Practice Area Column
Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship

Bridging the Gap Between DEI and Global Learning Outcomes

Educators can use intercultural learning tools to advance both concepts.
Both DEI and internationalization efforts aim to create space for students to reflect and connect. Image: Shutterstock

On many U.S. campuses, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are often separate from global learning efforts—driven by unique missions and goals, centered around distinct courses and programming, and overseen by separate staff. It is rare to find collaboration between the two entities, say experts.

DEI principles are typically domestically focused and usually revolve around social constructs such as racism, sexism, personal backgrounds and biases, and other individual factors. They center on how individuals relate to and understand one another, as well as the world around them. While global learning also encompasses those perspectives, it approaches them through a framework of intercultural communication, language, and culture from the perspective of a nation’s norms.

“Fundamentally, both of those activities are about understanding the self in relationship to the other,” says David Wick, associate professor and program chair for international education management at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “In one case, we may begin with the lens of nation and culture, or global learning. And in the other case—diversity equity, and inclusion—the lens we often look through is that of social identity and the systems around us … They are quite naturally and essentially connected. We cannot advance one effectively without also working to advance the other.”

“Fundamentally, both of those activities are about understanding the self in relationship to the other. … They are quite naturally and essentially connected. We cannot advance one effectively without also working to advance the other.” —David Wick

Practically speaking, says Wick, both DEI and internationalization efforts aim to create space for students to reflect and connect.

“What might the idea of being interculturally sensitive look like when I encounter someone who has been brought up in a different belief, value, and tradition system? That means I'd be able to slow down and patiently make sense of how they view and interact with the world,” Wick says. “And I, in turn, could interact with them in a way that is meaningful for them. In other words, I'm creating an inclusive space where we can connect. And so that idea of inclusion is about belonging, reducing violence in our interpersonal encounters, and creating something new together that can be mutually beneficial, positive, and productive.

“In many ways, intercultural learning gives us a set of tools that could help us also advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Understanding these tools and how to effectively use them can help educators bridge the gap between DEI efforts and global learning outcomes.

Where DEI and Global Learning Overlap

Making more deliberate efforts to bridge the gaps between DEI initiatives and international education could have a profound impact in helping students become globally minded citizens.

“Although the synergy between DEI and internationalization has largely been implicit for many international educators drawn to the field, recent events have made it more imperative to have DEI embedded more explicitly for greater impact, relevance, and cultural awareness with both domestic and international populations,” wrote Shanna Saubert, PhD, in the essay, “Connecting the Dots Between DEI and Higher Education Internationalization,” which was published in the July 2022 issue of NAFSA’s Trends & Insights.

DEI and global learning concepts fit together naturally. At Middlebury Institute, for example, DEI principles are embedded within the institution’s core values, and these ideals are interwoven within the curriculum and co-curricular activities. By including self-reflection as a critical component of each course, students can consider new ways to embrace these ideals. Middlebury’s International Enrollment Management program, which Wick oversees, also includes activities outside the classroom that provide students multiple opportunities for networking and community building.

“In many ways, intercultural learning gives us a set of tools that could help us also advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.” —David Wick

Instilling these fundamental DEI and intercultural skills in future international educators prepares them to “create and sustain inclusive learning environments,” Wick says.

Where DEI and International Education Diverge

There can be tensions, or conflicting perspectives, between the DEI and internationalization approaches, says Casey Aldrich, associate director for global studies at Dartmouth University’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. For example, one criticism coming from the DEI side is that international educators seem to overlook historical issues related to power, privilege, and systems of oppression. On the other hand, many working in the international education space view DEI as having a U.S.-centric approach. On many campuses, DEI initiatives overlook the challenges confronting international students in the classroom, theresidence halls, and the wider community.

Developing intercultural competencies can help bridge the gap between these two areas, Aldrich says.

“Global learning is the process of helping learners develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are necessary in addressing and analyzing the great issues—the world’s complex problems that transcend borders and affect all of us,” Aldrich says. “These legitimate criticisms [between DEI and international learning perspectives] can all be addressed if we're coming from a place where we're able to, to interact across differences effectively and appropriately in a way that's respectful of others.”

Starting Points

Bringing together internationalization efforts and DEI initiatives can prepare students to navigate a globally connected world. Here are some ways that faculty and international education professionals can connect.

1. Instill intercultural skills in faculty and staff.

Experts recommend developing a holistic approach to intercultural learning that includes faculty and staff, as well as students. At Washington State University (WSU), for example, the Common Reading Program is designed to foster connections and learning among students, faculty, residence hall staff, and others through the shared reading of a thought-provoking book. Courses and co-curricular activities are planned around the reading. This year’s choice, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kemmerer, addresses topics of national and global interest, such as climate change, ecology, and cultural heritage. 

“Helping students understand international diversity can be a gateway into helping them better appreciate and develop sensitivity to domestic diversity, which often is the focus of DEI efforts,” says Kelly Newlon, WSU’s director of global learning.

2. Require self-reflection.

Intercultural learning should include a self-reflection component that requires students to think critically about their personal characteristics, attitudes, assumptions, and values, as well as their reaction to differences in others. Doing so gives them space to have “both an intellectual and emotional response to their learning environments,” Wick says, and to develop greater capacity for understanding and tolerance of people who are different from them.

Wick suggests that faculty members also engage in self-reflection activities. For example, a facilitator can guide them through answering prompts such as:

  • When have I felt like I belonged?
  • Describe a situation when I felt included?
  • What makes me feel valued?

“This exercise reminds faculty that they have both an intellectual and an emotional response to their learning environments,” Wick says. “Faculty can then begin to build empathy for their students as learners,” he says.

3. Create opportunities for exchange.

The story circle methodology—developed by UNESCO and described in “Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles,” by Darla K. Deardorff, EdD—can be an effective tool for practicing key intercultural competencies. This technique brings small groups of people together to share their personal stories, promoting understanding and listening skills and drawing out people’s commonalities.

Aldrich has begun using the DIE (describe, interpret, and evaluate) exercise with students. She starts by showing them images and giving them time to write down their ideas about what’s happening in the picture. Next, they come together as a group and discuss everyone’s ideas, including how history, lived experiences, and other factors may have contributed to their response.

“It’s a really interesting way to shed light on how things from our past, our history, and our culture shape the lens on how we experience things,” Aldrich says.

4. Don’t overlook the teachable moments.

Whether in the classroom, during a virtual exchange session, or on a study abroad excursion, situations or questions may emerge that provide an opportunity to reflect upon intercultural perspectives. When Newlon took a group of students to the Czech Republic several years ago, for example, they witnessed acts of discrimination against members of the Roma community. During their time of reflection, the students expressed surprise about these blatant acts. For Newlon, this incident became a “teachable moment” about systemic racism in the United States. These discussions tied in with both global learning objectives and DEI principles.

“How do you turn these ideals into action?” Newlon asks. “I think often times, it is looking for those teachable moments.”

Merging DEI and International Learning

Targeted skills within the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) global learning values rubric include global self-awareness, perspective taking, cultural diversity, personal and social responsibility, and understanding global systems. These are similar to the perspectives cultivated within DEI initiatives. When faculty and students develop a curiosity about others, respect differences, and show empathy, they cultivate an inclusive, equitable, and welcoming community.

“Helping students understand international diversity can be a gateway into helping them better appreciate and develop sensitivity to domestic diversity, which often is the focus of DEI efforts.” —Kelly Newlon

“Anyone who’s committed to building diversity, equity, and inclusion must include global competence and intercultural knowledge and skill as part of that effort,” says Wick. “And on the contrary, any international educator who's deeply committed to global learning and interculturality must also work on creating a sustaining, diverse, and inclusive learning environment. Global learning and DEI are completely connected, and unless we seek to advance them both together, we will not advance either.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

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