Preparing Students for Global Workplaces

by Lily Arasaratnam-Smith
25th February 2020

Employers in various industries, from business to pastoral ministry, value intercultural communication skills in their employees because of the increasing cultural diversity in most urban cities. While universities across the world have excelled in preparing graduates for a chosen discipline, the intentional preparation of graduates for a global marketplace is not normal practice in every curriculum. The purpose of this article is to identify the types of comprehension that should be developed in global graduates, or graduates who are competent in intercultural communication.

A commonly agreed upon definition of intercultural communication competence (ICC) is the effective and appropriate interpersonal communication between persons from different (ethnic/national) cultures. Researchers agree that ICC requires specific cognitive, emotional, and behavioural skills[1]. For example, some skills associated with ICC are cognitive complexity (the ability to form unique, nuanced categories in one’s mind), empathy, positive attitude toward other cultures, motivation, listening, humility, and mindfulness. But how can these abilities be intentionally cultivated in students so that they can be competent intercultural communicators when they enter the workplace?

Ten Considerations from Current Practice

Universities across the world have implemented different initiatives to develop ICC in students, such as incorporating a compulsory  class or two in intercultural communication, study abroad programs, intercultural work experience programs, workshops, training, and reflective exercises. Based on case studies of such initiatives in different countries, researchers[2] have identified ten things educators must consider when implementing initiatives to develop ICC in students. First, developing ICC has to be intentional – it doesn’t just happen. Second, you can’t copy someone else’s program and hope it works in your institution. You must contextualise a program to what is appropriate for your situation and for your students. Third, educators must think about programs that will be best for the students, not ones that will be easy to implement. Fourth, programs to develop ICC should include some sort of practical component so that students have the opportunity to see how theory works in practice. Fifth, development of ICC should not only be about gaining knowledge, but also developing the right attitudes for interacting with people from other cultures. Sixth, ICC development is about the process of learning, not the results. In other words, the focus should be on progressive, reflective learning rather than achieving a particular grade or result. Seventh, ICC programs should include input from a variety of perspectives, such as readings/illustrations from different cultures.. Eight, ICC training should include a variety of assessments, not just essays or tests. Ninth, educators should consider the limitations of the environment when designing a program; in other words, design something that works within the financial and cultural parameters of the learning place. Finally, ICC training is not just for students; teachers and educators should also be trained to engage with cultural diversity.

Developing Global Graduates

ICC is not a way of doing, but rather a way of being. In addition to developing intercultural communication skills, I think there are four key understandings[3] that must be cultivated in students in order to prepare them to be competent communicators. These are as follows:

  1. Understanding of self – understanding how your own culture influences the way you see the world is vitally important to developing ICC. Research shows that self-awareness is essential for effective communication. Self-awareness can be cultivated through opportunities for self-reflection, proactive seeking of feedback and input from trusted others, and systematic activities such as journaling, for example.

   2. Understanding of others – without understanding of another’s perspective, effective communication is nearly impossible. That is why active listening and empathy are proved to be essential to ICC. Understanding of others can be cultivated through putting one’s self in the other person’s situation to try to imagine what they must be seeing and feeling, for example. This kind of empathetic role-taking can be difficult when the other person is from a different culture, but not impossible if you combine empathy with active listening and willingness to learn.

  3. Understanding of self’s responsibility to others – although we may sometimes think we are responsible for our own destiny, especially if we come from an individualistic culture, we live in communities. As such, our actions and choices inevitably affect others around us. Even though we may have a right to something (a seat on a bus, for example), we choose to give up that right when we recognise responsibility (giving up the seat for an elderly person).

  4. Understanding of others’ contribution to self – similar to recognising one’s responsibility to others, understanding of others’ contribution to self is about recognising that we live in a time and place that has benefited from the hard work, creativity, and sacrifices of the people who came before us. For example, we are fortunate enough to live in a free country, that freedom was bought by people who fought wars or social prejudices to win that freedom for us. I think this understanding fosters not only humility, but also the sense of responsibility for the choices we make today that will affect others who will come after us. 

If educators can integrate content and activities that foster understanding of self, understanding of others, understanding of self’s responsibility to others, and understanding of others’ contribution to self into curricula in schools and universities, we will have taken a significant step toward developing global graduates. The ten considerations previously mentioned must also be taken into account when designing programs and courses for developing these four understandings. Several schools and universities have already taken steps to integrate ICC development in their curricula. I hope the four understandings identified in this article would further stimulate thinking in initiatives to develop global graduates.

About the Author: Lily A. Arasaratnam-Smith is a Professor of Communication at Alphacrucis College, Australia. Her area of expertise is intercultural communication. 

[1] Arasaratnam, L. A. (2016). Intercultural competence. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.), Oxford research encyclopaedia of communication. Oxford University Press.

[2] Deardorff, D. K., & Arasaratnam-Smith, L. A. (2017). Intercultural competence in higher education: International approaches, assessment, and application. Routledge.

[3] Arasaratnam-Smith, L. A. (2020). Developing global graduates: Essentials and possibilities. Research in Comparative International Education, 15(1).