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Bennett kicks off International Education Week

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Highlighting the crucial importance of intercultural competency in education, a distinguished speaker captivating a packed Baker Ballroom Tuesday evening as Ohio University’s first official celebration of International Education Week began.

Janet Bennett, the executive director of the Intercultural Communication Institute, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit with the mission of “fostering an awareness of appreciation of cultural difference” both internationally and domestically, addressed the reception of undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty, about how to educate each other on being competent when abroad or while interacting across cultures.

Bennett’s speech, which drew in much from her Peace Corps experience as well as her experience in education, focused on solving the “cultural bumps” that often occur when people can misinterpret others because of cultural differences, and realizing that just being abroad or knowing someone of a different culture is not enough.

“The idea is that we have the humility to know that the world is a foreign land to us and not the sense of security that ‘everything in the world is mine,’” Bennett said. 

Bennett orchestrated table conversation to determine why exactly intercultural competence is so important, seeing as so many institutions often deem it to be unnecessary. The overarching reasons, the group concluded, were that in higher education you get left behind if you cannot interact across cultures, and that surviving in another culture is not enough, but you must be able to progress in it.

Tom Luce, an executive board member for the International Association for Computer Information Systems, spoke about the importance of it in more local terms.

“Through my time here I’ve discovered that Athens, Ohio is a really interesting place because the world runs through it,” Luce said. “Looking around the room, you see that.”

One of the main points Bennett spoke about keeping in mind was to remain empathetic toward people of other cultures, especially a cultures you don’t understand. She described a situation in which she had had a rough day and a cab driver asked her how she was. Before ranting about her own problems, she discovered the man came from the war-ravaged region of Darfur in Sudan, and connected her story to the importance of learning others’ stories before jumping to conclusions.

“Someone could know the art (of a culture) backward and forward, and still not know how to interact with another human from that culture,” Bennett said. She went on to outline three characteristics that do not “cut it” in terms of making someone cultural competent.

Being in contact with other cultures is not enough, Bennett said, explaining that the “put people together and they will love each other” theory is false. “Learning requires more than being in the vicinity of the event, she said. “We can go to France and see a French event and still have an American experience.”

Bennett also stressed that knowing a language, despite what many believe, is also not enough. While in the Peace Corps, she became fluent in the language of the Micronesian people she lived among, but still found herself making those same “cultural bumps.”

“It can make you a fluent fool,” Bennett said, stressing the importance of language teachers at Ohio University teaching the culture as well as the language. “The depth of experience that accompanies language learning is incredibly important…The greater the multicultural experience, the greater the intercultural development.”

Study abroad programs, Bennett said, are the single most impacting experience of the undergraduate years, citing a recent study in which 50 percent of 6,391 students claimed it to be true.

To help an institution achieve intercultural competence, Bennett said, takes a few steps. Decreasing anxiety, which she explained means reducing other stresses of diving into another culture as much as possible, is the best way to help achieve the goal. She again talked of teaching empathy toward other cultures, and taking advantage of the “teachable moments” that come from making cultural slip ups.

“We give learners the expectation that they will make mistakes,” Bennett said, about having cultural bumps. “If you’re not making a mistake occasionally, then you’re probably not watching carefully enough.”

Vice Provost for Global Affairs Lorna Jean Edmonds encouraged the audience to take Bennett’s advice as well as the whole week to enhance the learning experience together.

“We can go more global,” Edmonds said. “When we think of international, think of what we can do at home.”

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