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Interculturalist Community for Living and Learning Brings Students Together After a Year Apart

Two School of International Service sophomores share their experiences as part of the Interculturalist Living-Learning Community at American University.

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Chloe Moss and Arielle Hershkowitz

After attending classes remotely for a year, Chloe Moss, SIS/BA ’24, and Arielle Hershkowitz, SIS/BA ’24, looked to the Interculturalist Living-Learning Community as a great opportunity to connect with other students on campus and create meaningful conversations. The Interculturalist Living-Learning Community is a cohort of sophomore students exploring how culture influences who we are, what we think, and how we experience the world, both in their living spaces and in the classroom. Chloe and Arielle, who are roommates in the community of approximately 40 SIS sophomores, spoke with me to share their perspectives on what they have learned and how they plan to use these lessons.

Lessons from the Community

Living-Learning Communities (LLCs) are each based around a course that all residents take to promote their shared learning experience. The idea is that conversations that begin in the classroom can shift toward an informal, interpersonal examination of that subject in the residence hall. The sophomore seminar, SISU-205: Intercultural Communication, provides the foundation for the Interculturalist Living-Learning Community, located in McDowell Hall, and satisfies AU Core’s Diversity and Equity requirement. In this Community, which will be offered again in the 2022-23 academic year, class conversations analyzing the relationship between culture and communication at the global level can become interpersonal explorations of culture and communication on the floor.

Because the Community is so diverse, class discussions about different identities and related intersections led many students to feel some culture shock. For example, in conversations about religion, Arielle realized that she had some preconceived ideas about different religions that she had unquestioningly accepted. After participating in conversations about intercultural communication, she believes she has a much greater knowledge of how to break these assumptions down and consider different perspectives.

Arielle also has learned to have more patience and sensitivity and finds herself better able to understand potentially difficult interactions between people: “Instead of being upset or confused, I am able to take a step back and understand that there may be something in their life or their past that I do not know about.”

For Chloe, the ability to spend time with her classmates in both formal and informal settings gives her a chance to see them for the more complex and dynamic people they are: “I love the ways our conversations can shift from day-to-day talks to more academic and analytical discussions.”

Opportunities on the Floor

Living-Learning Communities generally provide resources and experiences for students to dive deeper into the theme of their floor. In this case, being located in Washington, DC, is a huge advantage for a community focused on culture and identity. These opportunities strengthen students’ understanding of different identities and give the concepts they discuss in the classroom a more lasting and real-world impact and application.

So far, the Interculturalist Living-Learning Community’s trip to Planet Word, a museum dedicated to language and how language works, has had the biggest impact on Chloe. As a double major in International Studies and Spanish, the experience opened her eyes to the evolution of language and its impact on how people view the world around them: “It made me realize that the way I think about the world is very different from the way that others do, and not just in an analytical sense, but in ways that impact daily conversations.”

For Arielle, a big learning moment came when her Community participated in a program created by the Interfaith Council of Washington DC. In the program, the public is invited to visit different houses of worship. The opportunity to speak with different community members about their religion and engagement efforts helped Arielle in her growing understanding of different faiths: “It was extremely valuable to me and an amazing learning opportunity. I now understand what each building is and what it represents, but also how different individuals practice their faith.”

The Impact of the Interculturalist Theme

The intentional space created to explore differences, instead of fearing or avoiding them, and the time spent reflecting on how culture influences perspectives and informs assumptions greatly contributes to the feel of community on the floor. This feeling manifests in the students’ on-campus friendships and in their classroom experiences.

According to Chloe, “Some of the quickest and deepest connections that I have had with individuals on campus have been with those I’m living with in the Community. This comes not only from living together but also because we have a dedicated space each week to talk about communication—and talk about individuals’ lives and backgrounds—which opens up deep conversations. The community aspect comes out a lot more than in other areas of campus. All of us are friends, and we use our lounge 24/7.”

The roommates agree that intercultural communication is a valuable skill and requires continuous practice. Members of the Community are building skills useful for every field of study or career path they might choose.

As Arielle notes, “what we are talking about is valuable to both formal and informal settings.”

Chloe now finds herself more interested in understanding where someone is coming from: “There have been many times when someone in our class starts talking about an issue, and I think I know what they are going to say. Then, they talk about their life from a completely different perspective. The part I didn’t expect is something that I am completely glad I heard. Had I been waiting for my chance to talk or debate, I would not have had the opportunity to hear what they are saying, so intercultural communication has taught me to listen attentively and be grateful for the different opinions I am hearing.”