One of the college’s administrative departments ended the fall semester with a holiday party for its student workers. Small presents were handed around and one by one the students opened their gifts, except for one young man, who began to look increasingly uncomfortable balancing a gift bag on his lap.
“In my country, it’s considered rude to open a present in front of the person who has given it to you,” he explained, clearly worried that the office staff would be offended.
The moment illustrates, in a small way, the challenges that people can encounter when living or working with individuals from other cultural traditions. Simple customs and behaviors that one person takes for granted may differ from ideas held by those with a different cultural background. And these differences often remain invisible until conflict emerges, leading to misunderstandings large and small.
Many companies and organizations routinely invest in cultural sensitivity training sessions for executives headed to new and unfamiliar countries. In a world made smaller by technology, however, these specialized training sessions can only address a limited number of circumstances. It does nothing for co-workers who may share adjoining offices but grew up on opposite sides of the globe. Or for neighbors with different cultural backgrounds.
The ability to navigate a world of differences will be a vital skill for the 21st century. Wheaton students have an advantage in this regard, thanks to the college’s emphasis on programs that offer a broad and international set of perspectives on the liberal arts.
In the past 15 years, Wheaton has made great strides in putting the entire world within students’ reach. The establishment of the Center for Global Education has sparked tremendous growth in the number of study abroad options available to students. The college offers more than 60 semester and yearlong study abroad programs on six continents, as well as a growing number of short-term, faculty-led offerings, from tropical field biology in Costa Rica and Belize to contemporary African society in South Africa (both offered this winter). More than half of our students participate in one or more of these opportunities.
Creating a truly international liberal arts education goes beyond offering study abroad opportunities, however. The campus itself must be globally focused. At Wheaton, this effort begins with the curriculum, which infuses a diversity of viewpoints into consideration of virtually every discipline—from art history to psychology and beyond. This feature of our Connections curriculum, ”infusion,” replaces the traditional general education plan in which students take “one” course to satisfy a diversity requirement. Instead, the entire world of views is open for consideration whenever relevant across the entire curriculum.
At the same time, our student body has grown more international as well. Just five years ago, more than 97 percent of our students came from the U.S. Today, nearly 8 percent of the Wheaton student body is international. And we intend to increase the number of students from other countries further, to 15 percent of the campus population, over the next five years.
The college’s new emphasis on recruiting international students will be accompanied by a thorough review of programs and teaching methods to be certain that Wheaton is welcoming to students from other cultures and countries. This will encompass the entire college experience, from residential life and dining services to specialized tutoring on writing, as well as a host of other pedagogical issues. In fact, our faculty members have already begun to discuss informally the kinds of adjustments that might be required.
Ultimately, the changes that will allow the college to become more international will also enhance the power and value of a Wheaton education. Students learn so much from each other, and a classroom that offers a world of differing perspectives will provide our students with a distinct advantage in navigating a complex, global society. And our world will be the better for their ability to be international citizens.
Paper cut-out illustration by David Laferriere