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Integration vs. Inclusion & Cross-Cultural Competency on Campus


So, you have international students on campus. . . now what? We all know that the work doesn’t stop there. Your colleagues must have the tools and resources available to help students adjust both socially and culturally into campus life. 

As educators, we always strive to promote global awareness and perspective, but sometimes it can be difficult to foster this development on our own campuses. Questions that need to be asked every year—do we give students opportunities to interact across social and cultural backgrounds in all aspects of campus life? In the classroom, are there ways to foster greater inclusion with curricula and team assignments? In the end, are we producing alumni who are culturally literate and effective in a global workforce?

Achieving long-term institutional success through internationalization requires organizing on-campus resources to facilitate the types of interactions that open minds and build cross-cultural competencies. With supply chains, basic communication and daily business interactions in all industries going global, graduates entering the workforce need cross cultural perspective and skills. They need to be comfortable working with and managing a diverse set of colleagues. The universities that "get" this will produce more effective and powerful alumni.

This is a topic that has been discussed for years at NAFSA, AIEA and other higher education forums, so we wanted to highlight some of the best practical solutions that we have heard, read and discussed with higher education experts. As we take our regular summer hiatus from posting to this blog, we thought this discussion on integration and inclusion would send us off on a positive note. We hope that you will take the opportunity to join us at the NACAC conference in Boston this September or at NAFSA Regional in Princeton, New Jersey this October! We will be offering up some great new research on international student trends and the digital tools that help you reach them.

Read on for a selection of innovative tips & techniques for achieving inclusion on campus and fostering cross-cultural competency...

“[A] campus cannot simply recruit a critical mass of international students; it must also intentionally arrange its resources so that international and American students benefit in desired ways from one another’s presence.”  (Zhao, Kuh, and Carini 2005)

There are many different definitions of integration vs. inclusion, so let’s clarify how we will refer to them in this post. As a U.S. institution, you likely find yourself facing challenges that include a natural segmentation of ethnic and cultural groups on campus. This often brings with it no ill will or intentional discrimination, rather a natural gravitation towards one’s own traditions and cultural norms that bring comfort and a sense of familiarity. You likely see this on a daily basis as you wander across campus—a group of Americans here, a group of Chinese students there, students from Nigeria over there and then there is the group of Koreans and another of Saudis. For the purpose of this blog, this is what we will refer to as “integration.” Your international students are present and welcome on campus, but a degree of segmentation remains. There is still work to be done.

For the purposes of this discussion, “inclusion” means that your international students are present and active in all facets of campus life, mingling and forming friendships with domestic and other international students. This may not happen naturally at your institution. A 2013 study by Jiali Luo and David Jamieson-Drake uncovered that “22–25% of U.S. students in recent cohorts indicated having none or little international interaction.” 

We all know that a globally focused curriculum can raise awareness around issues of international concern and open minds to other ways of life, but there is only so much to be learned in the classroom if these interactions are not happening in real life. This begs the question—what are best practices for bringing everyone together?

For many international students, a sense of belonging can be key to feeling at home and comfortable on your campus. Inclusion and comfort lead to student success and retention. Culture shock is very real and can be damaging both to the international student experience and your reputation (think about it—what are they saying to their friends and family?), if it is not managed effectively. This means creating opportunities for your international students to engage with a supportive social and academic community. When your students are engaged and happy, they will build more positive word of mouth for your institution, both in their home country and locally.

Peer-to-Peer Programs

1-to-1 opportunities like mentorship and ambassador programs can help to facilitate meaningful relationships between incoming international students and your current students. While building intercultural friendships, this type of program also gives international students a go-to support structure to ensure that they never feel alone or isolated as they transition into life on campus.

Some important considerations when thinking about implementing a peer-to-peer support program, as recommended by the American Council on Education (ACE) are:

  • How does the institution recruit and screen those who serve as peers? Are returning international and domestic students both eligible to serve as peers? Staff and faculty?
  • Are peers compensated? Are other student leadership positions on campus compensated? If yes, how is that perceived by international students?
  • What training is offered to peers? Do they have international experience, and are they equipped to navigate cultural differences? Are they familiar with campus resources?

We find that Starbucks cards and pizza coupons as part of the program go a long way in bringing people together with little expense.

And if you are looking for deep knowledge of cross cultural competency training to develop skills on your campus, we highly recommend you take a look at Sentio, a relatively new program developed by AFS Intercultural Programs. Intead is proud to have played a small role in supporting AFS as they developed, named and branded this new program.

Below we expand on a few ideas from ACE and other U.S. academic institutions. 

Campus Events

On-campus cultural events can allow your students both to celebrate their own cultural background and establish a sense of community, but also to share their culture with other international and domestic students. This sense of shared tradition can build awareness and acceptance, particularly among domestic students who may not have been exposed to other ways of living. Often, getting domestic students to attend these events can be a challenge. Finding ways to build inclusion here is really important and valuable. 

Debates on issues of global interest are another opportunity to bring your community together through shared interests and passions. By discussing topics that will spur debate without creating too much friction or division, you can help your students gain exposure to different opinions, perspectives and emotions. These experiences translate directly to effective workplace practices.

Living-Learning Communities

Creating communities where both international and domestic students can live and work together in an environment that facilitates interaction on a continuous, day-to-day basis can provide a base for long-term intercultural acceptance.

This inclusion effort can also include community-based intercultural workshops (keep it short—45 minutes to 1 hour) where students are encouraged to share their perspectives or perform tasks and complete challenges in intercultural groups. By working through differences in practical settings, where opposing views are explained and accepted, students can learn to work together across social and cultural boundaries. These experiences also provide graduates with great stories to share during job interviews. 

Language Exchange/Conversation Partners

Volunteer language exchange programs can be ideal opportunities to bring together native English speakers with their ESL counterparts and facilitate an interchange of knowledge and ideas, as well as build practical language skills that will benefit your students in the classroom. American University has a language program that matches language learners through shared interests and fosters cultural competency. Another opportunity to provide students with Starbucks cards --> happy connections developed at low cost. Who knows, your native English speakers may even pick up a few words of another language. Let’s hope!

Community Service Opportunities

Community Service can be an ideal way to help your international students connect with the local community, build relationships and provide a sense of purpose and belonging.  Giving back to the community can build strong bonds both with their fellow domestic students and other members of the community outside of campus. Shared projects and achievements are a great way to build human connections in any setting.

These practices speak to a holistic learning environment that builds successful careers. Our work is incredibly important as we bring global perspectives and cultural awareness to millions of students across the country and around the world. Thank you for taking this journey with us. Have a great summer. You'll see us here on this blog again in September!