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Global Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Learning
Learning through engagement with difference—discovering meaning by comparing and contrasting beliefs, values, and cultures—is essential to liberal learning in a diverse society. As a small liberal arts institution, Susquehanna University long had a traditional core curriculum to ensure that all graduates experienced a breadth of disciplines beyond their major fields of study. But in the early 2000s, significant transformation began to occur at Susquehanna, influenced by two currents converging across higher education: a growing awareness of the indispensable nature of learning through the exploration of difference, and a burgeoning understanding of the necessity and benefits of a robust assessment program.
In 2003, Susquehanna faculty and administrators were dismayed to see that our students’ scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) were generally low for questions dealing with difference, whether those questions addressed students’ experiences working with others different from themselves or incorporating diverse viewpoints into their work. Worse, these numbers seemed to decline over students’ four years on campus. We all knew students who reported that they had come to Susquehanna because it offered a comfortable environment, similar to that of their hometowns. These anecdotal reports suggested that avoidance of difference was valued by at least some students, and that we were not successfully challenging those students—even though we were working hard to create a more inclusive and diverse campus, and Susquehanna was in many ways already the most diverse spot in our homogenous, rural area of Pennsylvania.
Faced with this reality, a group of faculty colleagues identified the practice of getting all students off campus to engage with others cross-culturally as a way of ensuring that they stepped out of their comfort zones and engaged with difference. In our earliest conversations, we talked about study abroad as a way of achieving this goal, but we quickly realized that our aims were more about helping students experience cultural difference than about ensuring that they crossed national borders.
At about the same time as these discussions, we were beginning our self-study for decennial reaccreditation, which President L. Jay Lemons had linked to a full year of campus-wide strategic planning. One outcome was the decision to create a set of university-wide learning goals, upon which we would build a comprehensive assessment program. The strategic planning process also led the faculty to develop a new central curriculum linked directly to university learning goals, which was adopted through a full faculty vote in 2008. Within that revision, the cross-cultural experience requirement was seen as a means for students to achieve several university learning goals focused on exploring different beliefs and values, addressing complex and sometimes ambiguous problems, and other areas of practice (Susquehanna 2016a, 2016b).
Cross-Cultural Experience Requirement
All Susquehanna students complete the cross-cultural experience requirement by selecting one of three Global Opportunities (GO) options. All three options include a cross-cultural immersion experience, which runs for a minimum of two weeks and is embedded in preparatory and reflective course work on campus. The majority of our students, 55 to 60 percent, participate in GO Short programs, all three components of which are designed entirely by our faculty. They begin with a seven-week (one credit) predeparture course to prepare students for intercultural learning and introduce the culture of the communities they will visit. Students and program directors then work and study on location for two to six weeks during winter or summer break. The group meets for another (one credit) seven-week course during the semester after their travels to reflect on their shared experience, discussing how to build on it in terms of both becoming global citizens and furthering their academic and career development.
Although GO Short programs are commonly referred to as “faculty led,” we encourage both faculty and staff members to serve as program directors. Each program has at least two directors, and in many cases programs are codirected and cotaught by one faculty member and one staff member. These directors lead the programs and assign grades, but they also facilitate the development of student–teacher relationships across another important layer of difference. Traveling and learning together promotes a very different type of interaction than that of the typical classroom. While GO Short programs are courses and have particular topical foci, their primary thrust is on learning from the interactions we all (students and directors) have with the people we meet and get to know—that is, on what we can all learn from each other.
Critical Chances for Learning
The GO program is young and evolving, but through project-based learning and community-based research, it is providing critical opportunities for cross-cultural learning in short time frames. For example, GO Villandraut is a two-and-a-half-week program in May, primarily based at the archeological restoration site of a fourteenth-century chateau. In this program, ten to twelve students, two Susquehanna directors (including me), and eight to ten French volunteers work together, learning and practicing stonecutting and building using only fourteenth-century tools and techniques. Participants cook and eat together, spending hours at the same table getting to know one another. French is the official language of the worksite, but the French volunteers know that they will also have opportunities to speak English with US students. And while the restoration is fascinating work, it serves primarily as a vehicle for people from different cultural backgrounds to live and learn together, furthering the cross-cultural knowledge and skills of each group. In their reflection course following our travels, students describe insights into French cultural values related to work, the preservation of the past, food and dining practices, relationships to time, and more. They also demonstrate much greater awareness of some of their own cultural values. Other GO Short programs have included Sherpa Life and Culture, Travel Writing in South Africa, GalápaGOs, and many more.
Students can also choose other study away options, such as semester-long (GO Long) and noncredit (GO Your Own Way) opportunities, and the Susquehanna learning goals apply equally across these options. Volunteer experiences, internships, or research projects can count toward the requirement if they include cross-cultural immersion sufficient for students to make progress on the learning goals. Students have identified fascinating experiences that satisfy some of their own academic or personal goals, often at very little cost: work at a Native Hawaiian community organic farm, shark research with a South African team, a month living in Japan with a former high school exchange student's family, or study at a højskole (folk high school) in Denmark (described by Regan Breeden in this issue of Diversity & Democracy). Like GO Short students, students participating in GO Long or GO Your Own Way take preparatory and reflective courses; however, their course sections include students traveling to many different locations, as well as international students fulfilling the requirement with their time at Susquehanna. In these courses, students focus on developing intercultural skills so that they can maximize their time away. When they return to campus, they reflect on their own experiences, but also compare those experiences with the experiences of students who went elsewhere.
The directors of all faculty-led programs—overseas or domestic—must demonstrate that students who have completed their programs can meet Susquehanna’s cross-cultural learning goals. As Susquehanna courses, these programs are reviewed and approved by the curriculum committee. GO Long and GO Your Own Way programs are not designed by Susquehanna, so students in these programs must demonstrate in their proposals how they will accomplish the learning goals by participating in these programs. All students complete graded assignments in the pre- and post-experience classes, allowing instructors to measure their progress on cross-cultural learning goals. Additionally, each year the central curriculum committee assesses achievement of two selected learning goals across the program as a whole, using writing samples collected from a cross-section of courses. This programmatic assessment revealed the need to add a portfolio requirement to students’ on-site work in order to improve their reflective work after returning to campus. Students’ subjective responses to their experiences are also compelling: the majority of our graduates report that their cross-cultural experience was the best part of their Susquehanna education.
A Paradigm Shift
The cross-cultural experience requirement has caused a real paradigm shift on our campus. In our NSSE data, our seniors now report more interaction with difference than do our first-year students. But other, more substantive changes have occurred as well. Instead of focusing on traditional study abroad—international experiences that are typically available to students with the best grades and the ability to pay—we focus on cross-cultural learning for all.
The implications of this philosophy are significant. As noted in the New York Times, Susquehanna is a leader in economic diversity among students (Leonhardt 2014). GO can have a positive impact on any student, but it is enormously powerful for students who would otherwise never own a passport. Because the cross-cultural experience is a curricular requirement, substantial financial aid supports students with demonstrated need, no matter which option they choose. Since adopting the requirement, Susquehanna also has experienced notable growth in the number of non-white and international students. We are becoming a more cross-culturally aware campus as we are becoming a more diverse campus, although more study is needed to establish a link between these trends.
One of the most important measures of success will be seen in the outcomes of our graduates. Just four graduating classes have fulfilled the requirement, but increasing numbers of students are pursuing postgraduate fellowships and service, attending graduate programs overseas, and finding employers who value their cross-cultural skills and global experience. We plan a full review at five years out. Stay tuned.
Leonhardt, David. 2014. “Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class, and Poor.” New York Times, September 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/upshot/top-colleges-that-enroll-rich-middle-class-and-poor.html.
Susquehanna University. 2016a. “About SU.” https://www.susqu.edu/about-su.
——— . 2016b. “About the Office of Cross-Cultural Programs.” https://www.susqu.edu/academics/study-abroad/about-the-office-of-cross-cultural-programs.
Scott Manning is dean of global programs at Susquehanna University.