EMU’s cross-cultural program adapts to pandemic challenges

“What about my cross-cultural?”

This question has been at the top of the mind for many Eastern Mennonite University students as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the globe.

Where, when and how to meet this unique academic requirement – named by alumni as the source of as much personal transformation as their time on campus and in the classroom – is always the subject of much planning and consideration. Extracurricular commitments, academic requirements such as clinicals and practica, and individual preferences are all factors that students consider.

Now, being flexible and having a Plan B ask even more from students. Yet that’s the message of program director Beth Good and program coordinator Linda Martin Burkholder in meetings and communications.

“We’re committed to the success of this program, and also to working with our students to help them have this experience. Our cross-culturals may look a little different now and in coming months, but these are still exciting opportunities to explore a new culture or cultures, and stretch yourself in new perspectives,” Good said.

Currently, the spring 2021 Guatemala cross-cultural is being reconfigured because of travel limitations. The summer 2021 programs in Lithuania, the Middle East, and the Navajo Nation are currently on schedule. EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center is currently hosting 10 students for internships, coursework and urban exploration this fall semester and will do so again in coming semesters and summers. Programs as far out as summer 2022 are already scheduled.

Program director’s nursing experience informs response

Adapting to complications is nothing new for one of EMU’s most distinctive curricular programs. In its 30-year-history, cross-cultural groups abroad and in the United States have endured other disruptive events, including natural disasters, political unrest, government crackdowns, and 9/11.

Beth Good, EMU’s director of intercultural programs, at work in her previous position in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Good acknowledges that a global pandemic brings new and rare challenges to programming that features moving students and their faculty sponsors into different cultures – often across oceans, continents and borders.

She’s well-qualified to both make this observation and help to prepare the program: Good holds a doctorate in nursing and has lived and worked in 15 countries. While also adapting EMU’s cross-cultural programming this semester, she is leading and managing EMU’s own COVID-19 contact tracing response. (Good is also the parent of four EMU alumnae, each of whom experienced the crosscultural requirement differently.)

Faculty leaders at the forefront of adaptations

Good says the committed faculty who lead EMU’s cross-culturals are the main factor in the program’s successful adaptations.

“This program is still thriving amidst all these challenges because of the creativity of our faculty and their deep connections to the people and places of their specific cross-cultural sites,” she said. “They enter into these challenges with the spirit of ‘Let’s try this,’ because they truly see the value of these experiences and these transformational learning opportunities for our students. They bring so much experience and conviction and heart to these courses.”

For example, last summer, groups were scheduled to travel to Ohio, with Professor Vi Dutcher, and to Lithuania, with Professor Jerry Holsopple. A third group was slated for the annual summer local context cross-cultural, with Professor Deanna Durham and Byron Peachey, academic advocacy advisor.  

Instead, Dutcher, Durham and Peachey created an online course that introduced the Ohio and local context students to Amish culture and Harrisonburg’s historic Black neighborhood and vibrant  immigrant community. Assignments included watching a documentary about the historic Lucy F. Simms School, listening to a podcast about Mennonite history, perusing a photo essay on refugee resettlement, and making quilt-like collages. Students still got a taste of different cultures through culinary assignments, like purchasing ingredients at a Latino grocery store and making Mexican mole sauce. 

“We thought that since we would not be eating local food cooked by our hosts or going to ethnic restaurants, we would have the students prepare food based upon each ethnic group,” Dutcher said. 

Holsopple created a class on world cinema, in which the students watched and discussed films “around particular cultural variables, dealing with understanding cultural values, history, historic trauma, some religious differences and observations about how different genders were expected to live.”

Student: ‘Cultural intelligence is a continuum’

Taylor Baldwin, a nursing major who was scheduled for the local context cross cultural, wrote in her final paper that she’s “gained insight and a deeper understanding into culture as a whole through this specific event and within this course.” 

“Our cultural intelligence is a continuum and must be treated as such,” Baldwin wrote. “Cultural intelligence is not a stagnant thing. Our world is ever-changing and our people in it are too. I am determined to learn from each and every opportunity presented to me in order to improve my knowledge, mindset, and skills to continuously grow to be more culturally intelligent.”

Durham said she “found it poignant to hear students reflect … about their experiences with one another. In my section I had students from rural and urban locations, different races, some quite religious and others not religious at all, some unfamiliar with Harrisonburg’s racial history and others with personal experience in the Northeast community. I heard them challenge, question and push each other in class.”

“We were amazed and moved by the depth of their sharing and what they learned and how they experienced reportedly life-changing ideas,” Dutcher agreed. 

Some of the students responded to the portion of the class on African American history in Harrisonburg and, more broadly, racial violence and injustice in the U.S. Dutcher pointed to a poem, “Does It Matter?”, that business administration major Tim Jones wrote and presented as particularly poignant. 

“Does it matter that I fear for my future children that have not taken a single breath on this planet? Again.. Does the color of my skin matter? Does it matter that I don’t look like you? Does it matter that I don’t sound like you?” Jones wrote. Read the poem in its entirety here.

For Holsopple, cinematic globetrotting was a balm until he can once again lead students to “feel the sand in your toes on the Baltic sea coast, walk the cobblestones in an old cities, stand on the site where thousands died in the Holocaust, peer into the torture cells of the KGB, taste the chocolate, smell the incense in varied churches, and try to keep from dancing at the music festivals.”

Stay tuned for another update on the cross-cultural program early in spring semester 2021.