How college students experience intercultural learning: Key features and approaches

Patricia M. King, Rosemary J. Perez, Woo Jeong Shim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many colleges and universities in the United States aim to promote intercultural competence in their students. However, most research on this outcome has focused on the content of educational programs (what educators offer) rather than on how students experience intercultural learning. This qualitative inquiry from the Wabash National Study analyzed 207 intercultural experiences from 161 college students on 6 campuses to identify contexts, characteristics, and key features of how they experience intercultural learning. Using grounded theory approaches, we summarized student interviews over 2 years, conducted open and axial coding to identify themes, and evaluated the themes over time. Using this approach, we identified three major themes: (a) that intercultural learning occurred when students directly encountered others' experiences; (b) that feeling safe enough to explore cultural differences was a key dimension of intercultural learning; and (c) that students used a variety of approaches that led to intercultural learning (from simply listening or watching to exploring how one's personal identity related to intercultural understanding) and that these varied in degree of complexity and agency. Implications for practice are offered to help educators make decisions about how to promote intercultural effectiveness in collegiate settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-83
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Diversity in Higher Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • college students
  • higher education
  • intercultural effectiveness
  • intercultural learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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