Taking the Plunge: Cross-Cultural Immersion

by Mary Wong, Ph.D.

In today's global culture, a growing number of college students look forward to studying and serving off campus as part of their university experience. This trend encourages the development of a wide range of study and service abroad programs, from short-term mission trips to study tours, field seminars, international internships, student exchanges, and language and cultural immersion programs. Immersion programs typically include living with a local family, serving in a grassroots organization, participating in self-directed language and culture learning, and conducting small-scale research based on community issues.

For the Christian college student, such programs offer a number of unique benefits. First and foremost, entering into another culture parallels the example of Christ. Christ lived and worked among those He sought to save, giving of Himself to meet their physical and spiritual needs. He instructed His followers to do the same: to accept the hospitality of local families and to “heal the sick who are there, telling them ‘The Kingdom of God is near you’” (Luke 10:5-9). Second, immersion experiences enable believers to bridge the social and cultural gap that exists between the Western sojourner and their hosts. The degree to which we are able to communicate with them, to see the world through their eyes determines how well we can become the incarnate Word of God among them. As Richard Slimbach, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Global Studies and Sociology, asked in an article1 for Evangelical Missions Quarterly, how can those who are typically affluent, white, and monolingual, raised in homogenous, suburban communities with individualist cultural values and conservative political views expect to reach those in the least-evangelized world who are typically poor, non-white, multilingual (but non-English speaking), raised in multiethnic urban centers with collectivist cultural values and often nativist political views? Finally, such learning programs nurture a set of distinctively Christian character qualities. In a recent article2 reviewing the research on intercultural programs, Virginia Vincenti, a professor in the Department of Family and Counseling Services at the University of Wyoming, notes the range of competencies supported by well-structured immersion programs. These include gains in understanding and appreciation of host culture and language; increased adaptability, critical thinking, self-esteem, independence, reflective thought, and interest in the welfare for others; more tolerance and acceptance of people who are different from themselves; more frequent and active participation in internationally oriented activities; an increased open mindedness to other cultures; and a strong decrease in ethnocentrism. Many of these outcomes are competencies of the heart – changes in attitudes, values, and life commitments – that are not typically a result of classroom learning alone, but are nevertheless hallmarks of a Christian education. Vincenti goes on to state, ”The researchers concluded that the most important factor in determining the success of a student exchange program's promoting positive attitude change is the amount of direct intergroup contact.“ Programs that encourage participants to learn the language, live with the people, serve under national leadership, complete community study projects, and reflect critically upon their personal identity and faith hold great potential for helping participants to overcome ethnocentrism and develop intercultural competence. In research I conducted for my dissertation on five Azusa Pacific University graduate students who were concurrently teaching English in China while enrolled in Azusa Pacific's Master of Arts in TESOL Partnership Program, I found that teachers acquired many of the benefits cited by Vincenti. For example, over a period of two years teachers became more open to Chinese ways of teaching and learned to adapt their pedagogy to be more culturally appropriate. Over time, their apprehension of traditional Chinese methods of learning and teaching turned into appreciation. To overcome the division and distrust between the Western and Chinese teachers at her school, one APU graduate student developed a project to bring the two groups together in weekly discussion sessions. This led to the deepening of cross-cultural friendships and life-changing commitments to Christ. Knowing the unique benefits of cultural immersion programs, we need to encourage every APU undergraduate to participate and encourage every department to consider how their students can study and serve in ways that cultivate the holistic competencies of their majors.

1 Slimbach, R. “First, do no harm.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 36, no. 4, (2000): 428-441.

2 Vincenti, V. “Exploration of the relationship between international experiences and the interdisciplinary work of university faculty.” Journal of Studies on International Education 5, no. 1, (2001): 42-63.

Originally published in the Fall '01 issue of APU Life. View all issues.