Research has shown that intercultural learning provides multiple benefits, which are structured in the educational goals that guide the AFS programs for high-school students: intercultural learning helps young people develop competences on a personal, interpersonal, cultural and global levels. How far reaching are these benefits of intercultural learning?
Those of us who have participated in an exchange program with AFS and have seen others participate, know that many, if not all, AFSers enjoy the interpersonal benefits, like communication skills and leadership, as well as cognitive benefits, such as integrative complexity and divergent thinking. What do these two complex terms mean?
People with high levels of integrative complexity can take in many perspectives on a situation, collect information from all those perspectives, and come up with efficient solutions to life problems. Divergent thinking can be equated to creativity, as it refers to the capacity to think outside the box, and problem solve in a creative way. People who possess these two skills are believed to be better at teamwork, less susceptible to prejudice, more tolerant of ambiguity, intrinsically motivated and flexible. They usually also have a clearer sense of self and orientation toward the future, higher self-efficacy, resiliency and perspective taking.
When we analyze personal accounts from people who participated in intercultural learning experiences, it is possible to trace how both integrative complexity and divergent thinking are present. For example, an AFS student from Costa Rica on exchange in the Netherlands describes her experience in the following way:
“The year away taught me that I can be independent and take care of myself. I also learned to make the right decisions and open up my worldview; I learned to accept cultural differences and understand that maybe what seems strange to me is just normal to others.”
This participant is not only portraying an increased sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy, but is also explaining in her own words that she has learned to integrate different perspectives, which probably plays a big part in her perceived ability to make better decisions and expand her worldview. Another AFS student who went on a program from Costa Rica to Germany said:
“Learning to relate to people in complex contexts, surpassing cultural barriers to reach consensus was and still is the most important skill I have learned.”
He is alerting us to how interacting with people from other cultures challenged his way of thinking, and taught him the skill of integration.
Knowing about these benefits from my personal experience as an intercultural learner, and combining that with my training in psychology, led me to consider if intercultural learning can be used as a therapeutic tool for struggling young adults. I have been working on this technique since 2012 at my practice called The Bridge.
Cultural immersion can be daunting in many ways: it puts you out of your comfort zone, makes you question your beliefs, and demands lots of flexibility. It can appear counterintuitive to invite someone who is already feeling uncomfortable and doubtful to go through an experience that could accentuate those feelings. At the same time, wouldn’t it be great if these same people could reap the benefits of increased self-efficacy, future orientation, resiliency and perspective-taking that are so much lacking in struggling populations?
Supportive immersion could be the answer to these questions. This is an approach to experiential learning where the participants are actively engaged, and ultimately responsible for their learning experience, while there is ample support from guides who know how to provide just the right amount of it.
By stepping out from their worldview, and stepping into the cultural world of the other, people diversify and expand their perspectives, resources and skills, and with the right kind of support, they can use these intercultural experiences to heal from the darkness of their struggles.
This article was written by Danny Recio, an AFS Costa Rica alumnus who studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa in 1998, and was a host brother to students from Australia, the Netherlands and United States. He is a psychologist and ecologist, and the founder and director of The Bridge.