Diversity and Democracy

Intercultural Experiential Learning for the Engaged Global Citizen

Diversity work often supports the important goal of creating a meaningful presence for underrepresented identities on our campuses, in our programs, and in our disciplines. But diversity education is about more than critical mass. As diversity practitioners, we want our students to value the strengths that arise from their differences, both within and between groups, rather than rely on the superficial similarities that might bind them together. We want our students to be able to engage meaningfully with diversity: to identify and express discomfort, share their familiar home cultures, and listen for understanding across difference. We want our students to be able to work as teams, bonding on the basis of common goals rather than common identities, and combining their diverse perspectives to produce complex knowledge.

Experiential practice is the most effective way for students to develop and fully appreciate these skills. In the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) program at the University of Michigan, we place diverse teams of students and faculty in culturally vibrant and distinctive settings, where they collaborate on projects that facilitate close engagement and intercultural exchange. Like the anesthesiologists, surgeons, and nurses whose unique and overlapping skills convene in the operating room, or the forwards, centers, and defense players on an athletic field, our students and faculty learn to coordinate the multiple strengths they bring to the team.

Setting the Framework

The faculty and staff of the University of Michigan began the GIEU program with ambitious goals. In effect, we took up the challenge of making some oft-used buzz phrases—“global university” and “global education”—a reality for our students. We wanted students and faculty to internalize intercultural global exchange and integrate its lessons into their varied goals, career trajectories, and identities, creating positive impacts on community sites and lasting effects on campus. We also wanted to involve a far more diverse range of students and faculty than usually participate in field study.

We decided at the outset to require students to apply to the GIEU program without specific field sites in mind. Thus students enter the program with open minds and flexible expectations. We also require faculty members to move out of their comfort zones and accept students from a wide variety of majors and backgrounds. In creating teams, the only common identity we assume is affiliation with the University of Michigan. Our approach dramatically broadens the scope of what might be “foreign” to participants while particularizing what might be “familiar” to each individual. We thus challenge the stereotypes and assumptions our fast-paced world encourages, leading our students and faculty to reflect, rather than react, as they develop relationships with each other and with members of host communities.


Before, During, and After: The Elements of Sustained Learning

The GIEU program is structured as a paid internship surrounded by a credit-bearing course that includes pretravel preparation and post-travel debriefing exercises. In the semester before heading to the field, students take pretravel classes that prepare them through several exercises to observe and be effective in unfamiliar contexts. One exercise requires pairs of students to attend an unfamiliar religious service with minimal advance instructions. We want students to concentrate on the experience of becoming self-aware within a culture, not note-taking and conventional learning, so we ask that they choose services unrelated to their planned field experience. After their visits, students make a brief presentation to the group, which often includes members of the “unfamiliar” culture. The group then discusses the deep emotional work involved in this kind of exchange. This exercise helps to make the “familiar” (Ann Arbor) unfamiliar to students, allowing them to find the diversity in their everyday surroundings. Field teams also learn about their specific sites as part of the prep course.

The heart of the program is a three- or four-week field study that takes place over the summer and consists of a paid internship that does not incur tuition (opening participation to students who might otherwise face financial barriers). Team members fan out in homestays and local internships or collaborate on projects with local partners. Because the nature of field experiences ranges widely, students develop multiple perspectives about local conditions that they then share with each other. Each project serves a clear purpose within the local community, creating a far more natural context for intercultural exchange than that of academic tourism, where students visit a location solely to study the local culture. Team projects allow students to practice their intercultural skills, address issues collectively, share experiences and expertise, and accomplish more than what any individual would be capable of on his or her own.

In the semester following the field experience, faculty and students reconvene in postexperience classes. Students compare their experiences across teams (contrasting homestays in Detroit to those in rural Thailand, for instance) and debrief within their teams. They interview each other and discuss the newfound strengths that arise in the interviews. Often, they surprise each other by drawing common insights from dramatically different experiences or learning vastly divergent lessons from the same field sites. Through this process, our students discover things about themselves they could not have realized alone or on an individuated field experience.

Expanding Intercultural Leadership

Our returning students and faculty have made an impact across the institution with new programs, new projects, and new courses both inside and outside the curriculum. Many participants plan return visits to field sites, where they implement longer-term projects, write senior theses, design new courses, and even create permanent spin-off programs. Their continued engagement and ongoing intercultural exchange demonstrates the depth of their learning and skill development. And because we target students in their first and second years and engage a different set of faculty leaders each year, the impact on campus extends far beyond the individuals who participate in the program.

Although we originally set out to prepare students for teamwork rather than leadership, our program results in significant leadership development. The diverse networks our students create through GIEU illustrate that they have developed the skills, comfort, and credibility to work with diverse groups of people. Students frequently tell us in their follow-up evaluations that if not for the GIEU program, they “would never have met those people”—meaning others at the University of Michigan. Our faculty members similarly state that the program has given them a unique opportunity to work with a diverse group of undergraduates from across the university.

In sum, the GIEU program cultivates an understanding of each person’s unique “home culture” that includes many intersections between different aspects of identity. It invites participants to follow those linkages to engagement both on and off campus. We encourage students to realize, articulate, reflect upon, and integrate the relationship between home and global culture throughout their lives, and we help them develop the skills to do so. Our students thus embody the diverse democracy of global citizenship by learning to be who they are with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

To read more about the GIEU program, visit www.gieu.umich.edu.

Facilitating Global Intercultural Exchange Throughout the World

The GIEU program organizes students in project teams working in vibrant and distinctive cultural contexts. Past experiences have included:

  • Helping middle school students in New Orleans express their Hurricane Katrina stories through the arts
  • Working with orphans through various agencies in Ethiopia
  • Training health educators who will disseminate an HIV-prevention and care module to low-literate populations across South Africa and Jamaica
  • Comparing work environments in companies with offices in Detroit and Shanghai

—A. T. Miller

A. T. Miller is the director of the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates and coordinator of Multicultural Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.

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