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01/05/2016

Towards Mutual Respect and Understanding: Executive Summary May 2016

Dr. Laura Alexeichik – Indiana University

Research Supervisors: Dr. Alan Ewert – Indiana Universi; Dr. Pete Allison – The University of Edinburgh

Introduction and Context
Over 329 young people have taken part in Connecting Cultures (CC) courses since the program’s inception in 2004. Connecting Cultures Oman provided a unique and rich environment in which to consider the complexities and layers of participant experiences and shed light on the transformative aspects of experiential learning. CC aims to “foster an environment where inter-cultural dialogue can take place, celebrate cultural diversity, break down stereotypes, identify shared values to promote understanding and help reduce the polarization of cultures” (Evans, 2012, p. 37).

Methods
Procedure

The research involved two related studies:

1. Participants on January and February 2015 CC courses (N=36), and 2. Alumni on CC courses between 2009 and 2014 (N=196). The research was qualitative and involved a variety of methods including on-site observations, interviews, and questionnaires. All those involved in CC January-February 2015 courses were invited to participate and forms of data collection included online questionnaires (2 weeks pre-course and 4 weeks post-course), interviews (mid-course and 4-8 weeks post-course), and CC course evaluation forms (distributed and collected by CC). Response rates for this study included: onsite course observations in Oman (20 women and 14 men); participant interviews both during and after CC courses, (17 women and 17 men); short-answer pre- and post-course questionnaires (23 women and 20 men); and CC program evaluations (17 women and 14 men).

2. Alumni on CC courses 2009-2014 (N=196). Data collection included online questionnaires, interviews (ranging from 6 years to 6 months post-course), and CC course evaluation forms (collected by CC). Interviews and short-answer questionnaires were designed to consider how CC participation influenced areas such as cultural development, personal growth, transformative learning, and processes of application upon return. Response rates for this study included: post-course short answer questionnaires (10 women and 8 men); alumni interviews (13 women and 9 men); and CC program evaluations from 2013 to December 2014 (N = 57).

Key Messages
Experiential Wilderness Environment

In a total of 25 interviews during CC courses, each participant described various influences and impacts of the wilderness setting upon their experience and learning. 93% of alumni interviewed reported the experience of freedom in discussing the wilderness environment, and noted conversations were amplified by the wild landscape and serenity. The removal of technology and the neutral setting of the desert environment facilitated the stripping away of assumptions and preconceived ideas. Adil shared his thoughts about how this environment enhanced the structure of the program:

This environment is very helpful because in the desert, it’s not taking your attention away. There is sand everywhere, sand everywhere, and note everywhere…. So that is like putting yourself in a vacuum, putting yourself in a plain place. There’s nothing to take away your attention. The environment is very important.

The activities of camping and the wilderness environment provided opportunities for participants to be stretched beyond their comfort zones. 83% of participants on courses in 2015 expressed this experience as their first time in a tent, camping with strangers, or being in a wilderness environment.

Opportunities for learning occurs as people are exposed to challenges or things that make them uncomfortable, (D’Amato & Krasny, 2011; Sibthorp, Funman, Paisley, Gookin & Schumann, 2011). This is seen as a critical aspect for experiential learning programs (Ewert, 1989).

Cultural Growth and Awareness

A major area of insight for all participants was the development of a broader insight into the diversity of cultures. 81% of alumni shared that their understanding or views of culture expanded or was enriched after their experience in CC courses. A post-course questionnaire from a participant in 2015 expressed this awareness:

It gave me a broader view and a deeper understanding to the true meaning of culture. I understood why there was just as many similarities as differences. It made me realize the importance of culture and the pros and cons of each culture.
This increase in cultural awareness brought meaning and relevance to the experience, as it helped to illuminate areas of preconceived ideas or assumptions about different cultures. The desire to increase understanding of personal culture and a cultural belief system was evidenced through the dialogue and interactions between participants. As participants engaged in dialogue about the diversity of cultures, the influences for greater understanding and learning occurred.


Freedom in Dialogue

In every interview with participants on 2015 courses, opportunities for dialogue was expressed by a willingness to explore beyond their own culture, informal learning by talking and walking, and the ability to be more honest. Freedom was seen both in the description of the environment and outcomes that correspond and in the capability for open and unrestricted discussions. In sixteen interviews with alumni, intercultural dialogue was important for informing perceptions about culture. 67% of alumni interviews reported direct contact and interactions with other cultures increased perspectives more effectively rather than learning about cultures through the media, or other sources. Àlex describes the challenge in being free to discuss various topics with friends:

The very interesting thing is here we talk about very important things, and I don’t know why, but with my friends, for example, I can’t talk about politicians, about cultures, about what is happening in, say, Oman. And here, all the people have this interest in things, and it’s very fine because you understand the others and the others understand you and it’s very fine.

Action Plans and Post Journey Presentations

During Connecting Cultures courses, participants created action plans and initiated opportunities to discuss their experiences. 52% of alumni stated their CC experience played a significant role in decisions of future education, and employment choices. In a post-course questionnaire after courses in 2015, one participant expresses the realization of what lies ahead in sharing all that was learned.

[Connecting Cultures] has made me deeply aware of the wider world that lies beyond the horizon, developing a greater empathy for those who are misunderstood and a sense of justice to defend all of humanity, knowing that stereotypes only divide and create hatred. There are many lessons from the journey that have not flourished fully yet, but will when the time is right.

Conclusions

Everyone involved in this study believed they had grown as a result of taking part in the Connecting Cultures experience. The overriding sense of growth and development as citizens of the wider world are demonstrated through participant’s continued interest in exploring the myriad of cultural similarities and differences, as well as an increased appreciation for them. This program is uniquely structured to provide opportunities, through the exchange of collective knowledge and discourse, for groups of peers to reevaluate personal viewpoints and opinions about culture. The lasting influences of the CC experience are expressed as participant’s descriptions of their desire to challenge people’s mindsets or worldviews to shift and recognize the value of all human beings.


References

Evans, M. (2012b). The University of the Desert: Using wilderness in Oman to bridge the cultural divide. International Journal of Wilderness, 18(3), 35-40.

Ewert, A. (1989). Outdoor adventure pursuits: Foundations, models, and theories. Publishing Horizons.

Sibthorp, J., Furman, N., Paisley, K., Gookin, J., & Schumann, S. (2011). Mechanisms of learning transfer in adventure education: Qualitative results from the NOLS transfer survey. Journal of Experiential Education, 34(2), 109–126. doi:10.5193/jee34.2.109


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