Alvino E. Fantini: Intercultural education changes lives in an era of divisive debate

In an era of divisive immigration debate, SIT's Alvino Fantini quantifies the benefits of intercultural education

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Intercultural exchange experiences are on the rise. It's more important than ever to encourage understanding, tolerance, and respect among people of different cultures. Universities are responding with internationalization efforts that include curricular changes, increasing campus diversity, and language and intercultural study. Educational exchange programs offer even greater promise. My research, focused on "intercultural communicative competencies" (ICCs), has finally quantified something we all intuitively know: intercultural education changes lives.

The Federation of The Experiment in International Living has promoted educational exchange for more than 85 years in many countries. Beginning in 1932 with summer programs, The Experiment added academic study abroad in conjunction with many universities in the 1950s. Today, the Federation's U.S. member, World Learning, Inc., conducts high school study abroad programs through its Experiment division, while its School for International Training (SIT) provides more than 80 study abroad programs on seven continents.

These programs offer academics, field research, and guided travel, but when it comes to developing intercultural communicative competencies, research reveals two key elements: living with a host family, and developing host language proficiency. These elements lead to lifelong relationships across cultures.

I have documented this research in the recently published book Intercultural Communicative Competence in Educational Exchange: A Multinational Perspective. The extensive research explores the nature of intercultural communicative competence, its development, and the impact of these experiences on alumni up to 20 years later.

Intercultural communicative competencies are usually defined as "the complex of abilities required to interact effectively and appropriately when dealing with members of another language-culture." But identifying ICC components is more challenging. The research identifies characteristics or "attributes," such as flexibility, curiosity, and empathy; three "dimensions," including establishing relationships and good communication and collaboration; four "components," including attitudes/affect, skills, knowledge, and awareness; and host language proficiency — all continuing to develop as a lifelong process beyond the journey abroad.

Research was conducted in Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States, and involved more than 2,000 participants plus over 200 host families. The impact of programs in transforming lives was reflected through quantitative statistics and qualitative narratives. Findings substantiated the value of intercultural learning as a profound educational experience - many participants said it was the most important educational experience of their lives.

Several assertions were strongly supported:

- Intercultural experiences are life-altering.

- Homestays are the most compelling component of study abroad, helping participants integrate into the culture, developing life-long relationships, aiding language learning, and providing a sense of security.

- Learning the host language is fundamental.

- Intercultural contact affects all parties (host families and sojourners).

- Participants develop new abilities and lean toward specific job areas, life partners, lifestyles, and values.

- When they return, alumni often impact others through education, service, and development (the multiplier effect).

Internationalization helps commerce, increases competition, and enhances our ability to interact politically. But it is even more powerful than that. Intercultural education transforms lives by developing new perspectives and alternative ways of conceptualizing, of being, of understanding, of interacting. Intercultural experiences help to transcend one's singular worldview, to see anew, to learn more about others and oneself.

As students develop friendships across cultures and become comfortable with difference, they contribute to peace, social justice, and equality.

Alvino Fantini is Professor Emeritus of Language Teacher Education and Intercultural Communication at SIT Graduate Institute. A senior faculty member since 1964, Fantini helped turn the Sandanona estate into the present SIT. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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