A conversation with Professor Richard E. Rodman, PhD
By Jessica Bashford
Our networked world has increased our ability to engage with people and events across borders, and we can do so in more ways than ever before, both virtually and face-toface. It is truly exciting that more than ever, individuals of all ages are going abroad to experience and learn about themselves, meet new people, and encounter new ideas firsthand.
As educators, we know that immersion in fresh and different cross-cultural situations can result in remarkable, transformational growth.
Last summer, Oak Meadow student Rachel Wood participated in a high school exchange program to Europe, which she summed up as follows:
"My summer journey to France and Spain was eyeopening and wondrous. I traveled with a diverse group of extraordinary people, who not only shared my passion for learning, but also encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in the adventure. My exposure to the culture and lifestyles of the French and Spanish people has educated and inspired me more than any French class."1
Meaningful intercultural experiences can lead to enhanced wellbeing, confidence, and self-esteem. They can provide a learner with new perspectives in which to contemplate the global challenges facing us and can result in heightened intellectual curiosity about a culture or country very different from our own. Research suggests that the greater the cultural difference of the experience and situation, the greater the psychological intensity, and that's a good thing due to the amount of learning that can result. 2
Importantly, intercultural experience can also equip our learners with key global competencies.
Our world is an interconnected place. We know, for better or worse, that developments in one place regularly affect a community and culture on the other side of the globe. We are "living" globalization: economically, culturally, socially, politically, and educationally.
In today's environment, intercultural skills have become a tool to success valued on resumes, college applications, and job applications. Language skills, for example, not only open up unique avenues to self-awareness and reflection but also provide a means in which to understand expressions of difference and navigate unfamiliar situations. If you can communicate in another language, you are by definition transported to another starting point, a place in which you must utilize more than just the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of the "other". Intercultural engagement opens up a whole new poetic lexicon. It means learning how to adapt on unfamiliar ground.
This process of adaptation results in something very exciting, which international educators commonly refer to as "third-culture" building.3 Third-culture building is what occurs when two individuals from different cultures get together in a way that requires constructing a middle ground. Both individuals have to find ways to accommodate one another and seek out commonalities. This has the potential to increase sensitivities and broaden perspectives on both sides if the encounter is done in a meaningful way. That's where truly fresh education can begin and, importantly, where mentorship comes in.
We know that learners have varied needs, particularly at different stages in their lives. As parents, teachers, and facilitators, we can find creative ways to promote intercultural engagement in a way that is a good fit for the child and the family at that time in their lives.
Fortunately, there's a variety of ways to engage with another culture in a meaningful way; intercultural programs have taken on many shapes and models, including individual and group service-learning experiences, short- and longterm homestay programs, academic tours, adventure education, and direct enrollment in schools abroad. In recent years, literally thousands of American families have opened their homes to international students. Active intercultural engagement is a two-way street.
Giving learners meaningful opportunities to learn about a culture through active experimentation and direct engagement can be challenging, eye-opening, empowering, and exceptionally fun. Activities could include preparing a traditional dish of cultural importance with a host family member; celebrating a cultural holiday with an exchange student; or discovering another country's ecological treasures by exploring them together with local, in-country partners.
Homeschooled students have wonderful opportunities to integrate their learning at home with truly transformative experiences outside a traditional classroom setting. This varied learning environment can expand not only how our students see the world but also how they see themselves in the world.
We know that direct engagement is imperative: Individuals will internalize the learning in more meaningful ways through direct experience, and this is particularly true for a young person still developing.
Done right, intercultural experience leads to profound, transformational growth. It provides learners with critical tools highly valued in today's global environment, and it fosters the type of interpersonal, cross-cultural relationship-building our world needs. For their future roles as diplomats, business leaders, sojourners, and private individuals, intercultural experience is about practically preparing all of our students to be more compassionate and informed global citizens.
Dr. Rodman is a professor of international education at SIT Graduate Institute.
Jessica Bashford is writer/editor for SIT Graduate Institute, SIT Study Abroad, and The Experiment in International Living, programs of World Learning.