Community Engaged Course Hones Students’ Intercultural Aptitude

by Stephanie M. McPherson

The Schiller Institute aims to integrate and apply scientific and social knowledge for the common good. Their new course, Working for and with Communities: Community Engaged and Project Based Learning for the Common Good, asks students to work in concert with citizens of the city Siem Reap, Cambodia and the surrounding countryside to make progress toward that end.  

“Schiller is about providing an opportunity for students and faculty to have a real global impact, and to see and feel for themselves what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes and to find inspiration from others’ lived experiences,” says Dr. Laura Steinberg, Seidner Family Executive Director for the Schiller Institute and Instructor of Record on the course. “At the same time, students get a chance to proactively address and participate in helping to overcome obstacles that are part of the Cambodian villagers’ lives.”  

The course consists of a two-credit spring seminar and a one-credit summer immersion program. During the spring, students learn about both the challenges facing the community surrounding Siem Reap and the culture and history of Cambodia. Some of the modules include how to conduct community-engaged work and the steps of building a partnership with people who live in different countries and cultures.  

“There’s this history in many sectors, corporations, NGOs—and higher education is no exception—where folks from the Global North go to the Global South and say ‘we’re here to fix your problems, you’re lucky aren’t you’ and often make things worse. They might build something that would be amazing somewhere else, but it’s not what the community needs,” says Jim West, Assistant Director of Programs at Schiller and the course manager and instructor. 

West and Dr. Maryann Loughry, a Sister of Mercy and the special advisor to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for Boston College, traveled to the JRS Cambodia location earlier in the year to determine potential class projects. With their JRS partners, they identified two major areas of need. First, many Siem Reap residents need gardening solutions that are accessible to people who have sustained life-changing injuries in wartime or from landmines. Second, residents want a streamlined option for plastic waste recycling that will also provide them a degree of economic benefit. 

“You can’t really engage with the community until you know the community. And that means much more than just meeting individuals, but knowing their knowledge systems and the culture,” says Dr. Loughry.

“We want the students to go open to the fact that we need to be learners in these settings rather than coming in with Massachusetts solutions.”  

A Design Thinking module gave students a way to frame their solutions, telling students to approach problems first through empathy before progressing on to dictates.  

“It’s about the user,” says Munachi Onyiuke, a public health major who intends to be a doctor. “How can the user really benefit from this? A user in America for a public health problem related to the environment will be vastly different than someone in Cambodia who is a farmer using their brother’s land to farm.”  

A true connection to people of a different culture is key to making the summer-immersion program work. And so the students were all given insight into their intercultural literacy through the administration of the Intercultural Development Inventory. This assessment, which has been rigorously vetted through decades of testing and refinement, places the students’ abilities to interact with and understand other cultures on a spectrum from monocultural to intercultural. Almost all of the students scored lower on the spectrum than they had anticipated.  

“I have more work to do to get to an intercultural mindset than I thought I’d need, but it was really important to have that conversation and realize, ‘oh, here's how I can do better,’ especially since I have the desire to work internationally with different cultures,” says Madelyn McLean, a biology major and global public health minor. “So it's really important to understand yourself first.” 

The class modules were designed with an eye toward moving students along the spectrum, no matter where their test results placed them.  

“The students journal throughout the spring and summer, so they can look back at some of those early entries, and they might be a little cringe worthy, but they can see their growth,” says West.  

Everything learned in the spring is just preparation for the main event—a three-week visit to the JRS Cambodia reflection center in Siem Reap. They will meet with their local teams, develop a set of solutions, and spend a good deal of time reflecting on everything they are experiencing.  

“I hope the BC students will be enriched by their encounter with another culture, that they will learn from local people who have suffered from war and displacement, environmental degradation and who search for new ways to live and trust and build a future for their children,” says Denise Coughlan, RSM, a Sister of Mercy and the director of JRS Cambodia. “I think they will be stimulated to learn new ways of caring for their common home. We hope the students will also experience the encounter between different religions as all struggle to care for the planet entrusted to us.” 

The Schiller Institute will continue to offer the Engaged Course year after year, with new locations around the world added as partnerships are made. But the team will be sure to not abandon the projects that were started in Siem Reap.  

“Future students can build off of what the previous group did,” says West. “We’re not going to do this as a one-off thing. We planned to go there for multiple years to build that relationship.” 

This Engaged Course is only the beginning for the common-good outreach goals of the Schiller Institute.  

“The opportunity for us to learn as well as to give is amazing,” says Dr. Loughry. “And Schiller, as it grows into BC and BC comes to know what Schiller can do, is going to be a powerhouse for that.”