Traditional Cultural Exchanges Don’t Work

Everyone who has attended a major university has encountered the cultural-exchange style organization. Most likely these organizations were created or encouraged by the administration of these institutions to address the problem of international students integrating into the mainstream American culture. The hope was that, by providing a platform for Americans and the international students to meet one another, they would form friendships and break the barrier that exists between them.

Everyone who has experienced these organizations also understands that, generally speaking, these organizations fail to achieve any real solution to this problem. The forced social interaction that occurs is uncomfortable and does not lead to friendship or any kind of long-term gains. While the intention behind them is admirable, they are not an effective solution to the problem on their own.

From my personal experience the 2 most effective tools for getting the integration process going have been the model United Nations club at USC, and a Global Strategy class. The similarities between these two: a sense of a greater purpose unites people organically, the pressure to form small groups (from the UN debate process and the classwork respectively) force people to work together and find ways to break barriers. The UN model tapped into information and culture that is generally global in nature and does not present the barriers that American specific cultural activities do. Meanwhile the global strategy class had actively facilitated interaction – groups were formed to divide cultures and merge multiple ethnicities together to form truly global interaction.

These kinds of experiences truly bridged the gap in a tangible and meaningful way. Like corporate retreats or military service, the imposed limitations and teamwork prove that cultural barriers are not permanent dividing lines but temporary and often flimsy differences that can be overcome. The key is to facilitate and direct this process.


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