The Transformative Power of Intercultural Experiences

 

Today’s guest post is written by Arnd Wächter from Crossing Borders Education.  Arnd writes about the transformative power of international experiences and he offers a glimpse into his personal experience on the subject. Arnd is one of the most fascinating people that I’ve met on this international education journey; we have talked for hours about how meeting people from other parts of the world and hearing different perspectives have shaped us. Arnd has not only become a friend to me and my family, but is also a part of Melibee Global’s international speakers series. He can be booked to present his film, Crossing Borders, and is scheduled to be in the US from mid-March through mid-April 2011, so reach out if you are interested.  (His film is also available for screening in other parts of the world.)

As an educator, I believe that intercultural experiences have an important role to play in a world situation that is – to say the least – very confusing. This year, 2011, marks a decade since the tragic events of September 11. Today’s undergraduate college students were eight to twelve years old in 2001 and consequently have spent their intellectually formative years with post-9/11 media coverage, little of which addressed the need for intercultural understanding. I believe that we have the demanding opportunity to support this  generation of students and future leaders to deeper understand the major challenges of cross-cultural conflicts and to develop the capabilities, commitment and grit to address them.

Personal experiences that are transformative are often the driving force behind the passions in our lives.  I would love to share a glimpse of mine. I was born in communist East Germany and grew up next to the Berlin Wall. Sometimes my brother and I climbed trees to see boats going by on the river on the other side of the wall. We watched people having barbecue in their gardens but were never able to go there. I was 19 years old when the wall came tumbling down. At that time and in the following years, I experienced drastically in my own story the reality of the Anais Nin’s statement: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

When traveling the world, I realized with amazement how much my images of history, countries and current affairs have been shaped by the context I had lived in. Intercultural experiences became one of the key teachers for my personal development and for learning about other cultures and people. My fascination grew about the process of what happens to our perception and awareness when we enter another culture with appreciation and open senses. I sensed that the world can look entirely different from a different cultural perspective when I am engaging openly in deep dialogue with people of other cultures. And I realized in these conversations that I am learning as much about the “Other” as I am learning about myself.

In the following years, I became passionate about intercultural immersion experiences and backpacked on tiny budgets across the world – often choosing solo trips in order to intensify the intercultural impact. These personal travel experiences became the vibrant background for my passion to create cross-cultural immersion programs, activities and films, which encourage, support and challenge university students to cross borders internally and externally. I would love to share a few of my observations on these activities:

Student Experiences on the Morocco Exchange programs of our organization triggered often very different responses of American students when they stayed at Moroccan family homes and interacted personally with Moroccan students. American students from a more liberal background were often surprised about the positive experiences they had. Some of them identified themselves as being very literate with critical thinking skills and were then surprised finding out how much they had been affected by images of Muslims in the US media.

Conservative students who traveled with us often had to process the shock of experiencing openness, hospitality and warmth in Morocco in sharp contrast to the hostile view their entire families held of the region. I remember a student sharing with me: “My parents and grandparents are not talking to me at the moment. They are evangelical Christians and are deeply upset with me that I am visiting a Muslim country.” After a while she added with a quiet voice: “They consider this religion as evil.”

Over the past years I saw in my own story and in the story of students that experiences themselves are the best teacher to confront existing preconceptions. It is a defining and creative moment when students encounter for themselves something that is in contrast to their accustomed perception, because it empowers them to discover themselves first hand and enhances critical thinking skills. It is powerful to experience hospitality in a Muslim country and then to reflect on: How come we hear so much about the reality of terrorism while hearing very little about the reality and beauty of the other culture? How come we saw post 9/11 on US media images of a small group of 10-20  Muslims celebrating, creating an image as if the entire Muslim world was celebrating? How come we saw these images repeated over and over again? How come we did not see 60,000 Iranians holding a Peace Vigil for the victims of 9/11? How come we did not see the images of over 1 million Moroccans demonstrating against the use of violence in the name of their faith after the bombing in Casablanca in which no American was hurt?

These are moments in which I have a lot of compassion with my students. I remember how much inner work it was after the Communist system imploded to come to terms with my entire education being incomplete or a distorted image. To change such perception does not happen in one conversation it needs eye opening experiences and time to reflect and process.

What I truly love about American students is the quality to get emotionally involved and care about issues and people. I noticed that most students who traveled with us knew very little about the region. I also experienced that the majority really cared from the moment they connected to a person or an issue on a personal level. It is a quality I deeply appreciate in the American culture.

The Educators Role: My experience is that most of the time we do not need to tell students what to think or do. We only need to encourage and support them to step into experiences that are challenging and widening. I experienced many times that the goodness within students takes over and makes them choose their next chapters of learning themselves by going into volunteer work, study abroad or long term services such as the Peace Corps. I experienced that students can discover their passion and task in this world where they are connected to their own power. So I would like to close with a quote that I love sharing with students when they ask “So what can I do?”, a quote which became key to my personal process of growing ideas and visions into creative realities.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.

Ask yourself what makes you come alive

and then go and do that.

Because what the world needs

is people who have come alive.”

H. T. Whitman

About the Author: Arnd received his school education in Communist East Germany. As a conscientious objector to military service, he was not allowed to study at university and became a carpenter. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he started to travel the world beyond Eastern Europe and was able to study abroad in London. There he completed his MA in Religious Studies and Post Graduate Certificate of Education. Since 1996 he has worked and lived in the UK, Japan, Australia, the US, Spain and Morocco and traveled extensively on six continents. The impact these journeys had on him personally made him aware of the transformative power of cross-cultural interactions. Being on a visit to Morocco during the build-up to the US intervention in Iraq, he was deeply moved by personal conversations with Moroccans. This inspired him to create an educational NGO that by now has taken over 3600 American students on programs to interact with Moroccan families, students, professors, Peace Corps volunteers, and Fulbright scholars on a personal level. In 2007-2009 he produced and directed the feature documentary “Crossing Borders”as a cross cultural tool to initiate dialogue between students in the Western and Muslim worlds. The film was selected at 12 international film festivals and won several awards.


  • As a South Vietnamese growing up in war torn South Vietnam, I benefit from both French and American culture in my younger years. After the fall of Saigon (or the "liberation" of South Vietnam), I was among the 800 successful candidates among the 43'000 who sat for entrance examinations to various universities of the newly unified Vietnam. Upon graduation, I worked as a professional translator and interpreter in 5 languages, among which Russian and German. Later on, I also acquired Swiss German and Norwegian in my set of languages as translator. With this background, I had experienced a lot of scenario where cross-cultural communication plays a very important role, even within the same ethnic group, sharing the same beliefs, speaking the same language. In my studies of Buddhism, I learnt that we are shaped by the perceptions that we have of the world through inputs we receive from our immediate entourage and senses, and the way to consciously neutralise negative thoughts and build up positive thought through the process of meditation. I am still working on this and find that it helps a lot to develop compassion to understand the "other" while you are communicating with them. From my readings on Vietnam war stories, I also noticed that a lot of destruction and losses of life could have been spared if both sides had been given the opportunities to understand the opponent's position. For me, understanding others' culture start with an open mind to accept that there can be many solutions to problem-solving, and nobody can be holding the absolute truth. If we learn how to listen actively, we may find a solution of resolving a conflict without having to use coercitive methods to impose our own thinking.

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  • Mike Bosch

    For a person who is not financially blessed, the opportunities of going abroad is close to zero. Despite being motivated and driven to immerse in a different culture for the purpose of learning and growth, chances are, it’ll just stay as a farfetched dream. I don’t want this to happen so I am considering a lot of options. Tier 5 youth mobility scheme visa or a working holiday visa seems to be a good stepping stone for me to finally achieve my dream.