Study Abroad: A Necessity for Intercultural Competence?

With the rise of globalization and expansion of migration, our traditional ways of life including our cultural, social, political and economic ideas are being actively challenged. In times of social tension and conflict arising from new and dynamic mixtures of different cultures and ethnic groups, education has a key role to play in the promotion of “social cohesion and peaceful coexistence”[1]

Intercultural education has emerged as a key component of promoting social cohesion.[2] One of the main aims of intercultural education is to develop individuals who are interculturally competent and who are able to regard diversity as an advantage rather than a challenge. Sven Sierens introduces the definition of intercultural competencies as “equip[ing] young people with the cognitive characteristics attitudes and skills they will need in a multicultural, multinational and internationalising world.[3]

Through opportunities and programmes that foster discussion between students of different beliefs and cultures, education can promote these intercultural competencies.

The study abroad experience is advertised as the perfect opportunity for intercultural education, the chance to learn about other cultures and gain a greater understanding of perspectives from around the world. We asked several students to talk about their experiences studying abroad to see whether the opportunity had developed their intercultural competencies and shaped their understanding of different cultures.

Anonymous, Madrid

There are many advantages to living abroad: from being able to find the self-confidence and self-determination to go to a foreign country alone, and set up a new life, to conversing in a language that is not your mother tongue. It also allows you to deal with cultural sensitivities that simply cannot be pre-taught in a classroom. There are many more aspects of the study abroad that are undeniably of huge value to me, both in terms of personal and professional progression.

I grew more culturally aware and developed a greater understanding of some of the social crises that European Union countries are facing. These issues are vastly different from those faced by the UK. In particular, my time spent in Madrid highlighted for me the shocking reality of the presence of comparatively underdeveloped countries within the EU; on levels such as: administration, education and employment rights.

The process of studying abroad is always sold with a certain infallible positivity and optimism, despite what I gained from the experience, I have also encountered very real challenges. Unfortunately, the positive times I had interacting with local Spaniards and students was blighted by the disappointment I had with the academic quality of my host university.

Anonymous, Brazil

I found adjusting to Salvador quite difficult. The similarities between Brazilian life and British life are far fewer in number compared with the similarities between European countries and the UK. When my Portuguese was weak to start with, no one had English strong enough to help. Moreover, there was practically zero infrastructure to provide help for foreigners looking to stay for a permanent length of time. The university did not even tell me when and where I needed to be on my first day! We had no guidance of where to look for housing or how, and it took far longer to get to know the city in a deeper and more intimate way.

However, I think that after returning from Brazil, I felt more pride in myself, because despite the greater hurdles at the beginning, I did manage to adjust – as best a white British girl can in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean Brazilian city – to the culture of Brazil and Salvador.

While I was fortunately not affected by economic factors during my study abroad, there were political factors that did shape my daily life. The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, accompanied with weekly protests and riots, of which I often became a part of, dramatically affected the general way of life. I noticed that every day discourse between myself and my Brazilian friends swayed to the current affairs of the country. It was a fascinating insight into the corruption of Brazil which I had obviously read about and studied, but never experienced first-hand. I never truly understood the extent of the problem and the impact corruption has on Brazilian life. Something I think you can only really understand by immersing yourself into Brazilian life.

The structure of the host educational institution was vastly different from that of KCL. At UFBA in Salvador, I really liked how much the student voice was heard, every single class, without fail, would end with a student discussion. I think this has been lost in our system in London somewhat. Also, the classes I was offered to take were so relevant, something I think the KCL modules somewhat lack. While at KCL they refer specifically to the Iberian Peninsula or South America, they have little translation to modern day life. I am fascinated with the Portuguese language because of the modern development and progress of the countries in which it is spoken. Yet our course here in London seems to have forgotten that.

My time abroad has greatly changed my opinion on my home country and on Brazil. I see now that the rush, pressure and stress which seems to exist in London is not necessary for achievement, be it on a personal or greater level. I see now that the lack of personal and work life balance many Londoners suffer with, is something that can, and should be fixed.

I have also noticed that Brazil is stigmatised by and reduced to its stereotypes of the beach and carnival in the foreign mind-set and media, which is grossly unfair. Whilst these stereotypes do obviously exist, there is a great profundity to Brazil which is sadly often forgotten. My experience has deepened my understanding of Brazilian culture and has greatly developed my intercultural competencies as I am able to better communicate and understand the Brazilian people.

Anonymous, Berlin

Before moving to London for my year abroad at King’s, the U.K made the decision to leave the European Union that undoubtedly had an impact on my initial time here. Even before arriving, the uncertainty of the result made me slightly nervous as I didn’t know how this would affect my experience. King’s emailed the study abroad students and reiterated that they remain an international university and that Brexit would have no immediate impact on their policies. This definitely reassured me; however, from the outset of attending lectures and seminars, I noticed how Brexit became the elephant in the room. While in Berlin we definitely had politically active discussions in class, I’ve noticed especially in Private International Law the significant impact Brexit has on virtually every aspect of the material we learn.

In terms of adjusting to King’s and my host country I have noticed that in many ways it is similar to Berlin, as both are European capital cities and have a vibrant mix of nationalities and cultures. While I haven’t left the cosmopolitan feel, it has been more difficult to connect with British students. I’ve noticed a divide between national and international students as they tend to loosely interact separately. Considering that most students have developed close friendship groups over their course, it is more difficult to penetrate these barriers to get to know individuals. However, I’m still discovering the city and King’s and hope to learn more about the British culture to better connect with the local students. Perhaps the increased contact hours at King’s will allow me to build my cognitive flexibility and to think within different contexts for a more varied understanding of topics.

There are also structural differences, the academic level of work is largely the same however there is more independence back in Berlin in terms of studying. Here there are essays and attendance, whereas in Berlin the examinations at the end of the semester are the main focus. While for some this may be a welcome organizational crutch, for me it is sometimes an overwhelming amount of work that detracts from my ability to explore the city and meet new people.

I’m only two months into my study abroad experience, but I’ve already had a chance to realize that the structure of learning in Berlin is more suited to my independent learning style. Nevertheless, for me, while my academic results are important, the reason I chose to study abroad at King’s was to really delve into the British culture so that at the end of my experience I can confidently say that I have a better understanding of the underlying economic and political conditions that have shaped the perspectives of the British politicians, media and even students. I hope that this in turn will develop my ability to empathise and appreciate the diversity of opinions.

For now, I remain open to new ideas and curious about the different perspectives of the people I may meet on my study abroad.


While a study abroad may not be a necessity for intercultural competence, it is clear that it provides a valuable opportunity for students to learn to communicate with people from different cultures and to understand nuances of perspectives. However, King’s and London can also provide a diversity of perspectives from cultures around the world that allow students to develop intercultural competencies without leaving the country. There are also challenges with the study abroad experience, such as low-quality academic system, which can adversely affect the ability of some to develop their intercultural understanding.

Nonetheless, to explore the realities of current events in foreign countries, it is worth experiencing this first hand. In terms of language skills, study abroad provides a wonderful opportunity to grow and communicate with locals more confidently to promote the exchange of opinions and viewpoints.

Marina Zabelina and Anne Siebenaler are editors of the Education Policy Centre, King’s Think Tank.

[1] UNESCO Guidelines On Intercultural Education. 1st ed. Paris: N.p., 2006. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

[2] Intercultural Competence For All: Preparation For Living In A Heterogeneous World. 2nd ed. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2012. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

[3] “Intercultural Education – Better Education For Everyone?”. Inter Cultural Iceland. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

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