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Hands-on Intercultural Learning

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Intercultural Communication Class
Associate Professor Ryan Goei (on right kneeling) and Intercultural Communication class for excursion at World of Wheels in Superior, Wisc.


Intercultural Communication: Learning by Doing

As the world changes, the ability to communicate across cultures is vital as students graduate into a diverse workplace, city, and world. UMD offers a popular class entitled Intercultural Communication. Developed by Michael Sunnafrank, a communication professor, the class is also taught by others. In summer 2012 Ryan Goei, associate professor of communication, led the class.

Sunnafrank said, “The course is composed of an equal number of international/immigrant students, American “minority” students, and American students with European ancestry.” During the first hour of each class, students discuss intercultural communication topics and the remainder of the class time is spent on class excursions involving activities that promote interaction between the students of varied cultures in the class. “The majority of students report this was their favorite college course,” said Sunnafrank. “They report learning more in it than in any other course they have taken.”

"In this class we take a different approach to teaching intercultural communication. The most common way to teach it is to have students read textbooks, detailing differences between cultures. But not every person in a culture is the same and it largely neglects the importance of the individual. In our class, students learn about culture through individuals from these cultures in class. This is a key characteristic of the class and one that makes the experience so much more meaningful and effective," said Goei.

There are many things this class has to offer. The main goal in the course is to get to know others on a close level. Mihir Atmakuri from Vijayawada, India, a first year graduate student at UMD majoring in computer science said, “I made a lot of friends. You get to have one-on-one interviews the first day, which opens you up. In that way, you get a better relationship. This class has given me the confidence I need when meeting people from other cultures.”

Ellie Neigebauer, a Communication major from Waseca, Minn. had a rich experience with the students from other cultures. "I have made great friends in this class! I'm really thankful for this class because I would have never met the people I did otherwise. Intercultural Communication has helped me gain a new perspective on life. I've learned to become completely open minded when meeting new people and going into situations I've never been in before. I honestly don't have the right words to describe how I feel after taking this class and meeting the people that I did. It's something you have to experience for yourself and it's more than well worth it."

Intercultural Communication increases sensitivity to other cultures. Jiwon Suh, who came from Seoul, Korea, a sophomore majoring in international studies, thought all people from India were conservative but when she met Mihir, she realized that wasn't true. "Mihir was really outgoing and kind," she said. "That changed my perspective of the Indian culture a little. No one person is like the other.” Suh also said, "I learned how to overcome my shyness, open myself to others and become active. Last semester, I only had a few American friends, they lived on my dorm floor. I feel now that the reason we weren’t very close was because I didn’t open up to them."

Wei Wei Wu is a senior chemical engineering major from China. He said he learned to approach people in an open way, "I have gained many things from this class. I learned how to play, how to make friends, also how to walk out of my comfort zone."

One of the elements of intercultural identity development is individuation, which involves a clear self-definition and definition of the other as a singular individual rather than a member of a conventional social category.

Many of the students felt it was hard to individuate at first but, after getting to know each student as a person, it became easier. “This is what this class does to you, I feel like I can individuate now,” claimed junior Kamila Xiong of the Hmong culture, a communications major. Xiong summed up her experience, "Listen, Learn, and Respect are three words to describe what I’ve learned. I learned to enjoy listening, I learned a lot from everyone culturally and personally, and I respected everyone for sharing their stories."

Nahom Abegaze, a senior philosophy and communications major, came to the U.S. from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He said he has changed, because of his participation in the class, “I am a lot less likely to stereotype or put others in a box. I see the unfairness of stereotyping. I can go straight up to people I don’t know and introduce myself. I am comfortable approaching anyone and everyone. Seeing each person for who they are, I try to bring everyone down to the same fundamental level, namely the human condition.”

Written by Christina Higgins, August 2012

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