Does Westridge Teach Global Cultural Competency? Not Yet, But It Is Trying.

Elisa D.
By Sophia K. 
May 20, 2019

The monkey in a cage was a shock. Held behind wooden bars, its intelligent eyes stared beyond the Borneo interim students and chaperones into the lush jungle. This view was unexpected and mildly sickening—the monkey seemed far too aware of its own entrapment—causing participants to question their responsibility as guests in a foreign environment. What was the appropriate response? Should they say something? Ignore it? Westridge students, I among them, had been welcomed into a rural Borneo village community whose way of life was quite different from their own. While most recognized that they were in no place to free the monkey or even to comment on the cultural practices of their hosts, a few individuals were unable to refrain from offering their Westernized perspective on the situation, instead feeding the trapped animal throughout the visit and talking to the the hosts about its release.


This action did not sit well with many Borneo interim participants. While some were experiencing an ethical conundrum, it was also obvious to others that they had no right to intervene. In Western culture, a privately caged wild animal is not only illegal, but it is often seen as an ethical faux pas. In Borneo, on the other hand, it is a natural part of life. Imposing Western ideals onto the situation smacked of the white savior complex—the idea that white people can and must save non-white people from their circumstances. Even if people were acting out of their own best ethical intentions, doing so with impunity indicated a lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity.  


According to Mia B., ’19, a student on the Borneo interim, “The thing about awareness is that you just have to keep checking your perspective, your privilege, and also the people around you. We walked in to a culture completely different than our own, and not everyone was as conscientious and respectful as they could have been, adults and myself included.”


Another student on the Borneo interim, who asked to remain anonymous, shared, “I would say that I was disappointed in the lack of respect that I felt certain team members showed towards the people of Borneo and the way that they chose to live their lives. We come from such a different way of life, and it’s easy to try and push our own held values and beliefs on others, but it’s our responsibility to learn about the culture and traditions held in other countries in order to educate ourselves and show respect towards them.”


It’s one thing to impose one’s own cultural norms and practices when acting as a guest in a foreign country, but a more subtle form of cultural superiority can be seen in the vernacular of “otherness.” Upon reaching the village, one student referred to it as “rustic” and a family travel destination: “[My father] loves places like this.” Of course, there was no malintent on the students’ part, but her ignorance still trivialized and denigrated the village’s worth compared to Westernized home.


“You can’t ‘other’ people that are being gracious and housing us and are legit humans like us, and you can’t impose our Western culture onto them,” explained Mia.


For some students on the interim, both the monkey incident and the patronizing word choice violated unstated rules of conduct when entering differing cultures. And although more and more students venture beyond the borders of the United States on interim trips, students receive little, if any, preparation on cultural competence and sensitivity. The Borneo participants’ struggle to respect cultural differences may be evidence of a bigger issue, an issue that begs the question: does Westridge teach global cultural competency?


Cultural competence, defined as the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures,” is integral to interims such as Borneo. Cultural competence “encompasses being aware of one’s own world view, developing positive attitudes toward cultural differences, and gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews.” It is the idea that when one is interacting with different cultures, one must be careful to not force their own worldview on their hosts.


It’s difficult to know if cultural clashes and gaffes are an inherent and inevitable outcome of travel and cultural exchange or if these experiences are isolated events. Leo Kitajima, the former Westridge orchestra teacher and chaperone on the 2017 Japan interim, shared, “There was an incident in Japan where a group of students were on the public train and placed their feet on top of the head rests in front of them while they were sitting down. … Because cleanliness of public spaces and not inconveniencing others are important values in Japanese culture, people there would not do anything like that. … The mistake [the students] made was not paying close enough attention to the people and environment around them and assuming that the norms at home are the norms for every other place in this world.”


On the 2018 Kenya trip, John Cross, Seventh Grade English Teacher, described an incident of his own personal cultural incompetence. While on a hike with Westridge’s village host, Chris, Mr. Cross looked out over the breathtakingly beautiful land and said, “This looks like paradise.” As explained by Mr. Cross, “Chris stopped in his tracks and gave me the iciest stare, and I was really taken aback, and then he said, ‘Really, you think so? We are just trying to survive.’ That was another ‘aha’ moment for me where I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I am looking at this with the lens of a very privileged human being who has no real idea or appreciation for what your life is.’”


While in the grand scheme of the interim program Mr. Cross’s experience only comprised a few moments, his example reflects the intersection of unacknowledged privilege and cultural incompetence. More importantly, Mr. Cross’s experience also indicates why travel is a valuable and necessary part of education. It is for that very reason that students should enter into spaces where their own values are checked, examined, and questioned.


Lorri Deyer, one of the Borneo interim chaperones, said, “I think those people or those students who do not take to [cultural competence] as easily or who struggle more are the ones who really should be going [on international interim trips].”  


Inexperienced travellers might be forgiven for minor faux pas regarding customs and manners, but if they are aware of their own privilege and are willing to develop a cultural sensitivity, the interim program can be a great opportunity to learn and grow.


That does not mean that interim should be the only opportunity for students to learn cultural competence. Westridge is currently working to expand the place of global awareness within its curriculum and beyond. The new Global Initiative Program is “designed to provide students an opportunity for meaningful interdisciplinary study of a modern-day global issue.” It also “provides an avenue for such students who demonstrate a strong interest in global citizenship to further their interests and become models of global competence for our community.”


2018-2019 is the inaugural year for the Global Initiative Program. It currently has five fellows who, over the course of a two/two-and-a-half-year span, are doing in-depth research on a specific global issue. The research and classroom engagement may be an important first step in preparing students to travel thoughtfully.  


While there are a series of preparatory meeting before international interims, the meetings’ primary focus tend to be on packing and itinerary, not cultural differences between the destination and home. According to Ms. Marcus, a member of the Global Initiative Program committee and Middle School Service Learning Coordinator, “The more we prepare students before we just send them out on a travel program, the more we can prepare them for what they might see when they are there, culture shock that might happen, what is the culture of the place you are going to, how can you respect that, even from how you dress to if you shake someone’s hand or not. Little things like that that make a difference.”


The Global Initiative Program is only the first step though. Ms. Marcus remarked, “The [Global Initiative Committee] is trying to think broader about what else goes into a global program. From what I have seen from other schools, I think that we are really lucky to have interim week. … We have done the hard part in terms of having a dedicated week for experiential education including global education, and it is just about making sure that the global programs that we run that week are run really meaningfully.”


Re-examining the role of interim is on the minds of many. In December 2018, Spyglass published an article raising questions about equity in the interim program. According to Cindy Martin, Westridge’s Project and Event Coordinator and member of the Global Initiative committee, the program is due for some important changes.  


“Probably next year will be the last time we can run interim in its current form, so [we are looking] at things that can get [students] more immersed and more involved in something global, more involved in something service-based, looking into different vendors, working with the chaperones specifically, working with the students in advance so that the interim prep meetings are more substantial, and looking at how to create more equity among the trips and the students able to go on the trips.”

With change on the horizon, Westridge’s attempts to support students’ authentic global engagement will have to begin in the classroom before it can be tested outside the classroom.  Westridge students are already globally conscious and eager to experience the world beyond the walls of Westridge. Of the students on the Kenya 2018 interim, Mr. Cross described them as “wonderful,” “gracious,” and “fantastic." Surely a curriculum that seeks to bridge students’ sincere desires for cultural competence with more intentional preparation will meet students in stride and prepare them to be thoughtful global citizens.