As program developers, one of our main responsibilities is offering students study abroad experiences that improve their cultural competence. We can do that by providing exposure to a variety of people, areas and/or aspects of the culture, challenging students’ to examine preconceived notions, and inviting them to form relationships with local people.

But how can authentic experiences improve cultural competence? In “Authentic Engagement: Deepening Students’ Experience in Short-term Study Abroad Programs,” authors Claudia Rodriguez, Rodney Parks and Jesse Parrish say, “By immersing themselves in the local way of life and intentionally challenging their preconceptions, students develop greater comfort in interacting with people who are different from themselves, not only during their global education program but also when they return home.”

We discussed this & other ideas on how to enrich short-term study abroad programs with three international education program developers: Mayumi Nakamura, Interim Director of International Programs at Randolph-Macon College; Dr. Brandon Cromer, Biology professor at Augusta University; and Jenny Burkholder, a Study Tour Coordinator with 20 years’ experience at FTI.

How do you incorporate authentic experiences that enhance cultural competence & complement the curriculum? 

Nakamura:  Based on my experience as a chaperone, it’s best when you invite local people to interact with your students. Having someone from there collaborate with the faculty reinforces what you’re teaching. For example, partner with local schools, so students can exchange ideas and have discussions with one another – even if there’s a language barrier. Faculty development can also happen through this type of partnership. 

Cromer: Although I thoroughly research the ecology and culture of the area that we will travel to, I always arrange for local guides/naturalists to be provided, particularly guides belonging to indigenous groups.  Local guides tend to add knowledge that I do not have of the area and using local guides usually helps sustain the local economy. 

In addition to using local guides, I always include visits to indigenous people’s homes/villages.  I avoid drive-by photo shoots, but rather plan something that gets students working side-by-side with local people. 


  • In Ecuador, we have a traditional Andean meal at the home of an associate of the provider.  There is also indigenous music and dancing that follows the meal. We also toured a music shop in Otavalo and learned how to make and play traditional Andean instruments. 
  • In Tanzania, we visit Maasai bomas to learn about Maasai family structure and daily life. We also work with locals on two service-learning projects – building a predator-proof fence around Maasai livestock corrals and constructing ditches for soil erosion prevention. 

Another way that I expand my curriculum is by arranging lectures by local experts.  I have had lectures provided by local doctors/medical professionals, field biologists, conservation groups, and community leaders.  Like having local guides, getting local experts to speak with students really helps students connect with the local culture, issues, etc. 

Burkholder: I am a big fan of hands-on experiences that are kicked up a notch.  I love including a cooking class. But incorporating a cooking class in a local person’s home after shopping for local ingredients in a local market really beefs up the overall experience. 

I would also strongly recommend adding a volunteer component whenever possible. This type of experience takes students completely out of a tourist mindset and exposes the true needs of the community. In many cases, we can marry the volunteer experience with an aspect of the curriculum, really bringing the entire study abroad experience to the next level. Every time we incorporate this kind of component, students say it was the most meaningful part of their time abroad.

In addition to hitting the books and doing my own research on localities, I also rely heavily on our local partners to keep me abreast of the latest and greatest in cultural and behind-the-scenes experiences so I’m always bringing something fresh and new to the table.  After all, who knows better about the culture than the people who live there?

How to Integrate Authentic Experiences

  1. Use local guides.
  2. Interact with indigenous groups.
  3. Work side-by-side with locals.
  4. Incorporate local experts in your field.
  5. Enjoy a traditional meal in a local person’s home.
  6. Include exposure to traditional dances, music, plays, visual arts, etc.
  7. Organize behind-the-scenes access to key sites.
  8. Ask the locals for ideas.

Hint: If you need help identifying experiences that will complement your program, or putting these components in place, your travel provider should be able to assist you.

We hope you enjoyed the this installment of our “Ask the Experts” series. If you missed the previous posts, take a look at:

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