Intercultural communication helps students face global challenges together

UC Davis Professor Zerbe stands with lab members Katie Murphy and Prema Karunanithi. Not pictured is lab member Kyle Pelot, who did much of the Zerbe Lab's previous work on switchgrass. Photo: David Slipher
Professor Zerbe stands with lab members Katie Murphy and Prema Karunanithi. Not pictured is lab member Kyle Pelot, who did much of the Zerbe Lab's previous work on switchgrass. Photo: David Slipher

By Bridgette Johnson, Mary Martin-Mabry, Ashley Vater, and Kyeema Zerbe

Before the electronic era, young adults used to learn about foreign cultures through ‘pen pal’ exchanges. What did people in each country eat, what were their interests and concerns, how did they differ from our own? Through letter writing, these insights would inform our own global thinking.

Today, character limits on social media prevent such a deep knowledge exchange, holding us back from bigger picture learning. Consider this First-Year Seminar as ‘project pen pal’. It is designed to orient the international student to American cultural thinking, and provide an international perspective to domestic students through interaction with the many cultures UC Davis hosts on campus.

Professor Philipp Zerbe, the course instructor, brings his own intercultural point of view, and students receive additional input from guest speakers in developing comprehensive solutions to problems they care deeply about. “Essentially, we want to bring together students from different backgrounds, viewpoints and approaches to form partnerships in discussing global challenges that we all share despite these differences,” explains Zerbe. “In my experience, differences in how we approach a problem are often based on our upbringing, education or cultural background.”

As a European graduate who trained in Canada before coming to UC Davis, Zerbe uses his scientific background to explore topics in food, medicine, health, climate change and even art. “If we appreciate that many of our global challenges require solutions that cross national borders and must involve approaches from different disciplines, then an appreciation and ability to work with people from other countries and cultures will become increasingly important in the foreseeable future,” he claims.

“The course will be a combination of instruction, guest speakers and activities, where students will learn best practices in working together on a project and preparing a project proposal.” Zerbe describes a previous seminar that focused broadly on climate change, “where one student group researched costs and possible savings from introducing water-saving shower heads, and judged the feasibility of this approach in different regions.” Another student group explored the benefit of intercultural communication more broadly, and were supported in developing an online education platform to link different disciplines across campus.

Through an intercultural curriculum and project-based learning, participants in this small class share modern-day concerns and work together to propose realistic solutions that can be implemented locally or back at home. Different cultural and scientific perspectives, along with instruction on project design, makes this a rich experience for the newcomer to campus who is looking to meet new people and learn broader ways of approaching their career and life. Zerbe believes that “learning about these differences in active discussion will help students to work more effectively and positively with colleagues from other countries and cultural backgrounds.”

This experience will be one of many on offer at UC Davis as part of Global Education for All, an initiative from Global Affairs designed to give all students the opportunity for international or intercultural exposure before graduation. As the world becomes more reliant upon interpersonal and intercultural connections across disciplines and across borders, this seminar is an important way to connect students of different backgrounds and viewpoints for fostering discussion of the global challenges we all face.