A Walk in the Woods: A Path to Internationalization

Sara Trimm

SUNY Potsdam


Imagine for a minute that it’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re hiking through the woods with a friend. Suddenly you hear something in the distance. There are many trees and lots of brush in between you and what made the noise. All at once, you and your friend spot the noise-maker. You can see clearly that the creature is brown, white, soft and fluffy. Clearly the thing is harmless. Your friend, who is standing just 10 feet in front of you on the same path, claims the beast is ivory, hard, and pointy: really dangerous and daunting. You can see your friend, you can see the creature, and you know you are right. What is this friend talking about? Meanwhile, your friend can see you, and the beast, yet doesn’t understand why you aren’t frightened. You are both certain you’re looking at the same thing. How would you resolve the issue? Do you just agree with your friend and head back to the car, ending the hike much earlier than you had planned? Do you argue? Do you accept that your friend is either crazy or looking at something else that isn’t the cause of the noise? Do you painstakingly explain why you are right and they are wrong, and how you came to that conclusion? Do you try to convince them to see what you see? After all, you are absolutely certain you are right, so your friend can’t be… or can s/he?? Would you handle this situation differently if you were with a colleague, with your boss, or with a prospective student?

Removing ourselves from the scenario, it becomes clear. The noise was a deer, a mighty white-tailed buck. From your perspective, you saw the soft, fluffy tail that is anything but threatening. At the same time, your friend could see only the antlers, which do pose a certain danger. You were talking about the exact same animal, but the trees and brush prevented you from seeing the whole picture. Even though the two of you were in the same vicinity, and you could clearly see each other and the beast, it is impossible for you to see what the other person is seeing. You can’t gain that perspective from where you stand. This is the conundrum we face when we attempt communication.

The distance, or varying degree of perspective, grows exponentially when we begin to engage with people of different cultures. With internationalization at the forefront of higher education discussions and forums these days, we must ensure that campuses are equipped with the appropriate skills to overcome the difficulties that come with these highly varied perspectives. All of this is incredibly important to our future, and the future of our students. For successful internationalization to occur, it’s important that all faculty and staff are comfortable communicating with all people, especially those with different perspectives. Students will then see first-hand just what it means to possess these coveted skills, and how beneficial it is. It is difficult to teach global citizenship without teaching effective communication skills. If we can’t interact with people from around the world, we cannot function in a global economy.

Admissions professionals stand at the forefront of this global movement, serving as first contacts and representatives of the entire institution. There is no doubt that you have been practicing intercultural skills every day of your professional lives. It is important to note that “intercultural” is not exclusive to “international”. Culture can be defined in many different ways. As you know well, different regions of the state carry with them different mentalities, and at times there are drastic differences between specific schools within the same region. Going beyond that, within each school there will be individual personalities that are so disparate you might think they come from different countries. In essence, internationalizing a campus is an expansion on diversification efforts that have long been in place.

Facilitating effective communication while managing all these varying personalities and perspectives can be incredibly difficult. The secret lies not in learning the cultural nuance of every nation, region, and individual, but in understanding that every nation, region, and individual carries with them certain cultural nuances. We must recognize that we, ourselves, carry with us certain preconceived notions which can influence the way we think about and interact with others. Once we do this, we can start the journey toward intercultural sensitivity.

Of course, it is always helpful to learn about a person’s cultural background. We must be cautious, however, not to over generalize. In the end, each person has a unique perspective that is all his or her own. Sometimes the most useful (and interesting) cultural knowledge comes from learning to know the people themselves. In my experience, it is most easily (and least offensively) gleaned once a person realizes the questions are asked because there is a genuine interest in learning about a new perspective.

Once we’ve accepted our own predispositions, we must accept the fact that reality and truth are not universal. Our walk in the woods proved this earlier. This is difficult to accept, but it leads to much more fruitful communication. It is impossible to accept another interpretation if there can only be one “real” perspective. Sometimes both observations can be accurate. Trouble arises when no one has the whole picture; no one can see the entire animal to verify that there are many parts to it. And so it is with communication. We may never know the whole animal or what the other person saw from where s/he was standing, but we can recognize that s/he made conclusions based on his or her life experiences. We cannot know them, but we can respect them. We can do our best to explain what we see, and how we came to see it that way, but we can’t expect others to adopt our way of seeing. We must do our best to remove our perspective in order to build a bigger, more complete picture that benefits both parties.

The theory is simple, but the implementation is not. It requires more self-reflection, patience, and willingness to be “wrong” than most people are comfortable with. To insist that there is only one right quickly turns communication into conflict, and conflict, by its very nature, prohibits any real mutual progress or effective communication. That’s why it’s important to keep the underlying goal of the communication in our mind. Whether conscious or unconscious, there is always an underlying intention, and the purpose of every interaction can be different. If we enter each encounter with motivation to understand the big picture, the conversations will flow. Asking questions will allow the other to describe or clarify his or her perspective. Once more is known about the other person’s view, without imposing our own view, there may be opportunity to find common ground on which communication can start. Effective communication leaves both parties feeling that they can (at least partly) understand and accept the outcome.

In order for an ideal situation to occur, both participants must possess some level of intercultural sensitivity and communication skills. There will always be difficult people that challenge us. There will always be accents that are challenging to understand. Many times we stop communication from occurring before it even begins by simply deciding that we can’t understand the other person, or there is no common ground, and therefore no agreement to be reached. Every attempt at effective communication provides an opportunity to learn new skills, and those skills may make all the difference in our quest for internationalization.

The evidence is clear, internationalization is a worthy goal. In fact it is essential if we expect our graduates to excel. It’s easy to flaunt the benefits, but for internationalization to succeed, it requires a true investment on the most basic level. Bringing in a more diverse student body does make a campus internationalized. Likewise, internationalization cannot be done successfully by just a chosen few faculty and staff members on campus. If certain students are limited to working only with designated “international” campus representatives, the experience is also incredibly limited. It would be a walk in the woods… blindfolded, with only a select few people to help them process the experience. The first step is improving our own communication skills, because internationalization is, at its core, an exchange of ideas. We need everyone on our respective campuses to understand the importance of intercultural sensitivity, and we need to motivate every member of our institutions to improve their communication skills. It will build a foundation on which successful internationalization can occur, benefiting our students and our own perspectives.

Sara Trimm works at SUNY Potsdam as an International Education Program Specialist in the office of International Education and Programs. She holds an MA in Intercultural Communications and European Studies from the Fachhochschule Fulda in Germany. She studied abroad in Germany for one year while earning her B.A. in Communications and German from Carthage College. She worked as the Assistant Director of Off-Campus Programs at St. Lawrence University, as an ESL teacher, and briefly as a College Recruiter.