TAs Prepare for Pacific Projects in 'Crossing Cultures' Course|
by Maradel K. Gale, Director, MSPP
From January through March, the MSPP staff focuses on training potential technical assistants. Persons interested in serving with the program are required to participate in a graduate course, “Experiencing Crossing Cultures,” offered through the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon. Nancy Peyron and I team-teach the course, which meets for a three-hour period weekly for ten weeks.
While the course is required for people who plan to apply to become technical assistants, it is not limited to those students, and the course has much wider applicability than just to work in the Pacific islands. Our focus is on learning about how we function, interact, and respond, as individuals and in groups, particularly in circumstances which are not ordinary for us. Only by first learning about ourselves and the 'cultural baggage' we carry with us can we begin to understand others and our interactions with them.
Course topics include perceptions and accountability; communication and listening skills; cultural lenses and cultural identity; values, norms, and ethics; entering a new culture; adapting cross-culturally; dealing with ambiguity, problem-solving and conflict resolution styles, and transition and culture shock.
While these topics may seem dry listed on paper, the context in which they are covered in the class is anything but dull. We believe in creating opportunities for students to jump in and get their feet wet in trying out new behaviors, stretching the limits of their beliefs, and learning more fully about their impact on others. The course is primarily experiential, with a smattering of theory to provide food for thought as the body and senses go through very new experiences.
The course includes opportunities for interaction in dyads and small groups and as an entire class. In addition to role-plays, simulations, and games, we utilize two instruments: one examines conflict resolution styles and the other focuses on how adaptable we are cross-culturally.
In one simulation, Minoria, a country with a traditional culture, invites assistants from the industrialized nation of Majoria to share expertise. Two teams of students, the Majorians and the Minorians, are given separate briefings, and the resulting interactions help students learn what is appropriate assistance--and what isn't.
Each class activity is thoroughly discussed to encourage students to integrate what they have just undergone with their beliefs, past experiences, and other real-world situations. Written response papers provide further opportunities for integration.
This year the course benefited from my participation in the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, held at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. As an intern for the institute, I was able to work closely with Sivasailam Thiagarajan ('Thiagi') and Stella Ting-Toomey, learning many new educational activities for this type of training. Students in our course observe: 'This class is not like any other I have ever experienced.' We consider that a compliment.