Cultural Understanding: What It Is & How It Can Help Your Career

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Maybe you are enticed by the stories of life-changing adventures from friends who have gone abroad. Maybe you want to develop your language skills. Maybe you are excited about the idea of experiencing the cultural diversity of a new place. Whatever your inspiration may be, know that study abroad can truly change your life.

And although you may be transformed while you’re studying abroad, there are also many benefits of study abroad when you return home. Have you thought about what a cultural experience abroad might do for your career? Taking the time to think about how study abroad could play a part in your professional development will undoubtedly impact the way you engage in the experience and improve the likelihood that you’ll be able to effectively parlay your experience into the job market later. This starts by contemplating what cultural understanding and intercultural competency means and how these skills play a part in today’s job market. 

What Cultural Understanding Means

Culture is a difficult noun to define. Webster’s Dictionary provides at least six possible definitions; the Oxford-English Dictionary adds at least three more. It is not surprising, then, that the terms like cultural understanding (or cultural sensitivity, or cultural awareness) can be equally difficult concepts to grasp.

For starters, cultural understanding is a skill, not a personality trait. It is the process by which a person actively engages in trying to understand another’s cultural background, beliefs, and values. Studying abroad is a very effective way to build cultural understanding – more than 90% of study abroad alumni feel they develop this skill during their experience abroad. Cultural understanding is the first step toward intercultural competence – perhaps the most fundamental goal of study abroad programs.

Defining Intercultural Competence

In academic circles, intercultural competency is defined as “the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills, and attitudes that lead to visible behavior and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions.”1

For many, the very act of being immersed in another country, observing cultural diversity and language or dialog that is different from your own, is a launch pad for cultural understanding and cultural awareness. Taking the additional step toward achieving intercultural competency requires work beyond observation. It requires learning how to take those observations, analyze, interpret, and eventually anticipate how to proceed with your own communication or behavior. Quality study abroad programs will integrate intercultural competency training into coursework, orientation, field trips, or other program elements to help students develop these abilities.

Tokyo students posing in front of large globe

Why These Are Important in the Workplace

It starts with communication. Take a look at any list of what employers look for, and you will find communication somewhere in the top five.Regardless of field. Knowing how to understand one’s audience and develop verbal and non-verbal communication that is effective and appropriate to that audience is a skill that transcends academic disciplines or career fields.

What makes intercultural competence a skill distinct from communication is that intercultural competency requires growth in other skills.

  • To understand a culture different from your own, you must think critically.
  • You must work hard to deduce the nuances of explicit and implicit rules and norms.
  • You must learn to collaborate with people different from yourself.

Do the words critical thinking, hard work, and collaboration sound familiar? Remember that list of top job skills sought after by employers? You guessed it. This is what employers look for in job candidates, and studying abroad can be an incredibly effective way to develop these skills.

With more than 2 million people graduating from college each year, employers have to find ways to ways to differentiate job candidates. Having the credential of an undergraduate degree might get you a foot in the door, but developing and being able to articulate key “soft” skills is essential to moving from job candidate to hired employee. If you are going to take the leap to study abroad, do yourself a favor – think about your experience within the context of developing these skills. Don’t slack off when presented with orientation and course activities that push you to enhance your cultural understanding and cultural awareness in order to build intercultural competency. Engage. Think hard, and work hard to develop your toolbox of skills. In the long run, your career will thank you.


1. Deardorff, D. K. (2006) , The Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States, Journal of Studies in International Education 10:241-266  

2.  NACE: Employers Rate Competencies, Student’s Career Readiness

Carrie CunninghamCarrie Cunningham, Director of Institutional Research

Carrie Rackers Cunningham is the Director of Institutional Research at IES Abroad. Carrie has dedicated her career to advancing educational opportunities, beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer then moving on to the world of undergraduate admissions before finally transitioning into education abroad. In her decade of work at IES Abroad, Carrie has worked with almost all IES Abroad constituents - advising students preparing to go abroad; serving as the liaison to university partners; developing customized programs with faculty; and implementing assessment procedures and standards for academic programs. This unique blend of experiences allows Carrie to bring a practical lens to the research efforts she leads.

Carrie’s work has been published in the series Comparative Histories of Education, PIE News, and she has presented at the annual conferences of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and IES Abroad. Carrie earned a MA in Comparative International Education from Loyola University Chicago, where she was awarded Thesis of the Year for outstanding scholarship, and a BA in Business Administration and Marketing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She currently sits on the Data Committee for the Forum of Education Abroad.

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