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Transformative Learning | Intercultural Competence

At EDU Africa we aim to encourage, enhance and measure the process of student transformation on our customized study abroad programs. The transformative learning we advocate for is multifaceted and is based on the five goal areas, or educational values, we have identified: Intercultural Competence, Global Citizenship, Personal Growth, Intellectual Growth, and Professional Development.

Through our Transformative Learning blog series, we’ll be sharing more about these five learning goals, why they’re important to us, how we use them to inform our virtual and in-country programming, and what exactly they entail. First, let’s focus on Intercultural Competence.

EDU Africa Transformation Goals

Why Intercultural Competence is one of our goals

Intercultural competence has often been hailed as one of the biggest gains for students while studying abroad. Many contemporary courses of various disciplines – from medicine, to business, to education – include an intercultural learning component, often tailored in professional development terms as a necessary skill for working with people of diverse backgrounds. However, on a fundamentally human level, intercultural competence is vital for operating ethically, equitably and respectfully in our increasingly interconnected and global world. These elements lie at the heart of the concept of intercultural competence itself – the idea “that people with different cultural and ethnic roots can coexist and strive for mutuality and cooperation by looking across and beyond the frontiers of traditional group boundaries with minimum prejudice or illusion.” 1

At EDU Africa, we don’t just think of intercultural competence as a “skill” that can give our students a competitive edge – we think of it as a global game-changer, increasing not only their understanding and awareness of their own culture(s), but also their capacity to enhance collaboration and understanding across cultures, nations and peoples.

Our students leave our programs more compassionate, more open-minded, and as more flexible thinkers, who are curious and willing to learn about themselves and others. 

How our programs encourage growth in this area

The African continent’s cultural and linguistic diversity is widely recognized, but the extent of this diversity is phenomenal: there are over 3000 different ethnic groups on the continent, speaking over 1000 languages across 54 different countries. 2 One might think that traveling to an African country, or countries, requires students to observe and engage with this plethora of different cultures, world views, and ways of life. However, merely being in a country does not mean that a student will develop intercultural competence. As many prominent scholars have noted, intercultural experience is not enough. 3 

Growth in this area demands intentionality, and it is with this in mind that we craft our students’ programs, our approach to student support, and the resources we provide.

Pre-program support and preparation are necessary to prime students for their intercultural learning experience. If armed with foundational intercultural information, students can spend more time engaging with locals, asking questions, and investing in their own growth. To this end, EDU Africa provides students with a pre-program information pack that includes intercultural information, such as useful phrases in the host country, notes on cultural values and etiquette, suggestions for intercultural and/or historical reading, and names of local foods.

On a programmatic level, we consciously build in immersive intercultural activities for students on our in-country as well as our virtual exchange programs – from more conventional intercultural activities such as local food cooking classes and language lessons, to home visits and marketplace challenges. The most meaningful opportunities for developing intercultural competence are those that allow students to form authentic relationships with many different local people – to hear first-hand from lived experiences and perspectives on culture, beliefs and practices. Working alongside program leaders to design intercultural opportunities for students and locals that are unique and fitting to each program is essential in this regard – while an activity offered on a tourism website may be great for exposing students to a different setting, mass-orchestrated and/or curated intercultural activities often serve to reinforce cultural divides and position visiting students as voyeurs and consumers of ‘culture’. We wish to avoid this at all times!

Intercultural competence_student experiences

Regular reflection sessions are similarly paramount to teaching students to think about their cultural behaviors and attitudes. Reflection sessions are formally structured in the itineraries of our programs, and are facilitated by the Program Facilitator assigned to the group, or by the program/faculty leader, or both. While these sessions are used to unpack all five of our transformation goals, we ensure that sufficient emphasis is placed on analyzing intercultural growth – for students to think about, and understand, their own performances of culture; to work through their own journeys of cultural adjustment; and to foster attitudes of empathy, openness, flexibility and respect. 

We also understand that learning happens outside of formal sessions and experiences, and so we encourage all our students to reflect independently – to draw or journal about their experiences and to continue to make sense of them and grow. This is a process that continues long after they return home or the program ends, and one we try and encourage further with our re-entry reflection prompts that are sent to students 1 week, 1 month, and 3 months after their program has finished. 

*Chat to your program manager about the general and/or country-specific intercultural resources EDU Africa can provide to help your students prepare for, and make the most of, their program in Africa.  

What is Intercultural Competence?

There is an incredibly rich landscape of theories and models of intercultural competence that exists, and with over 50 years’ of academic research that has gone into the topic, it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly intercultural competence refers to.4  The AAC&U’s widely used rubric on criteria for intercultural competence notes the following six ‘markers’, namely: cultural self-awareness,  knowledge of cultural worldview frameworks, empathy, verbal and non-verbal communication, curiosity, and openness.5 

Drawing from the AAC&U’s rubric, as well as conceptualizations of intercultural competence by notable scholars such as Darla K. Deardoff and J.M Bennet, Tracy Rundstrom Williams has identified 7 (easily digestible!) components of intercultural competence that can be built into, and evaluated, in study abroad programs. These are: 

  • Cultural self-knowledge
  • Ethnorelative understanding of cultural worldviews
  • Culture-specific knowledge
  • Empathy and respect
  • Socio-linguistic awareness and intercultural communication skills
  • Curiosity and discovery
  • Openness and flexibility6

We weave the above components into our programs, and have used them to guide the development of our own intercultural student learning outcomes. These are approached and achieved differently in every program we design, due to the extensive level of customization involved. However, broadly put, our student learning outcomes for intercultural competence are the following: For students to increase their knowledge of other cultures; develop verbal and non-verbal intercultural communication skills; develop attitudes of respect and empathy; increase awareness of their own cultural identity; and develop attitudes of curiosity. 

Continuing the Transformative Learning Journey

There is no pinnacle of intercultural learning, or a point where one can become totally “interculturally competent” – it is a continuous process, and requires a commitment to lifelong learning. However, the benefits of embracing this process are immense. For us at EDU Africa, intercultural competence is vital to our goal of holistic student transformation. We are committed to engineering our programs in such a way that students see the value of intercultural learning, and commit themselves to a journey of continuous self-reflection and growth in this area. 


Dr Heidi Barends, EDU Africa

Heidi Barends, PhD | Academic Director

Heidi holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Cape Town where she was involved in research and teaching from 2014-2018. She was also a faculty member at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology from 2015-2018. Heidi’s work in programming at EDU Africa is an ideal translation of her research interests – she is passionate about ethical exchange between African countries and the rest of the world, and EDU Africa offers her a platform to achieve this.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. “Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE Rubric.” 2009. Date accessed: 4 February 2020. 

Deardorff, Darla K. “Preface”. The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Ed. Darla K Deardorff. Sage: Thousand Oaks. 2009: xi-xiv.

Nwuso, Peter Ogom. “Understanding Africans’ Conceptualizations of Intercultural Cultural Competence,” The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Ed. Darla K Deardorff. Sage: Thousand Oaks. 2009: 158-178.

Rundstrom Williams, Tracy. Learning Through a PRISM. TCU Press: Fort Worth. 2018. 

Spitzberg, Brian H. and Changnon, Gabrielle. “Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence.” The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Ed. Darla K Deardorff. Sage: Thousand Oaks. 2009: 2-52.

Yun  Kim, Young. “The Identity Factor in Intercultural Competence.” The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Ed. Darla K Deardorff. Sage: Thousand Oaks. 2009: 53-65.