Intercultural Sensitivity Development through Experiential Learning

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Intercultural Sensitivity Development through Experiential Learning

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Abstract Much of the extensive literature on the development of intercultural sensitivity focuses on formal education and training. This dissertation research in contrast makes its contribution to the field by trying to understand how experiences (rather than formal educational experiences) and related informal learning may assist in the development of intercultural sensitivity. A case study was conducted of the population of effective refugee service workers in a program in a nonprofit organization in the United States. The purpose of this study is to examine the experiences and related informal learning that help to shape individual’s intercultural sensitivity and to identify those experiential factors that contribute to the cultivation of an interculturally sensitive state of mind. The key research question guiding the study is: “What prior experiences influence the development of intercultural sensitivity?” The overall answer to the research question is that participants unanimously reported that they had experiences of cultural difference. In addition, several themes and sub-themes emerged from the interviews. Specifically participants were reflecting on the differences that they experienced, engaging in meaningful interactions or relationships with people different from themselves confronting ambiguity, developing mindfulness, constructing new ways of viewing the world, better understanding cultural value dimensions, modifying and refining their weltanschaung (worldviews), receiving cultural mentoring, continuously questioning their biases, experiencing culture fatigue, looking alike/but thinking differently, being more aware of visibility/invisibility, and bridging differences. Interviews were conducted to the point of data saturation and revealed two basic findings: 1) the participants’ experiences echoed the intercultural literature despite that they had not had specific training in the intercultural field; 2) it is conceivably possible that interculturally sensitive people may have the ability to break the bonds of a single worldview and apply their skills to breaking the bonds of unfamiliar cultures if they have been able to successfully bridge two or more cultures. The significance of the findings are that selecting refugee service workers who are interculturally sensitive may help refugees feel more welcome in the refugee serving organization and prevent refugees leaving without being served and with hurt feelings. The U.S. Census “estimated the number of foreign born [people] in the United States to be nearly 40 million, or 13 percent of the total population” (United States Department of State, 2018). By the end of 2016, 65.6 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. That was an increase of 300,000 people over the previous year, and the world’s forcibly displaced population remained at a record high. (UNHCR, 2017) “Stanley Tambiah (2000) at Harvard argues that the study of such groups is at the most cutting edge of contemporary social science research” (Fry, 2016). With 65.6 million people displaced worldwide and increasing (UNHCR, 2017), the need for refugee services workers who are interculturally sensitive will also increase dramatically. Service workers in small nonprofit organizations serving refugees are poorly funded and workers receive appalling low wages for long work hours under challenging conditions (such as middle of the night airport pick-ups and assisting clients trying to rid their of homes of bed bugs), often receiving only the legal minimum wage, frequently with no health insurance, retirement or customary benefits other workers are commonly offered. Despite the difficult working conditions, it is noteworthy and surprising that these interview participants had never been observed to have been become bitter, cynical or angry in their relationships with their refugee clients. However, they may have moved on to different types of work more quickly than people doing less challenging work with better compensation packages. Improved compensation and working conditions may be a policy consideration as a means to improve the longevity of services workers tenure as they develop knowledge of social services and cultures and are therefore better able to provide higher quality services to new immigrant and refugee communities. It is essential to make each interaction between service worker and newcomer an effective and meaningful one, so that refugees do not simply leave an agency without receiving the beneficial or effective services guaranteed to them by governmental regulations. Refugees often arrive from refugee camps with a single bag of belongings and a debt for their airfare to the United States. Although some refugees are doctors, nurses, pharmacists and teachers, it is not easy to become re-licensed for professional work in the United States. Some refugees were farmers back home and most are resettled into cities. These difficulties to resume their profession make it important, at least during the first years, to have support from family, friends or refugee service workers. To provide the highest quality and most effective services it is important that refugee services workers not only have social service skills in their given profession, but also have intercultural sensitivity. It is nice to feel understood, but it is essential to be treated in a culturally respectful way and receive culturally appropriate (Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016) services. Perhaps this study can illuminate some of the qualities that employers might consider when selecting people to work with people from many different cultures. Refugee services administrators should make it a priority to provide culturally sensitive services. To do so, part of their selection protocol might include selecting refugee service workers who are interculturally sensitive. Optimistically, doing so will make relationships between incoming and receiving communities more effective and more harmonious. It is imperative to provide culturally-sensitive and appropriate high quality services to our growing immigrant communities (including refugees). Hopefully this research in a small way will provide some useful (Lindblom & Cohen, 1979; Ravetz, 1987) empirical data and related insights to facilitate and inform attainment of this lofty goal. Keywords: intercultural sensitivity, experiential learning, cultural mentoring, refugees


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.November 2018. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisor: Gerald Fry. 1 computer file (PDF); xvi, 170 pages.

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Stone, Barbara. (2018). Intercultural Sensitivity Development through Experiential Learning. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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