Cultural competence refers to both “intercultural competence” – long a staple outcome of study abroad programs – as well as competent understanding of your own cultural biases. The root of cultural competence is the ability to communicate and work together effectively across cultures. This requires understanding and empathy of the other as well as a critical examination of one’s own background and biases.
According to a 2015 American Association of Colleges and University survey, over 75% of employers specifically value intercultural communication ability. However, study abroad and exchange programs give you more than understanding of their host culture; they teach you how to learn to understand a new culture, which is a skill that can be used to adapt to a variety of cultures or even differing views in your home country. The ability to solve problems with people who have differing views is valued by 96% of employers.
Not that studying abroad is all about improving a resume – these same skills carry over to benefit everyday life:
Cultural Competence begins with students understanding their own background and how that affects the way they look at others. Study abroad program surveys consistently show that students are surprised to realize how much their time abroad has taught them about themselves. This understanding grows from direct contact and conversation with other international students as well as local students about culture, stereotypes, and shared concerns.
The skills students practice in critically examining their own culture will pay dividends not only in intercultural situations, but also in any environment that calls for a resolution between two differing perspectives.
Factors that affect ranking for this sub-benefit include:
- Diversity of international student body
- Size of campus and classes (smaller is better)
- Opportunities for international students to present on their home countries/cultures
As stated above, the most important aspect of cultural competence is not understanding a foreign culture – it is not going to France for a year and coming home with a better understanding of France. The important skill is learning the process of coming to understand another culture and being able to apply that in the future. In the previous example, the outcome would be the ability to leverage the memory of coming to understand French culture and apply that learning model to Russia, India, or even a future mother-in-law.
Even more so than the case above, developing the ability to understand other cultures depends on meaningful contact. Universities that perform well for this sub-benefit are those that bring students from a variety of backgrounds together and facilitate deep and meaningful relationships through means such as:
- Shared, on-campus housing
- Small classes that integrate international and local students
- Offering study, recreation, and athletic facilities on campus to promote natural interaction
It is a recurring theme in the element of Cultural Competence: the ability to function in intercultural environments is a benefit to students who will work and study abroad in the future as well as those who never leave home again. This outcome builds on the previous two – understanding one’s own culture and learning to understand another – and adds the ability to take action, even in unknown situations.
While at first glance, it would seem that this outcome could be assumed, not all study abroad destinations provide a truly multicultural experience. Particularly in the case with schools that have branch campuses overseas or programs administered by their own faculty, students could study “abroad” without leaving their own cultural confines.
Beyond integrating international students (from multiple countries) and local students in classes and activities, universities can take steps to promote this outcome by:
- Offering work or internship opportunities, especially off-campus
- Reserving leadership positions (student government, RAs, club leadership) for international students
- Offering Project-Based Learning courses for international and local students, focused on real, local issues
Almost every “What I got out of my study abroad” blog will mention “make friends from around the world” as one of the top, if not the top, benefit of their study abroad. The friends made abroad, as well as the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds, is undoubtedly one of the most personally satisfying benefits of the study abroad experience. A personal connection that transcends cultural boundaries not only strengthens the outcomes above, but also ensures that the cultural competence benefits of studying abroad will carry on through continued contact after students return home.
To help students who are at risk of not achieving this outcome on their own (e.g. shy, introverted, homesick, or those with communication disorders), universities can facilitate one-on-one and small group interaction through programs such as:
- Buddy programs for international students
- Short- or long-term homestays
- Encouraging international student participation in clubs
Interaction is Key
The Cultural competence benefit can be connected directly to the quality, quantity, and variety of intercultural interaction opportunities that study abroad programs offer to their students. While it is impossible to ensure that every student will take advantage of the opportunities available, the more chances there are for interaction, the better chance that students will find something that suits their interest and helps them find their place in the community.
For students who struggle to make friends or approach new people, the best places to study abroad will be those universities that go out of their way to facilitate relationships and interaction.