especially those cultures which are globally marginalized. In some moments, Minerva staff and administration have acknowledged that African cities are excluded from the rotation because they are generally considered less globally relevant than major cities in other regions, with fewer prestigious jobs or connections to serve students’ careers (Personal interview, 2019). An article by Ben Nelson posted on the Minerva Community Portal justifies the current global rotation, claiming that the administration “evaluated Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durbin [sic]—eliminated because of high violent crime rates—and did a site visit to Accra as well as Dakkar [sic]—eliminated due to unstable infrastructure. Kigali continues to increase in global prominence and may be ready in a few years to be considered as part of the rotation.”11 The word “ready” here, without clarification—does it refer to infrastructural development? Global recognizability? Economic development?—comes off as condescending. Minerva faces certain constraints in its first years of operation that it, hopefully, will not later on. The extremely vulnerable reputation of a new institution provides certain risks, and Minerva has responded to those by doubling down on the priorities of safety and, to a potentially lesser extent, global prominence in its search for the ideal rotation. If Minerva is currently concerned by the safety and prominence “risks” presented by sending students to an African city, the issue is not whether these cities are “ready to be considered” for the rotation but if Minerva is ready to consider them. If the answer is no, then the institution should present not just a vague consideration but a comprehensive and transparent plan that focuses on its own, not just the cities’, constraints and accounts for when they anticipate those constraints to fall away or be solved.
Students have speculated that another factor in excluding Africa from the global rotation is fear of the associations the continent holds for funders or parents—perceptions of political turmoil and crime. These perceptions are grounded in racism, and the only way to change them is to push back with action—to treat Africa as the relevant, innovative, and culturally rich region it is. However, a city in Africa is not just a good-to-have-maybe-someday-ideal scenario: it is essential for students to have a complete picture of the way the world works today and in the future (McKenna, 2017). In a global political moment where the U.S. President writes off African nations as “shithole countries” as a justification for limiting immigration, it is more important than ever that other institutions, higher education included, counter this narrative in both words and action.
Minerva has this obligation not only as an institution that claims to produce global citizens and leaders, but also as an institution that owes respect and care to its African students. There is an important value of each global rotation city to the students for whom that place is closest to home. There is a convenience value—for Asian students, the Seoul, Taipei, and Hyderabad semesters can mean being able to return home for breaks, holidays, and family events, sometimes for the first time since beginning Minerva. There is a cultural value—many Latin American students get to use their native language in Buenos Aires for the first time in years, navigating streets and food and culture that feels somewhat if not closely familiar. And there is the value of validation—students from the United States and Europe are told through the simple existence of the semesters in San Francisco, Berlin, and London that the regions they come from are important; that they are where decisions are made and where innovation happens; that future leaders and global citizens must learn from and about them. When Africa is selectively written off as less globally important, less safe, less essential to cultural learning than every other region, that is not only an untrue centering of tired Western narratives, but it is also disrespectful to the students who come from African countries and call them home.
If every major African city is really out of the picture right now due to insurmountable logistical challenges such as crime rates or infrastructure, Minerva should regardless express a strong intention to consistently re-evaluate and account for these barriers and should announce its plan for doing so. At the very least, the school must acknowledge that the global rotation is not complete without an African city and commit to making every effort to change this as soon as it is feasible.
Add or plan to add a semester or shorter program in a rural area to the global rotation
In addition to (and separate from) the value of an African city, I also advocate for the inclusion of a rural semester in the global rotation. This seems unlikely in Minerva’s current system, which is literally shorthanded the “7-cities model.” But global politics, culture, and society are all becoming less about where in the world you live and more about whether it’s a major city. An intensifying urban-rural divide has shaken political and social systems to their core around the world. Cultural change impacts cities and rural areas very differently; the challenges facing each are drastically different, and important; and yet Minerva students have extremely limited exposure to rural lifestyles and culture in any of the seven global rotation cities. Even a weeklong co-curricular retreat in one or more rotation cities, or a summer learning opportunity, could go a long way to helping students learn about a critical dimension of cultural diversity (and help students from rural communities see their university give credit to that component of their identity).
In closing his article on the global rotation, Ben Nelson writes “Minerva is designed for a very select group of individuals—ones trained to make decisions of consequence, decisions that will impact the lives of others more than they will impact their own. The imperative to optimize your capacity for critical wisdom is paramount and for that transfer is key.” Transfer to African and to rural contexts is key also.
My research and analysis here, coupled with my conceptual framework, have led me to this point: of advocating for a critical approach to culture that takes into account complex sociopolitical and historical factors and educates students in the ethics of culture as well as the technicalities. To create well-rounded students—students who can become thoughtful and innovative global leaders in a variety of disciplines—Minerva must lean into, not away from, the challenges and complexities of culture.
This paper has largely been about the challenges Minerva has faced in building a pedagogy that reaches its potential for intercultural development. My goal has been to identify Minerva’s admirable (and necessary) aspiration toward building global citizens and to point out some of the blind spots and failures the institution has dealt with along the way. In this, I worry I may have under-reported some of the incredible opportunities and success stories of culture at Minerva. In the conversations that helped me prepare this analysis, I was often blown away and inspired by how students described the strength of relationships they have built at Minerva; the internal and interpersonal conflicts they have resolved; the growth they have experienced through the global rotation. That close friendships have been built across powerful cultural and political divides—across tensions between India and Pakistan; left-wing and right-wing; Christian, Muslim, and atheist.
These stories and countless others illustrate the powerful potential for connection and growth that Minerva’s community and global rotation provides to students. However, something I have heard and observed over and over again is that when it comes to intercultural development, like many other aspects of a Minerva education, “you get out what you put in.” Deep, impactful cross-cultural engagement is definitely possible at Minerva. But it isn’t universal, and it isn’t expected. Yet. Students have had to seek out and work through this kind of growth themselves, largely without consistent institutional support. If Minerva hopes to create 21st century leaders and citizens who are capable of having a positive impact on the world, it can’t be possible to opt out of intercultural development. Intercultural competence and consciousness cannot be an optional part of a Minerva education; if it is, many students will continue to walk through these four years—and their lives beyond—creating harm for those around them and who are impacted by their decisions. This Capstone is designed to be the start, not the product, of a large-scale institutional conversation about who we are, where we come from, what we value, and how we can move forward—with connection and intention—to nurture ever-more-thoughtful levels of critical wisdom, for the sake of the world
This paper was based on twelve formal interviews with members of each Minerva class and staff as well as countless informal conversations and interactions. All individuals remain nameless to preserve anonymity.
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