By Sean Reilly, Director of Program Development, AFS Intercultural Programs
& Molly Stern, Global Up Manager, AFS Intercultural Programs

This article was originally published in Diversity Abroad’s Global Impact Exchange

As global educators, we have the tremendous opportunity to prepare young people for how they act – and interact – in the world. Intercultural experiences can help broaden students’ perspectives so that they are better prepared to enter the workforce and collaborate in a globalized economy. But are we preparing students to deal with the cultural ambiguity that they will inevitably encounter?

We argue that global education should prepare students to navigate intercultural “gray areas” – the ambiguous moments where one must face discomfort, navigate conflict, express curiosity or practice flexibility – with an understanding of DEI and a toolkit of global competence skills.

The principles of DEI (ideally) enable our institutions to create opportunities to address systems of power and privilege around the world. In practice, however, an institution’s commitment to DEI may be limited to certain resources, geographies, or communities. Our peers at SPARK and the ISDC, for example, observe that programs serving refugee and displaced communities are tasked not only with delivering on imposed metrics, but also with significantly influencing participants’ attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors towards their “new” host societies. “Us-versus-them” approaches like this limit global education from leaning into intercultural ambiguity and nuance.

The following are four reflections on how navigating ambiguity develops global readiness, and why global educators should lean into it. These reflections emerged from our own practices as well as our partnerships with NGOS, higher education institutions, and organizations working toward global competence development. 

1. Discomfort can be used as a tool.

When students are challenged to navigate uncomfortable or new situations – like studying abroad or working abroad – they may experience confusion, pain, or judgment about the culture or program. Unpacking these situations can further exacerbate discomfort and exhaustion, especially when there isn’t one clear solution to the issue at hand. How can we encourage students to be reflective about their own interpretations, their behaviors, and coping skills, and to pause during conflict or discomfort? When we help our learners view ambiguity and discomfort as an opportunity to practice different actions, consider multiple approaches, or examine power and privilege, we’re not only setting them up for success on their program – we’re setting them up with an essential skill for life.

2. Coalition-building is not black and white.

Showing up strong in the world requires building networks and communities we can turn to when navigating life’s gray areas. At the same time, we must break down silos and address inequitable barriers that we see in our communities. This is true not only for our students, but for ourselves as educators. Are we working together across departments on our campuses and at our institutions? Are we empowering students to engage thoughtfully and build connections with their new community? We need to embrace differences in order to explore and develop our understanding of ourselves, of inequalities, and different perspectives of DEI around the world. We know that emotional intelligence and global competence start with one’s self-understanding, and that that practice is never fully complete. 

3. Societies are rapidly changing. 

Cultures, communities, and people that once existed worlds apart exist now just down the road from one another, or just a few clicks away on social media. The world’s boundaries and borders (both literal and figurative) are changing, and we must prepare students to thrive in a world where they can cope with change and difference. To that end, global learning programs should be goals-based and include self-reflection, peer-learning, active experimentation, guidance, and support along the way. Global competence development, such as emotional intelligence, critical thinking, intercultural awareness, and teamwork, can equip students to navigate the world effectively and adaptively as societies evolve.

4. The world demands action.

Governments, corporations, and institutions around the world are calling on a new generation of people to solve the world’s problems collaboratively — and we have the opportunity to urge and inspire our students to act. Through global competence development, we can integrate real concerns around political and social conflict, human rights, climate change and the environment into our programs, without compromising the “fun stuff.” Students need to be prepared to tackle challenges together with their global peers, despite language barriers or cultural differences that may arise. They should learn to approach problems, practice tolerance, navigate ambiguity, and consider multiple perspectives while suspending judgment. When we incorporate these practices into our programs, we equip our students to make a positive impact on their future careers and industries, engage with  social causes, and contribute meaningfully to their communities – whether at home, abroad, or online.

  • The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad
    August 2009 Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 18(1):1-75
  • ISDC: Ferguson, Neil T. N.; Wolfe, Rebecca J.; Amine, Laila; Ramadi, Eric; and Shahin, Lina (2022). Building Stability Between Host and Refugee Communities : Evidence from a TVET Program in Jordan and Lebanon. Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 10101 Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group
  • UNESCO-APCEIU & AFS Intercultural Programs (2019) Creating Global Citizens: The AFS Effect, GCED Clearinghouse. Available at: (Accessed: January 2023).