Third Space Lab Event Report on “International Education: Can Intercultural Journey Have a Transformative Role in Life?”

By Anisha Joshi

Class of 2022

Click [HERE] to watch the recording

On June 29th, 2020, the Third Space Lab hosted guest researcher Dr. Joana Almeida, who discussed the importance of intercultural competence and the different ways students can foster this invaluable skill in a rapidly globalizing world. With a research focus in the internationalisation of higher education, Dr. Almeida has worked in Portugal, the US, and the UK, and plans in the near future to assume a position in Spain. Her talk to the DKU community around a question pertinent to the journeys of DKU students: can intercultural competence have a transformative role in life?

During her undergraduate studies at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, she studied abroad for a year in the UK through the Erasmus program, a student exchange initiative built to encourage student mobility and pan-European cultural exchange in the EU. She describes this first time in a new culture as the most challenging time. Thrust into a new language environment while also learning and teaching languages, she faced many obstacles- challenges that DKU students have all probably faced at one point or another. But after recognizing these challenges, Dr. Almeida labored to design strategies to overcome them, and these soon found their way into her work.

Dr. Almeida described the ‘bubble’ we often limit ourselves to when we find ourselves in a new and unfamiliar environment. As the high spirits wear off once we adapt to the novelty and excitement of being in a new place, there is a good chance we will find ourselves thinking of this new experience in mostly negative terms. We resort to the closer, more familiar circle of other foreigners, people who are also strangers to the country, going through the same experience as us – the ‘international bubble’. But, she explained, while this does give us a level of comfort, in the longer run it usually prevents us from making the most of our international experience.

For instance, Dr. Almeida often found herself in situations that did not help her interact with native English speakers or culture, which was unfortunate since one of her goals in pursuing the Erasmus program was to improve her language for the career she sought in teaching Portuguese. Since her housemates and the people in her residence halls were mostly international students, and she took her classes with international students on the exchange program, chances to interact with students and locals were rare. Recognizing this as an obstacle, she sought to change her rhythm by putting up her contact on a bulletin board, offering a tandem language-learning arrangement- she could teach Portuguese to whomever reached out, while they taught her English.

Years later, when looking for ways to facilitate intercultural learning as she worked with the local Erasmus Student Network in Portugal, she found herself proposing projects based on what she learned from her own experiences navigating the culture and language as a study abroad student. To facilitate language learning, she set up a tandem language-learning program similar to the one she used in the UK to improve her English. Recalling how she learned about English culture through the host family program that she had made use of in the UK, she set up a similar program for Erasmus students visiting Portugal to spend holidays with local families.

In her capacity as a researcher, Dr. Almeida has also designed more detailed ways to promote intercultural learning while abroad. There are always different modules to approach different problems, based on what students want to glean from their intercultural experiences.

“I would like you to see my story as a screen board for yours,” she said, hoping that reflected in her transformations, we would find some of our own. DKU students, staff, and faculty will probably find their own stories reflected in the journey that fueled Dr. Almeida’s passion for studying intercultural competence. Answering some audience questions, she addressed the double challenge of learning two languages in a new environment- something many DKU students must relate to, for while learning Chinese many DKU students also learned English as a second language, which often entails a greater challenge in integrating.

Of course, the luxury of study abroad is still not something that is financially accessible to everyone. However, Dr. Almeida argues, intercultural competence is still something that needs to be integrated into the curricula of higher education. In an era when mobility has become more convenient than ever before and it is almost impossible to remain insulated within one’s own community, navigating the world by understanding different cultures and perspectives is a precious skill. To make different cultures accessible regardless of financial status, Dr. Almeida implemented activities that allowed locals and international students to learn from each other. According to Dr. Almeida, it can make for a more flexible and transformative identity, as one faces the world with an open mind and learns to understand things from different points of view.

In researching student mobility, a discipline that can be approached from innumerable directions, be it sociology, geography, or cultural anthropology, Dr. Almeida not only drew from her own experiences and learning but also focused on taking an interdisciplinary approach with in the goal of providing sustained answers to help students and educators. From coming to terms with culture shock to culture stress, or even just becoming more self-sufficient, intercultural competence can supply anyone with indispensable skills to find one’s way through the world.