Conventional wisdom says that one can prepare for the challenges of living abroad by studying, engaging with people from a host country, and learning the language. While these all help, research has shown that it is the intentional, persistent, and focused attention of a person’s self-reflection on their learning — over time — that leads to greater understanding and competence when navigating a different culture.1
No matter how talented in their chosen instrument, international music students who come to study in the USA will likely encounter an ingrained value system very different than their own. Miscommunication and conflict can frequently occur when first encountering people from different cultures. These differences introduce several incompatible practices related to academics, communication and interaction styles, health, safety, legal practices, professional standards.
During the Fall 2017 semester, a pilot training program was offered by Sierra Nevada College (SNC) to explore how one online pre-departure cultural and academic preparation class influenced international students’ knowledge of USA culture, communication styles, integration strategies, and professional skills. Students were recruited with the assistance of Musicians Institute (MI), a private undergraduate college in Hollywood, California. MI emailed prospective international students still living in their home countries an invitation to complete the online pilot training class.
All students spoke English as a second language and were preparing to travel to the USA for a full-time study in 2018. Eight students completed the free online class (a common completion rate for an optional, 45-hour international travel preparation course); two from Argentina, and the remainder from Ecuador, Sweden, Taiwan, China, France, and Brazil. There were five males and three females; they ranged in age from 19 to 32 with an average age of 25.
The online USA culture and academic preparation class was taught by Tara Madden-Dent, Phd.D., a US Professor from Sierra Nevada College. Although the class was designed to be self-paced, students completed one face-to-face online office hour meeting with Professor Madden-Dent during the first week of class. Other class requirements included homework and reflections, quizzes, a paper, and a course evaluation survey. The students who completed the full online class received a letter of recommendation and a certificate of completion.
The GlobeSmart Profile (GSP) was used to help students better understand their own cultural preferences and tendencies when interacting with others, and provided points of comparison to other individuals and groups, including the norms for the US. The GSP was a starting point for reflection on the impact of participants’ preferred styles of engaging with others.
The GSP includes five key cultural dimensions rooted in Hofstede’s model that will most likely manifest themselves in the classroom and in the workplace. Users complete a 40-question survey and get a personalized report that illustrates their placement on a spectrum of five dimensions: Independent – Interdependent; Egalitarianism – Status; Risk – Certainty; Direct – Indirect; and Task – Relationship.
The music students received a personalized report that analyzed their preferences and provided suggestions for overcoming cultural gaps they may have with those who have different preferences. Participants were required to compare and reflect on their personal preferences and how they may have differed with the cultural norms in the USA. They also completed a number of self-guided courses, including Cultural Foundations, Introduction to the USA, Preparing for the USA, and Leveraging Diverse Styles.
Students also completed the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES). This assessment measures competencies essential for effective interaction with people from different cultures. They completed the IES twice; once before the pilot training program began, and again after they completed the course requirements, before departing for their study in the USA. The pre-and post-course assessments provide an objective assessment of the impact the pre-departure course may have had on their cultural competence.
The IES examines the following three dimensions of cultural competence:
The IES measured cultural competency on a Likert scale of 1 (low) to 7 (high) for each dimension. Average scores for Continuous Learning increased from 4.13 to 4.88; average scores for Interpersonal Engagement increased from 3.38 to 4.38; average scores for Hardiness increased from 3.63 to 4.13; averages scores for Overall Cultural Competency increased from 3.50 to 4.75.
After collecting and analyzing all participant surveys, assessments, journal notes, homework, office hour and workshop observations, and Action Plan Worksheets, the student data showed an increase in:
After reflecting on her experience leading this online preparation class, Professor Madden-Dent shared, “I believe in GlobeSmart’s ability to help students and faculty within a variety of academic contexts.”
When asked to comment on the helpfulness of the GlobeSmart Profile and the IES, 100% of students strongly agreed both tools were helpful.
As part of the formal evaluation of the online course, students were asked to react to the following statement: The online Aperian Global account with the GlobeSmart culture comparison report and Intercultural Effectiveness Scale report were helpful.” Their choices to respond were: Strongly Agree; Agree; Neither Agree nor Disagree; Disagree; Strongly Disagree. The responses were 100% “Strongly Agree.”
Here is a sampling of some student feedback, in their own words:
“One concept that I gained from GlobeSmart, which I will apply in the USA, is that you never know which cultural preferences someone else has. You can’t assume it based on someone’s personality or appearance, and that’s why it’s so important to communicate, listen to others, and try to see things from their perspective. That’s when you start to understand each other.”
“Now, I have the emotional and mental preparation to establish myself in my first semester in the United States, and thus spend most of my time at the Institute of Musicians.”
“One concept I gained from GlobeSmart, which I will apply in the USA, is taking the time and effort to understand differences. We all have rules highly influenced by our culture; nevertheless, the key is to create effective communication and stay open-minded to comprehend the other person’s way of thinking.”
A recent study of Polish Fulbright Scholars had similar results, although the subjects of the two studies were very different.
Dr. Daniel Basil 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 PhD in Business Education/Cultural Studies from New York University. He is also a published poet.
The Professor in this study, Tara Madden-Dent, Ph.D., specializes in cross-cultural relocation, transition, and adjustment of international students studying in the United States higher education systems. She now serves as the Director of Global Programs at Sierra Nevada College, a private Liberal Arts university in Incline Village, Nevada. In her doctoral study, Dr. Madden-Dent investigated how international students prepared for the cultural challenges of study abroad before arrival in the US and how the methods impacted initial transition and first-semester adjustment.