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Intercultural learning for students by students: a Saint Mary’s experience

A team of students from diverse cultures, abilities, fields of study and experiences is helping the university to advance its intercultural development goals.


Peer-supported intercultural development is transforming the way students approach global learning at Saint Mary’s University. An Innovation Fund program funded by the Government of Canada’s Outbound Student Mobility Pilot Program enabled students to practise active citizenship in their everyday lives and strengthen their commitment to social responsibility and cultural diversity – longstanding values for the Saint Mary’s community.

In January 2021, the Global Learning and Intercultural Support Office at Saint Mary’s mobilized 34 global learning ambassadors through the new “Intercultural Learning for Students by Students” program, thereby helping the university to advance its intercultural development goals.

The Global Learning Ambassadors are a team of students from diverse cultures, abilities, fields of study and experiences whose goals are to increase access and awareness of global learning opportunities available on campus and abroad. Their goals are to deepen and disseminate knowledge in intercultural communication, accessibility issues, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. Each ambassador undertook self-directed learning by attending workshops, facilitating discussions about empathy, inclusion and equity, and keeping a learning journal to record and reflect on their experiences. Introspection, combined with diverse lived experiences amongst the ambassadors’ team, created a microcosm of the global village – an ideal environment to promote the university’s values in intercultural learning.

The ambassadors commented on having felt the strongest sense of agency during these experiences:

  • Practice in applying the guidelines from the Saint Mary’s University’s Inclusive Language Statement to demonstrate respect and dignity to others;
  • Research and discussion about partner universities’ policies on accessibility and inclusion and preparation of advising materials to help reduce barriers for future mobility participants;
  • Interactions with non-ambassador students to provide well-informed peer-to-peer advice about intercultural learning opportunities;
  • Team-building activities through which they helped their fellow ambassadors regain a sense of community spirit and boost the collective morale in times of COVID.

The ambassadors also made strides in engaging non-ambassador students in intercultural development opportunities. They hosted a virtual study abroad session, and the feedback from the students in attendance was positive, with many saying that they felt a new openness to international experiences because of the peer-to-peer connection with the ambassadors. In addition to those synchronous interactions, non-ambassador students are now able to read the ambassadors’ reviews and advice for students with disabilities and Indigenous students, watch the recording of the study abroad session and browse an article in the student newspaper. Those interested in joining the ambassador team can listen to a podcast and hear the ambassadors’ experiences in their roles. Thanks to the ambassadors’ efforts, these materials are accessible for the entire university community.

From the program leads’ perspectives, three main lessons were learned. First, the use of an intercultural learning journal was critical. This journal is where ambassadors made notes on questions that arose from seemingly ordinary events. They subsequently used their reflections to create safe spaces for discussions and creative problem solving about local and global challenges. The journal helped remind ambassadors to not only practise critical reflection skills but also to leverage their intercultural communication skills to engage with each other. Journal writing also encouraged them to step out of their comfort zone – whether it involved tough conversations about racism, or feeling apprehensive about experiencing culture shock when studying abroad. The ambassadors became skilled in describing, analyzing and evaluating multicultural situations around them and learned to be curious, caring, lifelong learners.

Second, the program was managed through the Microsoft Teams software. Various “channels,” calendars, and other integrated tools were used to optimize virtual engagement with the topics and contents. To accomplish this, the program leaders consulted with the university’s academic communication team in the university’s studio for teaching and learning and explored the functionality and best practices available through the platform to maximize impact and engagement with the students. The technology made accessibility and connectedness possible, and multipronged forms of participation encouraged both extrovert and introvert learners to share their voices.

Finally, engaging the wider local and alumni communities proved essential in expanding ambassadors’ perspectives and networking opportunities. They gained insight from one of the presenters, for example, who spoke about how they were re-envisioning the relations between international students and newcomer communities with such groups as Indigenous peoples, African Nova Scotians and racialized communities in Kjipuktuk through grassroots movements. Hearing about those experiences firsthand motivated the ambassadors to imagine what kind of communities they want to live in and how they can contribute to creating a just and inclusive society.

The passion and advocacy for equitable access to student mobility are now the catalyst and foundation for the Global Skills Opportunity program at Saint Mary’s University titled “Spring Abroad: Global learning for a pluralistic society,” funded by the Government of Canada’s Outbound Student Mobility Pilot Program. The ambassadors are continuing to provide invaluable wraparound services and moral support to prospective study abroad participants.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Miyuki Arai is director of global learning and Intercultural support at Saint Mary's University. Michaela Peters is the project manager in the global learning and intercultural support office at Saint Mary’s.
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