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 Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Christina Lau, Jen Oss, Andrew Gorrell, and Sam Kunjummen.
Linda Xiong and Kirsi-Maria Heikkilä
An Intercultural Communication Class
Brings Students with Varied Backgrounds Together

When Communication Professor Mike Sunnafrank attended a workshop in Hawaii, he began to form an idea. The topic of the workshop was college courses involving cultural diversity and international perspectives.  He was amazed that many of these classes were among the most unpopular on certain college campuses. “What surprised me the most was that they were often straight lecture classes. Because they were also required courses, students felt as if diversity training was being forced on them,” Sunnafrank said. 

Sunnafrank came back to UMD with a new approach. He designed one of the most popular communication classes at UMD: Intercultural Communication. It's also one of the classes that meets UMD's undergraduate liberal education requirement. According to the catalog, the classes like this one, that offer an international perspective "focus on understanding contemporary issues from a global perspective or understanding cultures and societies different from those in the United States."

Sunnafrank has found the class is a success because most people, “can learn to be at ease and enjoy relating to someone who is culturally different from them.”

Intercultural Communication uses social interaction to acquaint students from diverse cultural backgrounds with each other. International students are encouraged to take Intercultural Communication, so their presence brings a good mix of backgrounds together. A majority of the class is not taught in the classroom, but instead, at Duluth restaurants like the Maya Mexican Restaurant and the China Inn. Bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks are some of the other backdrops for student interaction. 

Andrew Gorrell, a Spanish and communication major currently enrolled in the class said, ""You learn a lot more about people when you hang out and see the ‘real’ them in the ‘real’ world." The real world is becoming more diverse every day. According to new Census Bureau projections, a transformation in the population make-up is occurring faster than anticipated just a few years ago. By 2042, the census calculates that Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites.

The class meets liberal education requirements, but it's celebrated none-the-less. Gorrell said, “It is a very popular class and a very relaxed atmosphere. People have fun." After a short lecture in the classroom, students go off to participate in outside activities. Sunnafrank tells the class, "There are no textbooks.  You are one another’s textbook.” 

Dev Dina Chhaniyara, a student interested in graphic design, was originally born in Kenya. He said, “It's fascinating. Students find good friends from the class and some even find life partners.” Sunnafrank mentioned that over the years about a dozen marriages and multiple romantic relationships developed between people who met in the class. Intercultural Communication also has a spot on Facebook where 400 past and present students stay in touch with one another. 

This class is popular among present and past students. Teaching assistant and visitor Chue Vang, a computer science major, attended the class in 2003 as one of his electives and has been a regular guest ever since. Chue was born in Laos and immigrated to the United States because of the Vietnam War. Vang said, “Not only did I learn about other students' culture, but what other students know about mine. Many students become great friends, developed relationships, sharing their experiences and cultural history. This is a very well-mixed class of cultures and it is like no other.”    

Vang said something else that seems to be a common reaction to the class, "Of all the classes I have taken at UMD, this is a class to remember."

Written by Ann Lichtenberg.

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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