As a practitioner in international exchange and education with a focus on intercultural competence, the onslaught of COVID-19 was a surreal experience unlike any other. The entire world shut down and yet there was transformative work to be done. The spring months of 2020 were truly all they were described to be—challenging, trying, difficult, uncertain, and every other adjective used in email exchanges. And yet, what an enormous opportunity to potentially expand the reach to meet the direct needs of today’s youth. To stretch our flexibility muscles and, instead of waiting for things to go “back to normal,” to creatively and intentionally adjust to providing exchange programs virtually.
I had the privilege to facilitate TechGirls, U.S. Department of State initiative, administered by Legacy International, virtually in summer 2020, teaching leadership and intercultural competence skills to over 60 high school girls from 12 countries.
Here are a few things I learned about the intersection of Virtual Exchange and Intercultural Competence in COVID-19:
1) The Power of Virtual Exchange
In just three short weeks, each of the TechGirls virtual exchange participants made lifelong friendships, had challenging dialogues and conversations, and broaden their horizons. Several intercultural competence attitudes were explored and developed throughout the program. TechGirls created a code of conduct collaboratively at the start of the program to create an environment of mutual respect. They also practiced openness in their zoom sessions when discussing values, cultural norms and sensitive topics including religion and politics. Key intercultural competence stages including curiosity and discovery were also enhanced as girls learned about their peers from 12 different countries! Curriculums included app prototype development, artistic development and solidarity, United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals, climate action, and service and advocacy. Participants gained insight from experts in the field and acquired global resources to tackle these project challenges and delivered remarkable results.
2) Community and connection are not limited to in-person experiences
A silver lining in the midst of COVID-19 is that we are in the digital age with all types of technology to enhance access to exceptional educational curriculums and discussions. Someone in America can have a conversation with individuals in 12 other countries simultaneously. As we are more isolated than ever, we have a deeper desire to connect with other people, and that is not limited to a conversation across the table—it can be across a computer screen. The need to know and be known transcends physical limitations. We can leverage intercultural competence knowledge in tapping into our motivation, our self- and other-knowledge, our tolerance for uncertainty, and our desire to grow our communication skills across the virtual bounds.
3) Intercultural competence and dialogue with youth is the future
Our world is continuously becoming more interconnected, and the necessity for cross-cultural competency cannot be understated. To succeed in the 21st century workforce, communication skills that translate across borders and nations are vital. These communication skills cannot exist without an understanding that cultures each have their own unique customs, standards, social norms, and thought patterns. The ability to engage with people from differing backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and other factors is essential to excellence in all fields in a globalized world.
4) Flexible Leadership – It is all about trust in relationships!
The virtual exchange program would not have been successful if it were not for the support and proactivity of Legacy International’s leadership in responding to the health crisis with direct support to staff and resources and investment on how to conduct a virtual exchange at the highest quality. Our team fully immersed itself into the research and development of virtual exchanges and best practices for intercultural competence training. We followed the participants’ experiences throughout the exchange and witnessed exceptional outcomes relating to intercultural competence. These included the TechGirls being able to express reflections on their own cultural perspectives and norms, recognize a new view of their own culture and preconceived ideas.