Formative journeys of first-year college students: tensions and intersections with intercultural theory

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Development of intercultural skills is recognized as an essential outcome of a college education, but in order to facilitate students' growth effectively, we must understand the points of the developmental journey at which students enter the college classroom. This study tests four hypotheses developed on the basis of leading models of intercultural development in relation to first-year students' levels of maturity, attitudes toward difference, capacity for productive interaction and emotions experienced in the face of difference. To test the hypotheses, we collected written narratives on a formative encounter with difference from 414 incoming students at the University of Minnesota. Each narrative was coded for an initial, intermediate or advanced stage of intercultural development, as well as for the outcomes of the interaction and emotions experienced in the course of the encounter. Findings indicate that: (1) only 21% of respondents display evidence of ethnorelative thinking; (2) the majority report very positive attitudes toward difference, but show evidence of veiled detachment and minimization; (3) there is no difference in reports of productive interaction between those who do and do not display mindfulness and (4) the emotions experienced at various stages of intercultural maturity do not yield a pattern of increasing comfort. We conclude that the points at which our students begin their intercultural journey may differ slightly from what is suggested by leading developmental models, and recommend adjusting the starting point of programming aimed at supporting intercultural competence development in college.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)188-204
Number of pages17
JournalHigher Education Research and Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2015


  • diversity
  • first-year experience
  • qualitative research
  • student development


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