Diversity and Democracy

Working across Differences: A Necessity for Students, Employers, and Society

The ability to work effectively across difference—to engage authentically across cultures, identities, races, life experiences, and knowledge systems—is essential to student success in serving national aspirations, meeting employer demands, and addressing complex global challenges. Recognizing this, the University of Minnesota (UMN) includes among its formal learning and developmental objectives skills such as self-awareness, appreciation of differences, tolerance of ambiguity, and understanding of diverse philosophies and cultures.

UMN’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) developed the Working Across Difference Initiative (WADI) to meet these university-wide objectives and its own strategic priority of enhancing undergraduates’ multicultural and global competencies. WADI has three primary goals:

  • to prepare students to work across difference, engage in complex problem solving, and enter an increasingly diverse and globalized workforce;
  • to integrate culturally relevant course content and classroom strategies that reflect the needs and interests of diverse undergraduate students and address the unequal impacts of difference; and
  • to create, identify, and integrate best practices that help students develop intercultural and global competencies and an increased awareness of issues relating to diversity and social justice.

WADI aims to accomplish these goals by ensuring that all CFANS undergraduates, in each year of their education, take courses and participate in activities (e.g., study abroad and service learning) that intentionally incorporate multiple cultural perspectives in order to develop intercultural competency, learn about cultural difference, and recognize how difference frequently results in unequal impacts on peoples and communities.

Context for WADI

Current study abroad research (Vande Berg et al. 2009) challenges the long-held assumption that exposure to difference alone is sufficient to enhance intercultural competence: the development of “a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts” (Bennett 2008, 97). CFANS’s own research, conducted in collaboration with UMN’s Learning Abroad Center, has demonstrated that little positive intercultural development occurs through contact alone without the intentional implementation of intercultural competence goals and appropriate pedagogy. In response to these findings, CFANS developed a set of tools for faculty that have dramatically increased students’ intercultural learning while abroad. We are now seeking similar gains in intercultural learning with on-campus classes.

We see this work as intimately connected with our goal of creating an inclusive campus climate—traditionally the province of diversity offices that have long served as moral stewards for social justice and equity within US institutions of higher education, which have frequently exhibited histories of exclusion. Whether supporting historically underserved populations, new immigrant communities, or international students, or striving to cultivate greater understanding around gender expression, sexual orientation, gender equity, disability, and other aspects of identity, campuses—and our society—require broad awareness and understanding of how difference matters and adds value. The many identities our students embody must be acknowledged, empowered, and respected. This broad educational mission of valuing difference necessitates greater attention to the need for increased intercultural skill and understanding.

Finally, we are responding to employers’ stated needs. According to a UMN career center survey, intercultural competence is central to three of the top five skills that employers seek in new hires: the ability to “appreciate and interact with individuals different from themselves,” to “function as a member of a team,” and to employ “effective interpersonal communication skills.” Similarly, in a recent report commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 96 percent of surveyed employers agreed or strongly agreed that students of all majors “should have experiences in college that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own” (Hart Research Associates 2015, 4).

A Model for Faculty Engagement

WADI supports students, employers, and society by helping students develop a core skill set that is essential to the current and emerging needs of a pluralistic democracy and a global community. The initiative involves faculty in creating an intentional framework that scaffolds learning across the curriculum through pedagogical innovation and cocurricular opportunities. Participating faculty have integrated intercultural learning strategies into courses, programs, and engagement and service-learning partnerships.

Some faculty initially expressed hesitation to become involved in this work. They felt they were not adequately prepared to integrate intercultural learning content into their classes. In response to this concern, we invited early adopters to participate on an Intercultural Task Force that met regularly to lead the initiative and innovate classroom interventions. To build capacity and extend the task force’s impact, we developed the Teaching Across Difference (TAD) fellows program—a faculty mentorship cohort. This initiative offers the supportive environment of a mentor/cohort learning community facilitated by experienced faculty from the Intercultural Task Force and staff from the Center for Educational Innovation. In TAD’s first year, each of three faculty mentors is facilitating a cohort of six faculty members, involving eighteen newly engaged instructional faculty in developing classroom strategies to advance WADI.

Approximately 25 percent of CFANS instructional faculty are now engaged in WADI. These faculty are developing classroom strategies influenced by James Banks’s (2010) criteria for multicultural classrooms. They are employing case studies that reflect diverse perspectives on critical, discipline-specific issues; drafting explicit intercultural student learning outcomes to incorporate into their syllabi; inviting diverse speaker panels; and identifying highly engaging experiences in diverse communities. 

A Focus on Student Outcomes

Two years into WADI, curricular integration has reached over 50 percent of CFANS students, with more than thirty college courses (including freshman seminars, orientation classes, core courses within majors, and learning abroad classes) participating. Two CFANS majors (Food Systems and Agricultural Education) are aligning intercultural learning strategies across their curricula to meet the goal of offering at least one WADI-infused opportunity in each year of the major. While these successes are heartening, we continue to refine our efforts to broaden faculty involvement, expand our faculty resource toolkit, and develop online tutorials illustrating intercultural concepts for classroom use.

We employ the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to measure changes in students’ intercultural development. A valid and reliable instrument (Paige et al. 2003) developed by Mitch Hammer and Milton Bennett and based on Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), the IDI assesses an individual’s or group’s intercultural developmental stage. We augment IDI data with in-class surveys and continue to review the applicability of other tools and instruments for supporting our assessment needs.

Our research demonstrates that intentionally incorporating developmentally appropriate learning opportunities that engage difference and providing students with the requisite tools in targeted classes are key ways of building students’ skill in working across difference. Courses with highly integrated intercultural and diversity-infused content tend to produce gains in student intercultural development. The most successful courses typically incorporate several of the following approaches: case studies, reflective writing assignments, opportunities for students to approach issues from multiple perspectives, and service-learning experiences.

Student response to this initiative is overwhelmingly positive, with 87 percent of those surveyed agreeing that they have a better understanding of why intercultural competency matters; 81 percent indicating that they better understand how it applies to their major; and 88 percent stating that they can apply their learning to their own development. The ability to recognize differences and respond positively with skill, curiosity, and empathy is essential, and we must identify ways to infuse intercultural competency into our work as educators. WADI represents one effort to meet that demand.


Banks, James. 2010. “Multicultural Education: Characteristics and Goals.” In Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, edited by James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks, 3–26. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bennett, Janet M. 2008. “Transformative Training: Designing Programs for Culture Learning.” In Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence: Understanding and Utilizing Cultural Diversity to Build Successful Organizations, edited by Michael A. Moodian, 95–110. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Paige, R. Michael, Melody Jacobs-Cassuto, Yelena A Yershova, and Joan Dejaeghere. 2003. “Assessing Intercultural Sensitivity: An Empirical Analysis of the Hammer and Bennett Intercultural Development Inventory.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 27 (4): 467–86.

Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and R. Michael Paige. 2009. “The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 18: 1–75.

Michael White is associate dean in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota and Karl Lorenz is director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

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