Cultural awareness can start as simply as writing an email. In fact, that is where this year’s Intercultural Competency Certificate program begins.
In the first of nine interactive 1.5 hour sessions, professionally trained IU staff members walk participants through a familiar scenario: you sent out what you thought was a clearly written, concise email and receive an abrupt, unintelligible response. Through this near-universal experience, trainers begin to unpack the complex and nuanced subject of “intercultural competency,” with the hope that participants will leave this session not only writing better emails, but approaching every interaction with better understanding of the many experiences and values that influence how a person interacts with the world.
The Intercultural Competence Certificate (ICC) is an opportunity for IU employees to expand their understanding of communication and connection across cultural boundaries. The program is designed to be an individualized, interactive experience that addresses intercultural differences and their impact on personal and professional experiences for any IU employee.
“In a university as large and involved as IU, it’s easy for departments to become siloed, but making meaningful connections isn’t the duty of just a single group,” shares Rachel Salinas, director of international admissions and one of the first trainers for the certificate. “The Intercultural Competence Certificate makes cultural competency a campus-wide responsibility.”
But how did this initiative come about?
Realizing the need: the history of the ICC
“The program originated from just talking to students and staff,” says Rendy Schrader, Senior Director of International Student and Scholar Programs and Initiatives and spearhead of the certificate program at IU. “We quickly realized cultural barriers were sabotaging interactions in the community. A lot of faculty and staff accumulate an understanding of cultural differences through experience and practice, but there was no opportunity for formal training – so we went and found training ourselves.”
The initial group of soon-to-be-trainers pursued training and certification through American University. Bolstered by the formal training to support their own intercultural experience working in international education, the team set their sights on the next milestone: translating their training into digestible, practical units every IU employee could benefit from.
It was easier said than done, says Schrader. “The resources we’d found up to that point were all theory – they were long and difficult to digest, and harder still to apply to real-life experiences. We wanted our program to be accessible and practical.”
The nascent ICC team began designing curriculum for the certificate with these values in mind.
The program was variable in its early stages; originally offered only to staff, sessions eventually opened up to IU faculty and graduate students, who lauded the program and its utility in classroom interactions. The switch to all-virtual sessions during the beginning of the pandemic expanded the program by making the program accessible to all campuses. Departments began requesting group sessions as dissemination throughout IU Bloomington and IUPUI campuses continued. The ICC trainers were happy to accommodate. The development of the initiative wasn’t linear – some trainers like Salina were part of the initial group at the program’s conception, others like Director of Client Services, Christina Fidel, joined several years later, and the certificate takes on new trainers on a rolling basis – but the impact is universal.
Make it practical: the importance of real-world applications
Across all iterations of curricula, one thing was steadfast: every single session had real-world applications. “Even if we held a theory course,” Schrader explains, “we presented a theory, gave some examples, and then we asked the staff, what can you do with this? How do you apply this to your life?”
Fidel emphasizes the certificate’s applicability in workplace interaction. Although she has plenty of hands-on experience with cultural exchange and interaction as a director in International Student and Scholar Services, familiarity doesn’t always translate to understanding: “Everyone knows about culture, but we are always seeing it through the lens of our own experiences. The Intercultural Competence Certificate works to illuminate perspectives that would otherwise be hidden.” Fidel continues that the program allowed her to connect her own experience of intercultural connection with formal theory, fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural competency framework in her everyday work.
The sessions break down personal frameworks in different ways, teaching participants how to step away from their own experience and view the broader cultural context: in a discussion of cultural core values, for instance, trainers walked participants through a series of images and asked for their thoughts on each. One image showed a solitary figure walking through an arch of trees with brilliant orange leaves, and participants called out locations as guesses, ranging from Boston to Seattle.
After the slideshow was complete, trainers gave the context for each photo. The tree image wasn’t taken anywhere near the guesses; in fact, it wasn’t even taken in America, but instead featured an autumnal forest in India. This fact might have surprised participants, but why do exercises like this matter?
“We all frame the world in different ways,” the trainers, Teresa Witcher and Dan Whitmer, explain. Framing – a process based in prior knowledge, recognition, and interpretations that individuals rely on to make sense of the world – is an automatic response, pervading every interaction we have and dictating our responses. In many instances, framing allows us to detect danger, identify helpful connections, and recognize solutions. Because our interpretations are based only on what we know, however, they’re not always accurate. “Framing is an automatic process, but we can catch ourselves – learning to shift your frame is a necessary part of growth and understanding across cultural variances.”
Sessions for the certificate teach participants to do just that. By targeting each step of implicit processes – description of an new or unfamiliar experience, interpretation using our frames of reference, and evaluation of the experience – trainers explain how to reappraise implicit bias and assumptions, making room for understanding beyond our own beliefs. This sequence of reframing provides participants a foundation on which to grow, giving them the initial tools needed to approach cultural differences and complexities with an open mind.
The long-term impact
“Being able to connect identities to the lenses through which we see them, and being able to look past those lenses, is an incredible skill that the certificate cultivates,” Fidel says. Salina adds that the program allows her to continue building her own awareness by reminding her to take a step back and listen to her fellow trainers’ perspectives—something participants also experience.
The way this information is being presented shows how applicable these skills can be towards EVERY interaction we have – with every person in our lives. I had so many revelations about how I communicate with the people around me.Intercultural Competency Certificate past recipient
Schrader calls these instances “aha moments,” and explains that they’re one of the core facets of progress in developing intercultural literacy. “No one is ever fully competent,” she says, “but we can always make progress toward knowledge, awareness, and connection.”
As the certificate continues, Schrader shares upcoming goals and iterations of the program. Facilitators continue to expand offerings for the certificate sessions, allowing participants to choose from a wider selection of competency training and learn more about intercultural aspects that directly impact their work. By attending at least four sessions that address knowledge, attitude, and skills in intercultural spaces, participants explore differences and foster in-depth appreciation for cultural exchange. Additionally, participants who have completed the beginner certificate will soon be able to further their understanding by completing a mid-level course that is currently running as a pilot program. The appetite for cultural competency is high: the 33 slots for the pilot certification filled within 45 minutes.
“There are countless identities and perspectives present in the IU community,” Fidel says, “and this program lays a foundation for meaningful exchanges between them. It’s a wonderful program for people who want to learn about the populations they’re serving.”
If you’re a member of the IU community and ready to expand your perspective this semester the introductory cultural competency certificate is offered each semester. Learn how to complete the certificate and sign up for sessions on our website.