06 Jan 2016

How to build intercultural interaction

Brazil-exchangeInternationalisation at Home (IaH) aims to give all students intercultural and international competences. The majority of college students don’t have the opportunity to travel. Students that do get to travel often fail to develop relationships with local students. International students are, in many ways, an untapped resource for IaH. Designing programmes that foster intercultural interaction is a challenge, especially in short-term programmes where international students do not have fluency in the host country language, where home-stay is not feasible, and where international students are not enrolled in regular courses.   

A partnership

In our partnership, between Illinois State University (ISU) and the University of Caxias do Sul (UCS), we sought to design a programme that could benefit both communities through specific intercultural teaching and learning activities, and connections with the local community. We achieved this through a month-long study-abroad experience of American ISU students in the UCS campus.

Illinois State is a large (over 20 000 students) comprehensive public university; UCS is a multi-campus non-profit private institution that enrols 35 000 students and is focused on professional education to serve the needs of the community. Although the institutions are quite different, they share the characteristics of serving predominantly undergraduate students, and of being provincial institutions of regional importance. In both cases, internationalisation has focused primarily on student mobility – especially attracting students from abroad.

The student exchange agreement developed between ISU and UCS[i] required substantial coordination between the Brazil Program Director and the UCS International Programs Director. Hunter is an anthropologist affiliated with the Ethnography of the University Initiative (www.eui.illinois.edu), which fosters student research on their own institutions. For the month-long study abroad, ISU students used ethnographic research methods to explore various themes relevant to student life at UCS. During the day, the American students took courses in ethnographic research methods and ‘Brazilian society and culture’. As part of these sessions, Stallivieri and her staff coordinated with UCS professors to provide guest lectures in English or Portuguese (with an interpreter). In the evenings, when most UCS classes are offered, American students participated in UCS English and International Business courses. The content and format of these courses varied depending on the interests of the UCS faculty and the curriculum.

Intercultural interaction

During introductory sessions, ISU students prepared a brief presentation about Illinois State and themselves.  Brazilian students then introduced themselves and asked questions about the American students’ presentations. These introductory sessions served as opportunities to breakdown stereotypes of American college life as seen in Hollywood movies and of Brazil as the land of (only) soccer and beaches. Introductory sessions were followed up with discussion groups on specific topics.

Each year, ISU students had one theme to explore ethnographically. In 2007, the guiding theme was ‘being a college student in Brazil’. Course work and guest speakers focused on regional history and culture, the structure of the education system, the financing of higher education in Brazil, and the socio-demographic profile of UCS students. During evening sessions with UCS students, ISU students conducted interviews with Brazilian students about their everyday routines, gender relations, work experiences, and career aspirations.  These discussions took place in English and served as opportunities for Brazilian language learners to practice English with native speakers.

In 2011, ISU students focused on UCS within the larger Caxias do Sul community. Caxias do Sul was founded as an Italian immigrant colony and the salience of Italian ethnicity remains very strong, alongside public discussions of race and racism. In course-work, conversations and debates, students learned about the distinct histories of race, ethnicity and colour in the USA and in Brazil.  UCS and ISU students worked in mixed groups to debate issues such as affirmative action policies in businesses and universities. As a result, ISU students’ final reports from the month showed an understanding of historical forces and local perspectives.

Benefits and challenges

Our month-long programmes provided structured spaces for international and domestic students to express their ideas, beliefs, and habits.  Both study abroad programmes resulted in meaningful dialogue between domestic and international students, where conversation and exchange continued beyond the classroom. In both sessions, despite intense debate, friendships developed between many American and Brazilian students. ISU students spent most of their time in the company of UCS students at campus and social events.

Certainly, effective integration in a programme such as ours presents a number of organisational challenges and coordinated efforts. The reward of such efforts for our institutions was meaningful integration and achieving our universities’ greater international missions to prepare students as citizens to act in an interconnected, intercultural, and globalised world.

Gina is Associate Professor in Anthropology at Illinois State University, USA and Luciane is International Programs Director at Universidade de Caxias do Sul, Brazil.

[i] Observing reciprocity principles and balancing the numbers of students in mobility, the student exchange agreement between ISU and UCS allowed 1–2 UCS students to enrol at ISU for semester or year-long stays while UCS offered programming for a small group of ISU students for 1 month. Three ISU students travelled the in 2007; five in 2011. The direct exchange of students was not possible because ISU students generally do not have fluency in Portuguese. In fact, Portuguese courses were not offered at ISU at the time of this programme.

  • Laura

    This is a wonderful program! Thanks for
    the insights! Where can I read more about this initiative, for example about
    the most current exchange program 2015 or 2016 but also about how it all
    started? Who was the difference maker behind such initiative? I’ve just
    finished reading David Sturt’s inspiring book “Great Work” (O.C.
    Tanner Institute) about difference makers capturing great work that people and
    organizations have done. The book contains the Newcomb School (NY) success
    story about bringing international students to the school in order to stop its
    shrinking enrollment. Anyway, after reading that story and the article here I
    am even more excited to continue working on a plan/program to connect American
    with Romanian students, to encourage their cultural exchange and social
    experience. I would probably want to focus on athletes. The location in Romania
    that I am thinking of is an “underdog”. It is my hometown where
    German, Romanian, and Hungarian ethnic groups live. A great mix full of benefits
    for American students and also for Romanian students I believe! In addition,
    wouldn’t it be great if such a program helps the revival of the groups’
    collective identity?

    • Gina

      Hello Laura!
      Thanks for your comment! Your idea for an exchange
      program in Romania sounds excellent. YES, I think that study abroad is a
      moment when collective identities come to the fore–in both positive
      ways, and negative. For this reason, leadership is important! In our
      program, Luciane Stallivieri was certainly a difference maker. As
      Director of International Programs at UCS, she was able to get others
      “on board” with our program so that our students were welcomed into
      classrooms and had access to other student activities. We also guided
      students through discusses and activities on race, ethnicity and
      identity. Intercultural communication and understanding doesn’t just
      happen when diverse groups of students get together–it must be
      engineered. Students learn to think, talk, and work through differences
      when they have a comment project, goal, or activity.
      Good luck with your program!