One of the most exciting developments in higher education has been the shift toward internationalization of campuses around the world.

Study abroad programs and recruitment of international students to higher education campuses cultivate a sense of global engagement for the entire student body.  However, understanding and communicating effectively with members of other cultural groups on a college campus takes intentional effort and time to cultivate. Unlike traveling to another country for a short vacation, learning and appreciating other cultures requires a host of skills that can be challenging, so consider the following tips to build strong cultural bridges, whether you are a domestic, international, or bicultural student.  

A cultural bridge is a shared experience that occurs as we form relationships with people outside of our own culture. As we form these cultural bridges, we cultivate respect and appreciation for other people different from us.

Recognize the differences.

Building a cultural bridge means recognizing differences. It’s easy to identify the obvious differences such as language or appearance, but the vast majority of culture is unseen.

A common metaphor often used to describe culture is an iceberg. Only a small part of culture is observable to people, while the majority of it remains hidden. In order to build strong cultural bridges, we need to recognize our own deeply embedded cultural values, including our “baggage.”  Often, differences make us uncomfortable, but acknowledging these key differences can help us begin the journey toward building better cultural bridges. We can reflect on why we may feel uncomfortable. Sometimes this discomfort prevents us from exploring further, and we may simply give up and go back to our comfortable routine. If we give up at this stage, we miss out on the opportunity to explore aspects of culture that may be fascinating and transformative.

Celebrate the differences.

Once we step out of our discomfort, we can embrace the differences with gusto, and begin building cultural bridges. Celebrating cultural differences does not mean we must abandon our own cultural values. Rather, building cultural bridges involves appreciating the differences and embracing cultures with a sense of wonder and joy.

For example, when I invited my students from India to my home for a meal, they taught me how to eat properly with my fingers and explained why swirling and scooping the rice with my fingers can help me appreciate the texture of ingredients. Unfortunately, I never quite mastered this art form, so I’m back to eating with forks or chopsticks. However, I have not forgotten the joy of that visceral experience!

Make frequent “trips.”

Finally, forming meaningful cultural bridges means that we will make frequent trips back and forth between cultures. A cultural bridge allows us to explore new areas while still being connected to our own. Some of us will have the opportunity to live or work overseas for an extended time period, but for most people, learning about other cultures will occur as we develop friendships with others and share life together.

As we cultivate friendships with people from cultures outside of our own, we affirm the value and worth of all people. In turn, others can learn and appreciate our cultural heritage as we share experiences that change the way they may view us. Building cultural bridges takes time and planning, but the rewards extend beyond what we can imagine.