SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Wofford College’s travel-study program incorporates intentional focus on intercultural competence – ways to help students develop the skills and dispositions to successfully engage with others across cultural lines. Research shows that without such intentionality, students do not come home better able to navigate cross-cultural contexts.

What happens, though, if students aren’t studying abroad? Can they still develop intercultural competence (IC) if their courses include intentional components for this?

Two Wofford professors – Dr. Dan Mathewson, associate professor of religion, and Dr. Britt Newman, associate professor of Spanish – decided to find out with a living-learning community, “Cultural Crossings: Explorations in Intercultural Learning in the 21st Century,” which they have taught to first-year students each fall since 2017. Their results have been nothing short of amazing, Mathewson says.

“We wanted to know whether students could make meaningful intercultural competence gains without actually leaving Spartanburg,” he says. “In other words, could we help students make meaningful IC gains in an on-campus, curricular setting? As far as we know, ours is the first project in higher education to test this out.”

The “gold standard” tool for researchers to measure IC gains is an assessment called the “intercultural development inventory,” or IDI. “What research shows is that students whose study abroad programs contain no structured intercultural mentoring make virtually no gains on the IDI assessment, whereas students whose study abroad programs do contain frequent IC mentoring make about a five-point gain, which is considered meaningful,” Mathewson says.

Newman says the two carefully designed their living-learning community (LLC) around their IC theme, integrating their courses in “pretty interesting ways: assignments that count for both of our individual course grades; carefully scaffolded community engagement assignments; and an ePortfolio project – that we now believe to be a better assessment tool than the IDI – among other things,” he says. “We also built in other kinds of non-traditional components, such as a one-day IC-focused retreat to Wofford’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center at Glendale and creative use of class time – combining our two class times for big IC workshops and Dan and I participating in each other’s classes, for example.”

Among the community engagement assignments were visiting a Latinx store and a corporate grocery store and writing (in Spanish) a comparison of the venues and visiting religious services to observe and write about their own reactions to those services. In these experiences, the students were asked to employ self-reflection, observation and critical thinking, which Newman says fed into what they wrote for their ePortfolios, “really their culminating work for the LLC. … They are asked to construct a narrative that describes a series of intercultural learning moments they’ve had over the course of the semester, so reflective writing in general is key to our LLC. The students reflect on intercultural encounters they had as part of the LLC and in their personal lives as first-semester students at Wofford.”

To test the IC gains of the LLC students, they had each successive cohort of students take the IDI at the beginning of the semester and then again at the end of the semester. “The results were beyond our wildest dreams,” Mathewson says, noting again that previous research shows that students whose study abroad programs contained frequent intercultural mentoring gained an average of five points on the IDI.

The results?

2017 – 14-point gain
2018 – 21-point gain
2019 – 24-point gain

“We also had a control group in 2019 of incoming first-year students in a single humanities section, none of whom were in our LLC,” Mathewson says. “The average gain was about two points, which is basically consistent with semester-long study abroad programs without intentional intercultural facilitation.”

“Beyond all this, we also feel very strongly that our LLC aligns with several of the major points articulated in Wofford’s strategic vision – promotion of global learning, curricular innovation and collaboration via linked courses, living-learning communities and the use of ePortfolios,” Newman adds.

Jordan Holmes, a senior from Conyers, Georgia, says participating in the Newman-Mathewson LLC has benefited her throughout her Wofford career. “I now find myself trying to think from other people’s perspectives that may be different from mine,” she says, which was helpful especially when she spent a semester in Peru. “Without what I learned in intercultural competence during the LLC, I may have been apt to call things ‘wrong’ instead of just seeing them as ‘different.’” She says the LLC influenced her decision to major in Spanish and minor in religion. She also is majoring in psychology.

“One of the most interesting things about this learning community is the two disciplines it brings together – Spanish language and religious studies – with an overall focus on intercultural learning,” says Dr. Trina Jones, professor of religion and associate provost for curriculum and co-curriculum. “These two professors are guiding first-semester college students in seeing the different ways in which each person brings lenses of understanding to every moment of human engagement. Seeing connections among different ways of learning or knowing is one of the overarching goals of general education as well: students learn something about many disciplines – history, science, language, philosophy, religion – with the idea that they’ll begin to see how all of these seemingly disparate areas of knowledge fit together.”

The IDI results have caught the eye of some IC scholars, and Mathewson and Newman have presented their research at three national conferences already and have been invited to contribute a case study chapter to an upcoming volume. “Britt and I also know there are a couple of journal articles we could write about the LLC,” Mathewson adds.

Tara Harvey, an intercultural competence scholar and consultant who conducts training workshops for university faculty and study-abroad professionals, says, “Dan and Britt are doing an amazing job of getting their students to engage with people in their own community from different cultural and religious backgrounds in a way that is developmentally appropriate for first-year students. Both the qualitative and quantitative data demonstrates their students are becoming more interculturally competent as a result. The IDI gains they are seeing students make in just one semester are fantastic, far surpassing the gains we might see in students who study abroad for a semester without such intentional intercultural facilitation. And we’re talking about first-year students who aren’t even leaving their community.”

Harvey, who conducts workshops for the Newman-Mathewson LLC, adds, “I hope one thing this shows other educators is that intercultural learning can be integrated into courses and programs on our home campuses and that it’s worth it for educators to invest in their own professional development in this area. Especially in light of the current situation surrounding the Coronavirus, I think it’s critical that faculty and staff in higher education think creatively about how to infuse intercultural learning into all aspects of our work, rather than just relying on study abroad for this. The work Dan and Britt are doing is a great example of how to do so.”