Faculty Club / DEI / How to Help Students Bridge Cultural Gaps [Free Ebook]

How to Help Students Bridge Cultural Gaps [Free Ebook]

Nicole Young, PhD, provides a series of exercises to help broaden students’ appreciation of diverse perspectives and responses.

For most students, college offers the first foray into living far from the comforts of home. And this distance often helps them expand their appreciation of diversity in the wider world. Of course, this exposure only resonates when students are open to stepping out of their comfort zones.

I believe college life is ripe with opportunities for students to move beyond their all-too-familiar backgrounds and seek out a deeper understanding of those who are different.

Nicole C. Jones Young, PhD

My course on organizational inclusion and effectiveness offers a diverse group of students the opportunity to sit side by side to stretch their minds and open their hearts to unfamiliar voices and opinions.

Challenge: Untested Students, Real-World Needs

My class addresses the vague cultural diversity challenges that often present themselves in professional business environments, such as:

  • How can supervisors best meet the needs of an increasingly
    diverse and multi-talented workforce?
  • What are the appropriate words and actions that resonate in
    an increasingly diverse workplace?
  • How can employees learn to appreciate the free exchange
    of ideas among colleagues from different cultures and

For members of my capstone course, these difficult questions will soon become part of their daily lives as they venture into the busy and competitive working world.

One of the first concerns I address in order to prime students to open up is that of pushback: the way people tend to react when they feel attacked for stating their beliefs.

Looking at our society today, this class is a perfect representation of why we need to engage much more with each other about understanding individual viewpoints. It can be difficult for people to feel comfortable asking questions and making comments if they feel like they’re going to be attacked.

Doing a Deep Dive into Personal Bias

I’m a big believer in creating a discussion-based class experience to tease out the often controversial and sensitive topics that bedevil modern workplaces.

To get the most out of studying proper workplace behavior, I recommend that students must be deeply in touch with their own backgrounds, biases, and personalities—and that they understand the diversity and complexity of the personalities that surround them on the job. Further, they must be able to communicate with one another in a professional and openminded manner.

To accomplish this, I create a safe environment using a series of structured exercises that allow students to ask one another controversial questions about their identities and backgrounds.

I then provide the class time and space for genuine and productive follow-up conversations.

For example, I might allow students to take a quiz addressing personal biases—but then follow up on quiz results by inviting the class to discuss why biases exist and how they are formed.

Some familiar topics include how to identify and respond to controversial (and possibly illegal) job interview questions; how to create professional and inclusive email communications; and how to determine the proper etiquette for workplace events, even things so seemingly simple as a holiday party.

I also make sure to use business case studies—often with subjects and circumstances from current news headlines—to help students think through sensitive workplace issues.

Activity Idea:

What kind of topics or current events could prompt conversations about biases in your classes?

Lesson: Build Understanding by Exploring Your Own Identity

I’ve created a series of exercises to help broaden students’ appreciation of diverse perspectives and responses. Many thanks go to my colleague Dr. Gary Powell, Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Connecticut, whose ideas inspired me to use and adapt these learning activities for my own classrooms.

First, I provide my students with a framework for looking inward.

Activity: Build an Identity Pie Chart

To help students begin a journey of self-awareness, I ask them to construct an identity pie chart. This activity occurs early in the semester, sometimes as soon as the first week of class. The chart, which starts as a simple circle on a blank sheet of paper, serves as a guide for other projects during the semester.

I ask each student to fill the circle with pie slices, each of which represents an aspect of their identity—religion, race, sexuality, extracurricular activities, and other elements—and then they must consider the most important and relevant to their life experiences and future ambitions.

I use the pie chart to help students clarify what they view as important to their self-identity. I give them the latitude to write almost anything in there, as long as it’s something they truly connect with as part of their identity. The purpose of the pie chart is to say, “Even though other people may put you in a particular category, these are the pieces of your identity that make you you.”

We all categorize things, and we categorize people. But it’s important to remember that just because I may categorize you as Black or as a woman, that doesn’t make these aspects the most important parts of your identity.

I also find it important to share my identity with my students. This helps them learn a little bit more about me, and also what may inform some of my perspectives and experiences.

Try This:

Write down labels you associate with yourself. How much do you feel each label makes up your identity?

Give students opportunities for “difficult” conversations.

With the pie chart serving as the student’s profile, I ask them to find a partner—either from our class or from the wider campus community—with whom they will discuss difficult social and political issues.

The only hitch? The other person must be outside of their typical friend group so as to challenge the student’s ability to be civil and respectful when exchanging viewpoints and listening to unfamiliar opinions. I find that students often know this, as they often select someone from another class or organization, where they have had exposure to their viewpoints, but generally little to no interaction.

I assign each student a range of 10 questions about social or political issues, and they have to choose at least five to present to a partner. The purpose is to engage in conversation without arguing when someone advances a different viewpoint.

A lot of students come away saying, “I don’t support X or Y or Z, but I understand why somebody who might have gone through another experience might have that viewpoint.”

Activity Idea:

Jot down questions about social or political issues your students could ask their partner.

Push students out of their comfort zone.

It is one thing to read or see videos about someone else’s experience, but it is quite another to engage in it yourself. Here are a couple of activities that promote empathy and discovery.

The SNAP Challenge

Discussions about inflation, student debt, and stimulus checks means social class continues to be a topic of discussion and misunderstanding for some students.

To provide a different vantage point, I ask my students to participate in a SNAP challenge (SNAP meaning the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

To do this, I look up the current SNAP benefits in our state and calculate it for five days. Students are instructed to not exceed that amount for food-related purchases for five consecutive days, and to keep a journal while doing so.

Depending on who is in my class that semester, this can be a completely new experience or all too familiar. But completing the activity and reflecting on it together allows all of us to now have a shared experience (even if only for five days).

At the beginning, the students are usually pretty confident, but halfway through, some of them begin to understand the multiple layers of not having access to financial resources. It is not simply that some of them report they are hungry, but also that they are bored of eating the same thing or feeling isolated since they are unable to order a $5 latte with their friends.

From the Ebook:

The Immersion Challenge

Another assignment requires students to seek out and visit a place in the community that would offer an unfamiliar and challenging context.

Students might visit a mosque or a political event to engage with a new perspective or one where they may disagree, but it must offer an environment that removes the students from the comfortable confines of their usual activities.

Students should plan to attend on their own; if they bring a friend, they will likely engage more with the friend than with the experience.

I ask students to submit their chosen experience at the beginning of the semester for approval. This requires me to know a bit about my students as well, since I want to make sure that this will truly be a meaningful experience.

It also allows me an opportunity to remind them about how to engage when entering another person’s space. People are not exhibits, so I encourage students to contact the organization or location ahead of time to notify them of their attendance and purpose. This also provides the organization with an opportunity to suggest when might be an appropriate time to come or even decline the visit (both of which have happened).

If allowed, they should stay for the entirety of the event—whatever that may be—so that they can fully engage with the space and people who may be present. If I think students may have difficulty making this determination, I work with them on
an individual basis.


Provide students with remote event options to make the assignment more accessible and inclusive. Eventbrite has numerous options that could work for students who can’t attend in person.


By requiring my students to step out of the classroom—and outside of their comfort zones—it pushes them to think beyond their backgrounds and assumptions about the world at large.

Students respond enthusiastically once the initial shock of their fish-out-of-water cultural experiences wears off.

I appreciate it when students say,

“Hey, I’ve never thought about this before because I’m from a high school that had only a few students of color, so I’ve never had conversations like this and I’ve never thought about these topics in this way.”

These types of insights will translate to their future experience in the workplace.

Download the Ebook

What’s Inside:

  • Activities to help students explore their identities.
  • Ideas to help students grow by pushing them out of their comfort zones.
  • Challenges to help students build empathy for others.

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