Interculturality: Learning across borders


Certified international experience and intercultural competences boost a student’s chances of finding a job with their dream employer. ZHAW sets out to sharpen the international profile of its students.

Three continents, four languages and different time zones: 25 ZHAW students from the Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainable Development Goals (CSR-SDG-Food) programme are currently finding out what it is like to work together virtually in global teams. With fellow students from the USA, Japan and the Netherlands, they are discussing the sustainability of food from well-known brands and pinpointing scope for improvement. They are required to organise themselves in teams spanning the different universities and then solve problems together, resolve conflicts and submit proof of what they have achieved.

The web as a neutral space for intercultural encounters

“Value chains are interlinked throughout the world,” says Daniel von Felten, Coordinator for International Affairs at the ZHAW Institute of Facility Management (IFM). Changes can only be instigated by collaborating with all the different stakeholders. It is then an advantage to be aware of the cultural differences involved. “We act from within our familiar socio-cultural setting,” he says. In Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) projects, students learn to perceive and handle different “realities”.

“You encounter different ways of approaching things,” says Daniela Lozza, who is in charge of digital education at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management. Contrary to the case for a stay abroad, students are not completely immersed in the foreign culture. Participants meet up online in a more neutral space, shaped by the way in which the cultures interact. The teams have to agree on rules and go through a learning process. “Students have to put themselves in their counterparts’ shoes, while also reflecting on their own behaviour.”

“I’d like to learn how to better interact with different cultures for both private and business purposes”.

ZHAW student


In addition to their professional, interpersonal and language knowledge, COIL participants also expand their digital know-how. They get to know technical tools and learn how to deploy them productively. “Precisely in the current corona situation, we are seeing just how important virtual cooperation is,” says von Felten.

“I’d like to learn how to better interact with different cultures for both private and business purposes,” says Velia Roth, who is studying Facility Management in Wädenswil. The Bachelor’s student has already completed two COIL projects. Working with students from Mexico, she looked into how they could successfully advertise a product in each other’s country. And she has also discussed interculturality issues with students from China.

Now, she is participating in the ongoing project with Japan, the USA and the Netherlands. “One of the biggest challenges is the time difference,” she says. The experience she acquired in the first two projects has been positive. She not only got to know different values and traditions but has also seen “that you can always find a way of working together”. The decisive factor is to discuss things. If you’re familiar with the way the other party approaches matters, you can take this into account. “I’ve already learned a great deal of value for global cooperation.”

Not only the students benefit

The lecturers similarly derive benefit from the projects. They jointly determine the subject, the language and the teaching methods and are confronted with features specific to the individual countries at the planning stage already. “I learn something new with each new partner,” says Daniel von Felten, who launched this teaching method at his institute in 2017. To illustrate this, he explains that teaching staff in the USA are required to observe a large number of regulations that have an impact on their teaching. They are not permitted, for instance, to require students to attend a joint online meeting.

For the current globe-spanning project, the COIL-project pioneer has found allies in a different School at the ZHAW for the first time. The School of  Social Work has been able to invite five students to participate. “We would like to boost our students’ intercultural competences,” says Anne Schillig, from the Centre for Education, Development and Services. Social workers operate in an international, heterogeneous environment. A COIL project gives them the opportunity to acquire intercultural experience from home.

This is particularly advantageous for students who are not so mobile on account of family commitments or for other reasons. “Lockdown has shown us that not all trips are essential.” To provide those who have completed a project with a means of informing future employers about what they have learned, the School of Social Work has introduced the International Profile Certificate. “This will ensure that they stand out from among other applicants,” says Schillig.

The International Profile Certificate is an additional qualification that does not extend the length of a student’s studies. Joint standards for international profiles were drawn up at ZHAW in 2019 already. The University specifies minimum requirements. These include proof of a foreign language at C1 level, a stay abroad of at least eight weeks or six ECTS credits, and a reflection paper on the intercultural learning process. The individual Schools specify additional activities and achievements for their particular subjects. A number of the Schools prepare their students for a stay abroad with the “Intercultural Competence for Outgoing Students (ICOS)” module (see box).

The International Profile Certificate is so far being offered by the School of Engineering and the Schools of Health Professions, Life Sciences and Facility Management and also Social Work. “Engineers work in international teams today and are globally networked,” says Wolfgang Kickmaier, Head of International Relations at the School of Engineering. A large number of companies require international experience and intercultural competences. “With this Certificate, students have a greater chance of getting a job with the employer of their choice.” Some 20 to 40 percent of students from each year take part.

Colleagues and patients of different nationalities

Graduates of the School of Health Professions similarly work in professional fields which are highly international in nature. In the care professions, 30 percent of all employees have a different cultural background. And numerous nationalities are also encountered among the patients. COIL projects are one way of acquiring intercultural competences. ZHAW is leading the way in this respect. In June, it was the first Swiss university to join the SUNY COIL Network, the world’s largest organisation in this field outside the EU. The coordinators, Daniel von Felten, Daniela Lozza and Anne Schillig, all agree – “This is a teaching method with great potential.”

Intercultural competence for studies abroad

ZHAW students also have to complete assignments in the field of intercultural competence for their International Profile Certificate, such as in the module on Intercultural Competence for Outgoing Students (ICOS). This is aimed at all students who are planning a semester or internship abroad.

Different Schools at the ZHAW and also the International Affairs Unit participated in the development of the module. “We also use this interdisciplinarity as a resource in our teaching. The students prepare their stay in advance across the different disciplines, and are taught and coached by lecturers from different Schools,” explains Miryam Eser Davolio, a senior lecturer at the School of Social Work.

She headed the development of the module, which was piloted in the spring semester of 2021 with students from the Schools of Health Professions, Social Work and Applied Psychology. The module is being held for a second time in the spring semester of 2022. “We develop intercultural competences and international know-how with the students in a targeted manner, and train their intercultural sensitivity independently of their specialisation,” explains Eser Davolio. The students additionally develop their reflective competence and, during their stay abroad, consciously deal with the experiences and challenges they encounter in their new setting.

Following their stay abroad, students reflect upon their experience and the additional competences they have acquired, putting them in a position to selectively deploy and further develop these competences for their future career.


Be the First to Comment!

Comment is required!
Name is required!
Valid email is required!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.