Developing cultural intelligence as a student in a virtual world

From disruptions to the status quo that made students question what the future of work and learning could look like to the magnification of existing social inequalities, this pandemic has changed student perceptions on how to best prepare themselves for the world. We discuss Cultural Intelligence, and why it is the key aptitude required for students to thrive in our contemporary and globalized world.
March 24, 2021
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With many students having experienced almost a full year of online classes, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on what has changed, what we have learned, and how we can adapt better moving forward. While it has been a turbulent year (to say the least), the past year has also been an incredibly eye-opening one. 

From disruptions to the status quo that made us question what the future of work and learning could look like to the magnification of existing social inequalities, this pandemic has certainly changed our perceptions about how we have been doing things and how we can do things differently.

One of the biggest lessons we have learned is just how volatile, uncertain, and complex our world can be. While it can be worrisome to adapt to this consistent uncertainty, we are very fortunate to live in these times as we can be at the nexus of these changes and create new ways of looking at things and new ways of problem-solving. As students, one key aptitude required for thriving in our contemporary and globalized world is building Cultural Intelligence (or CQ, for short). 

So, what is Cultural Intelligence? 

CQ is a capability, meaning it is not something we are born with, but rather something one has to practice to strengthen. CQ is defined by EW Group as “the skill to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations (and) the capability to cross boundaries and prosper in multiple cultures.” 

If you are familiar with the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), CQ is a similar capability but focuses on the awareness of culture. CQ builds on our knowledge of cultural sensitivity and awareness but goes one step further by highlighting the skillsets we need to work and relate with people across a variety of cultural contexts. 

But wait, how do you define culture?

Culture is defined as a shared pattern of beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviours that distinguish one group from another. Individuals with high CQ are able to identify both the seen aspects (such as language, traditions, behaviours) and the unseen aspects (such as values, attitudes, and beliefs) of various cultures. We can build our CQ to help us function effectively across various cultural contexts. 

“Most of us tend to underestimate the degree to which we ourselves are a product of culture. It's much easier to see it in others.” - David Livermore, Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success

Okay, so how will this help me? 

This awareness and ability to recognize and adapt to different cultures is not only important when we are working, studying, or travelling abroad but it also comes into play in our daily lives. 

While having to coordinate group projects with peers in numerous different timezones and getting to see my classmates’ bedrooms around the world in the background of our Zoom classes are small reminders about how diverse our communities are, the online learning environment has made me realize just how important cross-cultural understanding is. 

Students are at the nexus of global challenges, and developing high CQ can help you address local problems that need international experts, work effectively in cross-cultural teams and intercultural workforces, and support the growing global momentum of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) imperatives and anti-racism. 

Sounds great, but how can I increase my CQ while I am stuck at home?

Luckily for us, even in a world of remote work, global collaborations are becoming the norm. We need CQ to help us with intercultural problem solving, systems thinking, and teamwork. Better yet, there are a number of ways we can start building CQ right now, even while we’re at home. 

Here are four ways you can start strengthening and building your Cultural Intelligence: 

1. Start learning about your own cultural history and identify the biases you might have.

This may sound like an obvious first step, but in order to understand others’ cultures, you first must have an adequate grasp of what culture means to you and how your own culture has shaped your understanding of the world. Try asking family or friends who share your culture about traditions, identity, and what culture means to them. Alternatively, as a study break watch a documentary, read a book, or consume other media (such as a TV show, movies, vlogs etc.) that highlight cultural understanding.  

2. Be curious and take an active interest in learning about other cultures.

It is no secret that Zoom classes and breakout rooms can be awkward and making friends in a virtual environment is tough, but diversifying and expanding your social network is key to strengthening CQ. In fact, one benefit of online classes is that you can make friends all over the world from the comfort of your own home. Be active on your (online) campus and check with your engagement office, office of international experience or campus clubs for social activities (such as language exchanges, virtual coffee/study breaks, or game nights). Be sure to come with an open mind and interest in learning about others’ lived experiences. 

3. Take advantage of access to global education.

Global Politics, International Business, World Literature, Foreign Languages … the list goes on. Post-secondary institutions understand the importance of fostering an intercultural understanding, so make sure to check your course catalogue for courses that incorporate a global perspective. Maybe you can pick up an interesting elective or a course that’s relevant to your major but emphasizes an intercultural approach. 

4. Get real-world experience. 

Working with a real business or nonprofit organization with a real team while you’re still in school will give you a first-hand perspective of what kind of skills you need to thrive in your career. While you may have adapted to building CQ in a school environment, building CQ in a professional setting will help you prepare and build competencies needed for your career and professional life. 

Be on the lookout for opportunities where you can use your skills in settings outside of schools such as free-lancing or internships, or for work-integrated learning opportunities like capstone projects, and co-op programs. 

Riipen has recently launched Level UP, an innovative program funded by the Federal Government of Canada that provides short-term (80 hours), paid remote work-integrated opportunities for Canadian post-secondary students with real businesses!

To learn more about Riipen, the Level UP program, and how to get started with experiential learning, visit our website and keep up with Riipen on Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, and Facebook.

This article was adapted from research conducted by Karima Ramji and Shabnam (Shay) Surjitsingh Ivković presented at WACE Global Conversations: Developing Cultural Intelligence in WIL.

Aisha Shafaqat is a fourth-year Political Science major at the University of Toronto and is completing her second term as a Strategy Intern at Riipen. She is passionate about strategic workforce development, the Future of Work, and workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and exploring the outdoors (when Canadian weather permits).

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