Craig Shim, Founder, Alphacrane Intercultural Specialists, Australia
As the number of international students increases globally, the number of cultures with which educators are required to engage also grows. Craig Shim of Queensland consultancy Alphacrane explains to The PIE why cultural competence is a muscle and how students fall through the cracks.
The PIE: What does Alphacrane do?
Craig Shim: We’re an intercultural business consultancy and I help businesses with their cross-cultural communication and business skills. An example would be how Australian businesses adjust their negotiation techniques when dealing with Asia.
“From an Australian perspective, just because I’m not focussing all of my attention at you, I’m not shutting you out”
The PIE: Has there been an uptick in the number of education providers looking to engage with foreign students and providers?
CS: Where my initial interest came from was about a year ago just listening to conversations from people across the international education sector. They raised problems of international students who had fallen between the cracks and weren’t really adjusting well in Australia.
From a lecturer’s perspective, they might think that the student is not attending classes, but if you dig beneath the surface, you can attribute some of those things to cross-cultural problems like not being able to find your own network in Australia, or not being able to adjust to the Australian style of learning.
If we think about international students, what their expectations are before they arrive in Australia, they’re looking at doing well in their studies, meeting a new circle of lifelong contacts, hopefully getting a job or an internship, and for some, it might be a pathway to migration.
The PIE: How are students falling through the cracks?
Plenty of students have that expectation, but once they come here, they really struggle. They really struggle in terms of finding their place in the community and as a result, they fall behind in their academic studies, and sometimes they end up with mental health issues.
In a lot of those cases, when my business partner and I look through the events leading up to it, quite often they’re from a culture where there’s a lot of pressure back at home to do well, and they’re from cultures where loss of face is a very big thing. As a result, they’re reluctant to share their struggles with their family back home and they’re unable to form the proper social networks. Through a whole lot of culturally based challenges they’ve ended up in a bad situation and in the worst case, it makes it into the news for all the wrong reasons.
The PIE: Which cultural competencies are the most commonly lacking and getting students into bad situations?
CS: One of the big challenges for an international student from Asia is that their style of learning is very much centred around hierarchy and respect. You have your teacher or your lecturer who imparts their wisdom to you. Your job is to listen, absorb, understand and then regurgitate.
In Australia, the expectation is that the international student comes in with curiosity and some problem-solving skills. We use a lot more self-directed learning so it means that an international student is expected to ask the right questions, to challenge ideas, to justify their own ideas and not be shy in terms of group discussions or group critiques. That is extremely challenging for someone who has never had to do that before.
“I’ve always got one foot in my home camp, but cultural competence is about using your other foot to move to your audience”
The PIE: What sort of assumptions are professionals having that are detrimental to students?
CS: The one I hear the most from lecturers, is that we’ve got a lot of students from Asia and they don’t fit in. They stick to themselves, they sit at the back of the room, they keep quiet, they don’t participate in class and they don’t mix around with other people.
That’s a fair comment to make if you are not aware of what’s actually going on.
On the flip side, we know through our professional experience and the discussions we’ve had with students, that what they’re looking for is to get under the skin of Australian culture. They do want to meet not just locals but other international students. What tends to hold them back is that it is quite often very difficult to try to go and introduce yourself and get into a group without some kind of invitation.
The PIE: Is it a case that domestic students don’t want to engage with internationals?
CS: From an Australia perspective, just because I’m not focussing all of my attention at you, I’m not shutting you out. But from an Asian perspective, the conversations may seem to be quite exclusive. The group might be talking about rugby league, or making self-derogatory comments. If that’s your first introduction to a new social group, it takes a special kind of character to be able to look past that and see that’s just the Australian way.
The PIE: How does employability fit into your cultural competency work?
CS: Where I see the gap from a cultural perspective is that a lot of the job readiness programs have the underlying assumption that everyone, including international students, shares the same communication style.
Australians are fairly direct, we are happy to talk about ourselves and we look to assertiveness as a positive trait. From an Asian perspective, where the communication style tends to be a lot more diplomatic, those international students who have had their job readiness training don’t necessarily realise that, in a job interview situation, they need to be direct and assertive.
Now, students may have been told that they need to be assertive, but do they really understand what that means in an Australian context? I don’t believe they do.
The other one is being able to promote yourself. In a lot of those cultures, you will talk about the achievements of your group, whereas in Australia, we are not group orientated in that way. We have a meritocracy and we assess people’s achievements based on their individual achievements.
“It takes a special kind of character to be able to look past that and see that’s just the Australian way”
When we are interviewing people for a job, we ask questions that give the candidate the opportunity to express their personal achievements. If they’re not talking about their personal achievements, and without the cultural competence to recognise why they’re doing that, it’s natural that we would say: look, you’re not ticking off the boxes that I want to be ticked off, therefore there’s a risk that you may not be a good cultural fit.
But I think there is a lot of room for improvement from the Australian side, understanding there are some very practical ways of achieving diversity and inclusion. That includes understanding that when you’re communicating with your employees or your customers from different cultural backgrounds, there are certain cues that you might look out for instead of interpreting them the way that you would normally in Australia.
The PIE: Is the overall aim to find a middle ground for both the provider or employer and international student?
CS: Yes and no. It’s not necessarily a compromise. To me, cultural competence is when you are aware of your own cultural values and your own cultural style. I like to refer to it as: I’ve always got one foot in my home camp, so to speak, but cultural competence is about leaning over and using your other foot to move to wherever your audience is.
If I’m dealing with someone from the Philippines, the Middle East, Africa or South America, I will have very different communication styles. I don’t necessarily have to agree with all their values that sit behind that, but I need that flexibility. If I’m going to communicate effectively with them, I need to flex that muscle – and it is like a muscle, you need to practise it – to be able to step out of my comfort zone and communicate with people on their terms.
I agree there’s a middle ground, but I also say it’s not necessarily a compromise. It’s understanding your own values and your own communication styles, and then being able to adjust to whoever it is you’re dealing with.
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