Building Cultural Competence in a Chinese Academic Context

Categories: Global Mindset, International Education

For a young student, studying abroad can provide invaluable global leadership skills and cultural competence they will have for the rest of their life. But what about students who are unable to study abroad but still want that experience?

Aperian Global Consultant Dan Kerr sat down with Elizabeth Tuleja, China Fulbright Scholar and Sichuan University Visiting Scholar, to discuss how Chinese students are gaining a study abroad experience at home.

Every summer the Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, conducts an international summer school program where professors from around the world are invited for several weeks to provide courses for Chinese students who are unable to study abroad. Students are given the opportunity to explore short courses outside of their major and experience classroom learning led by a foreign professor. 

This year, Elizabeth Tuleja taught the Intercultural Communications course, which consisted of 31 graduate students. More than half were Chinese, but students from other countries came to study as well, giving Chinese students a true study abroad experience. In total, she had 17 Chinese students, 2 students from Special Administrative Region (SAR) Hong Kong, and the remainder from other countries including Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Mongolia, and Brazil.

Can you describe what tools you used in your course to help students build their global communication skills?

I assigned students to take the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) and the GlobeSmart Profile (GSP), which in my opinion, makes for a well-rounded self-reflective experience. The IES gives feedback that is non-judgmental about a person’s global strengths and areas for improvement; while the GSP shows cultural differences as well as individual communication and work-style preferences. The self-discovery plus the cultural knowledge-building make for a unique and strong learning experience.

I like the GSP because it is compact and easy to use. There are only five dimensions to consider, which makes it easier for students whose first language is not English. Even though the tool can be used in 13  languages, when teaching in English, having a smaller number of dimensions helps facilitate learning because it doesn’t overwhelm the student.

I like the IES because it focuses on three aspects of our ability to deal with differences when crossing cultures:

  1. How we learn
  2. How we interact with people
  3. How we deal with emotional stress

What discussions resulted from exploring Profiles? Can you share an example of one of the Profile comparisons you used to stimulate discussion? 

We discussed the differences between cultural generalizations (hypotheses to be tested based upon observable, empirical evidence) versus stereotypes (generalizations based upon opinion and applied to anyone regardless of fact).

We worked through exercises that enabled students to first explore their specific profiles, then had students compare and contrast with team members. We discussed at length the importance of understanding country data compared to individual data; not everybody will fit the composite profile of their home country. For example, in our class, we had two Indonesian students who came from two very different ethnic groups (Sudanese/Lampung) and two Israeli students from different ethnic groups as well (Arab/Jewish) and had very different profile results.

We used the class GSP results to discuss the similarities and differences in the cultural dimensions of the countries represented in our class.

How did you use the IES in the program?

Prior to arrival, students were asked to complete the pre-assessment of the IES. The IES assesses the degree to which a person possesses competencies that are critical to effective interaction with people from other cultural backgrounds. It focuses on three dimensions of intercultural effectiveness, which are:

  • Continuous Learning. Do you seek to understand/learn about the activities, behavior, and events that occur around you?
  • Interpersonal Engagement. Are you passionately interested in other cultures? Do you believe it is important to develop relationships with people from other cultures?
  • Hardiness. Do you have the ability to effectively manage your thoughts and emotions in intercultural situations?  

Class activities focused on these three aspects of cultural competence. For example, in pairs, students picked their strongest competencies and discussed reasons, based upon specific examples, why they might be good at interpersonal engagement. Then, they were encouraged to think about their weakest area, reflect on it in their journal, and share their reflections with one of their classmates. The student’s final assignment was a two-page action plan that challenged them to think of an area for improvement and make a plan for personal development. Within the IES feedback report, there were specific examples to guide them.

At the end of the program, what were the student’s reactions to the effectiveness of both tools?

Out of 31 students who responded, 100% agreed that the GSP was useful in their course. In terms of the IES, 94% agreed to its usefulness, while 6% were neutral (2 students).

At the conclusion of the program, students completed the IES assessment again. The overall scores for all three dimensions and overall cultural competence increased and most of the students increased in all areas.

The students’ anecdotal feedback on the usefulness of these tools was overwhelmingly positive. A few direct quotes are listed below.

GSP reflections included:

  • “It is a visual and clear tool that helps us compare effectively with other people’s results.  It gives us insights into results that we are probably are not aware of.”
  • “It provides us the context for discussion, where we can compare the content with different students (and different places).  It supports our class, otherwise, we have nothing to say in the activity. Also, it gives us a new perspective to understand ourselves with their frame of the west, which is quite different from the east.”
  • “It helped to connect with other people.  When we were comparing our results, it was interesting to know other’s perspectives.”

IES reflections included:

  • “It offers me advice on how to cooperate with people from different cultures.  Also, it reveals my disadvantages and I can try to improve myself by referring to these disadvantages.”
  • “I learned that I need to take a more active, participatory approach when encountering a new culture.”
  • “The IES is more specific and closely connected with the way we react to the world around us.  I think it is a good compliment to the GS Profile.”
  • “It is important to know more about myself before communicating with others. The IES helped me understand more about myself.”

Any final thoughts regarding the use of the GlobeSmart Profile and the IES in a Chinese context?

If students could increase their cultural competence in one week, just think of the potential for sustained “cultural mentoring.” Mick van de Berg’s Georgetown Consortium Project (2011) regarding study abroad and teaching intercultural competence showed that it wasn’t the amount of time a student went abroad, whether they lived with a host family, or whether they spent their day studying the language – what mattered in terms of the outcome of their intercultural effectiveness was the consistent reflection and discussion with a cultural mentor – someone who could guide them throughout their process of self- and other-discovery. GlobeSmart Profile and the IES have proven to be effective for stimulating these growth-oriented discussions in a Chinese academic context.

I would be happy to talk with other faculty and university officials about my experience in China with both of these tools. Interested parties can reach out to me at or visit my website.

About the Authors

Dr. Elizabeth A. Tuleja
Fulbright Scholar at China at Sichuan University

Dr. Elizabeth A. Tuleja is an expert in cultural competence and has been designing, developing, and teaching in business schools in the USA and Asia for 20 years.  She has been on the faculty of the Wharton School of Business, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Notre Dame, and most recently as a Fulbright Scholar to China at Sichuan University in Chengdu. She is currently splitting her time between the USA and China, working as a consultant and educational advisor.  Her most recent book is Intercultural Communication for Global Business: How Leaders Communicate for Success (Routledge, 2017).

Dr. Daniel Basil Kerr
Intercultural Solutions Consultant at Aperian Global

Dan Kerr is an Intercultural Solutions Consultant at Aperian Global and an adjunct faculty member at the College of Business at Stony Brook University and St. Joseph’s College. He partners with organizations and universities to develop cultural competence and inclusive work and study environments. Dan is a CPA and holds a Master’s Degree in Accounting from the CW Post School of Accountancy, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Education/Cultural Studies from New York University. He is also a published poet.