Looking Back, Moving Forward: Intercultural Communication Must Be Part of All Learning

Intercultural communication is both a skill and an issue of global importance. It is not just needed “here” in the United States or “over there” beyond national borders but, rather, within all local, state, regional, national, international, and virtual spaces. Wherever effective intercultural communication occurs, the experience becomes a shared lesson for all, helping to promote prosocial values and behaviors in both domestic and international contexts.

Global learning is much more than the perceived notion of study abroad as a vacation. Rather, true global learning transforms all parts of a campus via shared experiences, critical conversations, and personal revelations, realized in the company of those who look, think, act, and believe differently than we do.

Through a strategic diversity initiative, Clemson University is focusing on developing the intercultural communication skills of its campus community, including all students, faculty, and staff. Conflict across cultures, both local and international, is grounded in the various worldviews and approaches to difference that we all take. The ability to recognize and to respond effectively and respectfully to difference is central to achieving our goal to become a stronger, more inclusive academic institution.

At Clemson, we believe that this intercultural work begins by improving communication and collaboration between several units, including those in which we work: the Office of Global Engagement, the Office of Inclusion and Equity, and the Division of Undergraduate Studies. At large institutions, units often pursue plans to foster intercultural communication in relative isolation, resulting in the unfortunate duplication of efforts or the unintended division of domestic and international issues, artificially reinforcing barriers between US and non-US challenges and populations. For this reason, our offices are in the midst of coordinating efforts to uncover forgotten diverse voices in Clemson’s history and to infuse the undergraduate general education and major curricula, as well as the common core of graduate education, with global learning outcomes to prepare students for global citizenship and to address global challenges.

To situate current efforts in the context of institutional history, we must look backward in order to move forward. What is presently the Clemson, South Carolina, campus was first settled by the Cherokee Nation. The nation was the first to cultivate the lands that would later become Fort Hill, the antebellum plantation of John C. Calhoun, which relied on slave labor. In July 1893, to help the region recover after the Civil War, Calhoun’s heir, Thomas Green Clemson, established Clemson Agricultural College, an all-male, all-White military institution on Fort Hill land. A half-century later, in 1955, Clemson became a coeducational, civilian institution. In 1963, with the acceptance of student Harvey Gantt, Clemson became the first White college in South Carolina after Reconstruction to desegregate. The institution officially became Clemson University in 1964.

Subsequent advances at the national level helped Clemson to become more inclusive, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark civil rights and labor law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; the creation of affirmative action programs in the 1970s; broader definitions of diversity in the 1980s; movements to increase diversity in the 1990s; and emphases on equity and inclusion in the 2000s. At the same time, however, opposing forces worked against this progress. In South Carolina, for example, historian Mary C. Simms Oliphant wrote a series of history books used in K–12 schools from the 1920s to the 1980s that emphasized the compassion of the enslavers rather than the cruelty endured by the enslaved. This biased education, delivered across three generations, robbed students of a more comprehensive knowledge of the past, making it difficult for them to understand the perspectives of the victims of slavery.

In 2014, some Clemson students felt that the university needed to embrace a fuller version of its history. A. D. Carson, then a rhetorics, communication, and information design doctoral student, wrote a poem that launched the “See the Stripes” campaign, a call to see through the “solid orange” of the university’s color to recognize the dark stripes of its tiger mascot. Carson noted that these stripes signified the overlooked contributions of African Americans to the university’s history. “While the Tiger could be seen as ‘Solid Orange,’ a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes,” he wrote. “Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged—particularly the histories of laborers who contributed significantly to its development: slaves, sharecroppers and convict laborers.”

The activism continued into April 2016, when students held a peaceful protest in front of the Sikes Hall administration building. The nine-day sit-in was triggered by the racist defacement of a sign commemorating African American history at the plantation house around which Clemson’s campus is built. Student efforts at Clemson continue to help create the conditions for open, honest, and respectful dialogue that move the university forward.

As a result of this student activism, the Clemson Board of Trustees in 2015 established a task force on the history of Clemson and how the university could find ways to tell its story. The institution is currently moving forward with the task force’s recommendations, including supporting the “Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History” project by Rhondda Robinson Thomas, Clemson’s Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature. The project is dedicated to reclaiming the lost identities of those who lived and labored on the land.

Clemson also named Paul Christopher Anderson as its university historian in 2019. Anderson describes his work as encouraging others to engage with institutional history, while creating a multiperspective approach that gets closer to an honest and open telling of our past and our places within it. “One of the core things is that an honest past is necessary to an open, authentic present,” he says. “What that means to me is that we have to be able to see each other in the past—see one another’s past—to see and value one another in the present.”

Furthermore, in alignment with Clemson Forward, the university’s strategic plan, every university college, division, and commission is currently developing its own strategic plan on diversity and inclusion. The Office of Equity and Inclusion is overseeing this effort and has created a Strategic Inclusive Excellence Certificate for faculty, staff, and graduate assistants to help advance equity at Clemson and to tell the university’s complete history. On numerous occasions, directors from the Office of Global Engagement have presented on international diversity as part of that certificate program.

Clemson’s undergraduate and graduate experiences (both curricular and cocurricular) are intended to prepare students to live and communicate in a world of difference. At most institutions, intercultural communication is addressed in cocurricular offerings, such as preorientation training modules, guest speaker talks, and residential learning communities. Unfortunately, these encounters become increasingly optional as students move through their college experience. Thus, it is unlikely that students understand and appreciate intercultural communication as a central component of their education. However, the curriculum is the best vehicle for situating intercultural communication at the heart of an institution. To truly make progress, institutions must identify and address the challenges to fully integrating intercultural communication into the curriculum.

Faculty need to be part of taking on this challenge. They frequently recognize the importance of intercultural communication but do not always readily see how to or have the means to connect it with their disciplinary work. We have heard these statements and more in the past year:

• But I’m a biologist. How do I help my students become informed global citizens?

• My entire teaching load this semester is calculus. My students need to use limits and multivariable equations. How does global learning fit in?

• I know that the university has an effort to study social responsibility this year, but my job is to teach introductory Spanish. How do I do this? Should I even try?

• I am the only faculty member of color in my department. I want to bring research related to race into my business course, but if my colleagues don’t do this as well, I will be vulnerable to negative student comments.

As a result, institutions often situate intercultural learning within the undergraduate general education curriculum so students can check off the requirement. While this may seem convenient, it is a missed opportunity for students to develop their intercultural communication skills. Segregating intercultural communication from majors and upper-division coursework minimizes its importance. For this reason, the Division of Undergraduate Studies and Clemson’s faculty are currently considering changes to the general education curriculum that will include a global challenges requirement with coursework at the upper levels. The curriculum is not a series of disconnected learning blocks but an interactive, overlapping ecosystem of experiences. Leaders within the Association of American Colleges and Universities and other organizations are increasingly calling for the integration of the general education curriculum and majors so that knowledge, skills, and competencies complement and reinforce each other. One introductory intercultural communication course is not enough to prepare students for lives of global citizenship.

An institution must listen to the diverse voices of its past in order to communicate more effectively in the present. But it must also clarify what knowledge, skills, and behaviors it expects its members to cultivate when communicating across cultural difference. As a first step to promoting intercultural competency at the institutional level, Clemson recognized the need for a common heuristic for curricular intercultural communication, student global learning outcomes, and assessment measures. In 2017, the Clemson Provost Office organized a faculty Global Learning Task Force to address the challenge. The group spent a year working with stakeholders across campus to produce a definition of global learning and nine associated global competency outcomes, divided into the three categories of knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Three of those outcomes are related to professional and disciplinary contexts, three are related to ethics and social responsibility, and three are related to communication, connectivity, and global diversity. This document—referred to as the “purple boxes” because of its graphic design—provides the foundation for all globally focused teaching and faculty development workshops and activities. Ideally, every faculty member can identify at least one outcome from the list of nine that will work in their teaching. These global competency outcomes were applied in the new design of global challenges in the general education curriculum and are being used as a tool across multiple faculty workshops and events.

The global competency outcomes are an essential tool for curricular integration of intercultural communication as they ask students to move beyond a mere understanding of otherness (the bare minimum often employed in undergraduate general education curricula) and toward adopting the behaviors and aptitudes of intercultural communication. As two of the outcomes state, global competency means that students will

→ demonstrate effective and appropriate communication, interaction, and teamwork among different nationalities, language groups, and cultures (Skills 3);

→ apply an understanding of multiple worldviews, experiences, and power structures while initiating meaningful interaction and communication with peoples of other cultures (Behaviors 3).

The behavioral emphases of the global competency outcomes are crucial. We often require students to become aware of or learn facts about differences. But do we go so far as to use the curriculum as a lever to expect improvements in intercultural communication? At a time when students of color are repeatedly asked “What are you?” and women of certain ethnicities are told “Y’all make the best wives,” programs that go beyond awareness and theoretical knowledge of otherness and instead drive changes in attitudes and behaviors are sorely needed.

In the Office of Global Engagement, this need to bridge the domestic and international dimensions of diversity led the office to award seed grants for projects at the juncture of global learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion. For one of the successful projects, representatives from the College of Science and a nearby community center established a mentoring program. In this afterschool program, international students help local K–12 students from racially diverse, low-income families learn about science and global citizenship.

In addition, the Office of Global Engagement has convened a multidisciplinary faculty learning community to explore the concept of global digital citizenship—an intersection of critical global citizenship, critical digital literacy, and global readiness for our present and future world and workplaces. Faculty participants are currently wrestling with such issues as how sensitive information or cultural taboos are raised, defined, and discussed when students collaborate with international peers through international virtual exchanges.

The faculty learning community is steering developments in Clemson’s global learning programming to help students perform empathically, ethically, and effectively in the blended—in-person and virtual—classrooms and workplaces of the future. One result has been the proposal for a Global Digital Citizenship course as a companion class to virtual and blended study abroad programs (what we call Virtual+ programs at Clemson). The course objectives include demonstrating the communicative norms of a particular non-US culture in virtual/blended contexts and identifying the influence of one’s own particular cultural circumstances while communicating in global virtual/blended environments.

In a current geopolitical environment dominated by uncertainty, intercultural communication is one of our most pressing global challenges. Whether at home or abroad, via official briefings or social media, or regarding COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter, attitudes, words, and gestures are crucial levers of our prosperity, stability, and safety. As educators, we must embrace the commitment to communicate across difference, whether those differences occurred in the past or are unfolding in the present. The simple act of valuing diversity—cultivating the desire to see things from new perspectives—is the bedrock of global learning and the foundation of a more equitable and stable global society.


Kyle David Anderson is the senior director of global engagement at Clemson University and is responsible for the university’s international partnerships, global initiatives, and the Global Learning Institute. Moryah Jackson is the former director of diversity education at Clemson University and facilitator of the Strategic Inclusive Excellence Certificate program for Clemson faculty and staff. Bridget Trogden is the associate dean for engagement and general education in the division of undergraduate studies at Clemson University and leads the general education curriculum implementation and other curricular initiatives.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results