A week ago, I found myself driving north down highway 400 to an annual counselling spring retreat, listening to Springsteen sing about his favourite topics: small towns and big dreams. In the passenger seat lay the pages of a presentation I was supposed to deliver at the conference, entitled ‘In the Time of Trump: How to Prepare to Study Abroad in A New Age”; to be honest though, it was the last thing on my mind. I was too busy looking forward to an event filled with intellectual discussion and heated debate with my fellow educators on the various intersections of religion, war, science, politics and technology in the globalized world.
The retreat came at an opportune moment, as it has been hard to ignore recent relevant events; an event that stood out especially in my mind was the shooting in Kansas and the apparent recent rise in hate crimes in the United States. I was filled with sorrow at the event, for a number of reasons. One was personal; I knew the victim of the crime and his family, even if only in a tangential way, through mutual friends of friends and his co-workers in Rockwell (a city in Iowa, where I also teach and work with the local school district). The other reason came as a result of my profession; in the months following the attack, I was bombarded with messages from concerned students and frightened parents alongside a heightened media frenzy in India. As a reaction to all this, I jumped at the opportunity presented to me to rework existing programs in America that dealt with cultural sensitivity and training; especially in my certified role as an anxiety and stress management specialist with the American School Counselors Association.
Even though it was cold and snowing heavily when I arrived at the events location, my mood could not be dampened. The spring retreat which I was participating in attracts professors, artists, teachers and researchers from around the world, and we meet to learn from each other, presenting and reflecting on current issues. This year we had professionals from around the world, for a week of discourse at a scout camp site.
From the first evening onward, the discussions moved to sharing worries and concerns on the sudden increase in challenges facing the free flow of learners across the globe. A professor from Toronto mentioned the latest cancellation of local school trips to America. Academicians from the Middle East shared the anxiety brewing in the minds of their students after recent immigration bans; students who had been planning to study abroad or even move permanently to cities they had dreamed of throughout North America and Europe. The president of a small liberal arts school mentioned how she had had to write a special note instructing international students on safety precautions to take when going outside the campus, and how sorry she felt that such a note was even required.
I just sat and listened to one story after the other, sipping cups of coffee and hot cocoa, and all the while I was trying my best to internalize their experiences. I was looking to understand not only current problems, but anticipate the future challenges we would face in the next few years, with new rules to human migration amidst new wars and new political systems. I was thinking back to 2007, when it felt like so many new and exciting tools for global education like Facebook and Twitter and the smartphone were coming out day after day; now, those same tools felt as though it was fueling the backlash, used to heighten mistrust of ‘the establishment’. Was it possible to anticipate problems such as these and head them off, using information gathered from simple retreats such as this? Similar meetings would have been held at grand and distant places long ago, in the courts of ancient empires, from the Library of Alexandria to the universities of Nalanda and Thakshasila and, in a humble way, I felt a connection between our gathering and those. Our ancestors believed in the power of intercultural dialogue, and I continue to maintain that belief.
As for the so-called anxiety and stress management specialist, I was assigned by the group to work on a set of recommendations on how learners prepare to study abroad in the new world order. I started working with historical data, shared experiences and new ideas, and proposed a curriculum towards the end of the session, with a special focus on those moving to Europe and North America. With it, I wanted to introduce potential world academic travelers to vital information: the genesis of the new administration, the underlying culture of drugs and guns, the great wealth divide, and the effect of the ‘mainstream media.’
These are all factors that make up the web of meanings and symbols that produce culture. Simply stated, culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and active imitation from one generation to the next. What we are seeing in the USA today is simply the outworking of underlying beliefs and values that produce certain behaviours. The challenge is that within America itself, there are competing beliefs and values. The overt racism and aggressive behaviours toward those who are different is one expression. The welcome of immigrants and refugees (and overseas students) that has been the hallmark of American identity from its founding (a nation of immigrants) is another expression that is still embodied by millions of Americans.
What is needed by overseas students seeking to live in America is a set of skills for negotiating through these cultural markers and social hazard warning signs. I am talking about developing intercultural competence or, to say it another way, acquiring cultural intelligence.
Over the next four weeks I will be writing a series, “How to Develop Cultural Intelligence,” collaborating with Prof Daniel Sheffield. Most of my students and readers of this column might know my colleague. For those who do not know Prof Sheffield, he is an experienced intercultural relations expert and post-secondary educator, having lived in the Middle East and southern Africa, as well as long involvement in the South Asian region.
We will write on the following topics each week:
- Mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention in a reflective and creative way to cues in intercultural settings.
- Knowledge, or awareness of the role of culture; how specific cultures vary and how culture impacts behaviour, including communications.
- Motivation, or curiosity about cultural differences; a desire to learn and explore with confidence.
- Behaviour, or developing competence in discerning and adjusting to appropriate practical responses in intercultural settings.
Please reconnect as we explore developing skills for successfully navigating the intercultural challenges of our globalizing (sometimes terrifyingly) world.
About the Author
Education and university admissions coach N N S Chandra has been leading organizations working with hundreds of students, guiding them, counseling and consulting on several areas including university admissions in United States. Chandra is active with and carrying accreditation of several professional organizations like NACAC, OACAC, ASCA, ACA, Study Iowa etc. teaches and consults in North America, speaks in international conferences, presents and give lectures around schools, colleges and other educational institutions around the world. He is also a writer with published works (fiction and non-fiction) currently finalizing his first full collection of short stories.