Intercultural Agility

Intercultural Agility | Meaningful Engagement

We believe that meaning and value come from cultural immersion and contextual understanding not found in travel alone. That’s why our trained staff provide so much more than the health and safety support or logistical guidance for which we’re known. Our global network and the reflection embedded within our engagement approach create opportunities for students to navigate, understand, and articulate difference in meaningful ways. The skills they acquire will continue to evolve long after their study abroad experience concludes, enhancing empathy and relationships with others along the way.

Commitment in Action

Every time a student comes to me to discuss the challenges of adjusting to cultural norms, it becomes an exercise in Intercultural Agility for both the student and for me. Many of these arise when students judge the local culture based on their own perceptions of gender and caste. In conversations with students, I remind them that perceptions are subjective, not absolute, and ask them to rethink the behavior they observe through the point of view of people engaged in the action.

In advising sessions with one student, she described watching her host grandmother seated on the ground apply a kind of paste to her older son’s feet and then wash his feet. The student was outraged by what she had seen. Why couldn’t the son wash his own feet? Why make his elderly mother do it? Together, we considered the event through different cultural lenses, and we met with her host grandmother to talk about it. I suspected the grandmother was participating in a religious ritual, one where the elder woman of the household washes her son’s feet the night before the festival of Holi in an act representing spiritual purification of the family. But I refrained from telling the student because she would gain so much more by interacting with her host family. In this way, she learned about the meaning behind the ritual, how her host grandmother views this act as a sign of her authority in the family and that despite tradition, she would happily wash her daughter’s feet as well.

This incident became a valuable learning experience for the student. It helped her identify her own cultural lens and gave her strategies for examining cultural differences in the future.

Lara Azzola  |  IFSA Resident Director  |  Varanasi, India

Watch & Learn

Cultural Drag: Performing Identities Abroad

Martha Johnson  |  Assistant Dean
Learning Abroad Center  |  University of Minnesota at Twin Cities
IFSA Conference  |  July 2018

Drag performance manipulates mimicry and dress, basing itself on constructs of cultural—often gendered—prototypes. But what can it teach us about culture, identity, and acknowledging the unique bodies we bring to new physical spaces? Dr. Martha Johnson reframes Drag as cultural performance, creating opportunity to interrogate how we engage embedded notions of other cultures and our behavior related to them. If we consider cultural exhibition in this new light, how might students build lifelong skills in navigating (and performing) their body and identities within myriad cultural contexts?

ABOUT THE PRESENTER: Martha Johnson is the Assistant Dean for Learning Abroad at the University of Minnesota. She has worked in international education since 1991 in the U.S., Ireland, Australia, and the U.K., including on-site program management, program development and marketing, management of a large university education abroad office, and teaching of short-term programs. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies with an emphasis in drama and the performance of gender, race, and cultural identity from the University of East Anglia (U.K.). She has presented at numerous international conferences and has authored articles and chapters for publications including Frontiers and Text and Performance. She has served in leadership positions for NAFSA, the Global Leadership League, and the Forum on Education Abroad.

Unpacked: Student Stories

In their own words, students explore how IFSA’s commitment to Intercultural Agility impacted their study abroad experience.

Why First-Generation
Students Thrive Abroad
Exploring Racial and Ethnic Identity as an International Student
Miranda Wheeler  |  Mount Holyoke College
University of Cambridge
England |  Summer 2018
Yasmin Kudsi  |  Skidmore College
University of Sydney Partnership
Australia  |  Spring 2017
“If you can learn how to acclimate to college at home, you often already have the sensibility and willingness to do the same with people of other cultures. Understanding that some people have a very different lifestyle, socioeconomic status, dialect and accent or even language than you, is important in both contexts” “Race and ethnicity can greatly shape our perceptions and attitudes when exploring a new environment, and studying abroad is a time when this reality can come into play and you experience the world in new ways.”

For more student stories, check out Unpacked: Student Stories.

Our Other Commitments

IFSA’s commitment to Inclusive Excellence.

IFSA’s commitment to Individualized Learning.

IFSA’s commitment to Enduring Impact.