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JSIXXX10.1177/1028315315587105Journal of Studies in International EducationOdağ et al.

Journal of Studies in International Education
2016, Vol. 20(2) 118­–139
Definition of Intercultural © 2015 European Association for
International Education
Competence According to Reprints and permissions:
Undergraduate Students DOI: 10.1177/1028315315587105
at an International University
in Germany

Özen Odağ1, Hannah R. Wallin1, and

Karina K. Kedzior1

University graduates are required to possess intercultural competence in addition
to strong academic skills in today’s globalized world. Although such competence
has been defined in various theoretical models by intercultural scholars, it remains
unknown how the recipients of higher education (the students) define this concept.
A total of 130 undergraduate university students (from Western and non-Western
cultures), living on a multicultural campus, provided short qualitative responses to
a written question on how they define intercultural competence. According to a
qualitative content analysis, the students defined intercultural competence in terms
of interaction, communication, and cultural harmony. Unlike intercultural scholars,
the students placed more emphasis on the understanding and awareness of other
cultures rather than focusing on their own culture. It appears that young university
students from multicultural backgrounds consider tolerance and collective harmony
as the most important components of intercultural competence in their initial stages
of intercultural development.

cross-cultural competence, multicultural education, university education, international
education, content analysis

1Jacobs University Bremen, Germany

Corresponding Author:
Özen Odağ, Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), Jacobs University
Bremen, Campus Ring 1, 28759 Bremen, Germany.
Odağ et al. 119

While it is important that universities and other tertiary educational institutions con-
tinue to promote the development of academic and professional skills, the additional
fundamental need for interculturally competent graduates has emerged in the era of
globalization. Accordingly, universities need to “educate their students for global citi-
zenship, to keep pace with their peers, to better serve the national and international
community” (Biddle, 2002, p. 7) and “produce global competence, or a sense of civic
responsibility that extends beyond the local or even national level” (Rumbley, Altbach,
& Reisberg, 2012, p. 15). On the individual level, global (intercultural) competence
goes hand in hand with employability on the international job market, along with
increased job performance and personal development (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl,
2012; Deardorff & van Gaalen, 2012; Knight, 2012; Rumbley et al., 2012).
Surprisingly, although defined as an important outcome of internationalization
efforts in higher education (Knight, 2004), a uniform definition of what it means to be
“interculturally competent” does not exist. Instead, synonyms such as “multicultural
competence,” “cross-cultural awareness,” “global competence,” and “intercultural
sensitivity” frequently appear in the academic literature to describe this concept
(Fantini, 2009, p. 457). The term intercultural competence is also often used inter-
changeably with “intercultural communication” or “intercultural communicative com-
petence” although the latter two terms focus specifically on communication and
linguistic awareness aspects of intercultural competence (Krajewski, 2011, p. 12).
However, “assuming that intercultural competence is a skill, it should be possible to
assess it and to document its existence and progress” (Krajewski, 2011, p. 13), possi-
bly beyond the communication element. Furthermore, if university graduates are
required to possess “intercultural competence,” then a comprehensive and parsimoni-
ous theoretical model of this concept should be developed (Deardorff & Jones, 2012;
Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009).
Already developed models suggest that while “conceptualizations of intercultural
competence are highly diverse in their disciplines, terminologies, and scholarly and
practical objectives” (for review, see Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009, p. 5), some com-
mon denominators like motivation, knowledge, skills, outcomes, and context appear in
the majority of them. In addition, the concept adaptability appears in nearly all con-
ceptualizations, though the term as yet lacks both conceptual and empirical clarity and
validation (Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009). Of the plethora of available models, the
present study utilizes the following three models which focus on conceptualizing
intercultural competence with respect to the elements mentioned above: a composi-
tional model (Stier, 2006), a developmental model (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005),
and a model with compositional and developmental elements developed following an
empirical study (Deardorff, 2006). In general, these models were selected due to their
focus on conceptualizing intercultural competence with respect to elements common
to most models reviewed by Spitzberg and Changnon (2009), such as motivation,
knowledge, skills, and outcomes. Other prominent models in the literature (such as
Fantini, 1995, or Byram, 1997) are not considered here, due to their emphasis on other
120 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

components of intercultural competence, such as linguistic processes of intercultural

encounters (Fantini, 1995), and negotiating identities in multicultural spaces (Byram,
Stier (2006) focuses on two separate competence domains: content-competencies
and processual-competencies. “Content-competencies” are static (“knowing-that”)
and include elements such as language, worldviews, values, norms, traditions, and
“do’s and don’ts” (Stier, 2006, p. 6). “Processual-competencies” are dynamic in that
they take into account the context of a situation (“knowing-how”) and include intrap-
ersonal and interpersonal competencies (Stier, 2006, p. 7). The intrapersonal compe-
tencies include cognitive skills (such as self-reflection and problem solving) and
emotional skills (such as ability to handle frustration; Stier, 2006). The interpersonal
competencies consist of interactive skills, such as understanding nonverbal cues, sig-
nals, and emotional responses, as well as communication competence, and situational
sensitivity (Stier, 2006).
In contrast to components, the Developmental Model of Intercultural Maturity of
King and Baxter Magolda (2005) assumes that intercultural competence develops
from initial to more mature stages according to “three domains of development (cogni-
tive, intrapersonal and interpersonal) with three levels of development (initial, inter-
mediate, and mature)” (p. 575). The final, mature level of development represents the
ideal form of intercultural maturity in this model with the following features:

Ability to shift perspectives/behaviors into an alternative cultural worldview, capacity to

create an internal self that engages challenges to one’s views and beliefs and that considers
social identities in a global context, capacity to engage in relationships with diverse
others that are grounded in an understanding and appreciation for human differences,
social systems, and rights of others. (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005, p. 576)

While the previous two models are largely theory based, Deardorff’s (2006)
Pyramid and Process Model of Intercultural Competence is based on data from an
empirical study. The study enquired how intercultural competence as a student out-
come was addressed in 73 higher education institutions in the United States using
questionnaire responses from 24 administrators. The subsequent Delphi study was
used to form a consensus among a group of 23 internationally known intercultural
scholars (mostly from the United States) who anonymously provided, rated, and
accepted or rejected elements and components of intercultural competence (the schol-
ars’ names were revealed only at the end of the study to reduce respondent bias;
Deardorff, 2006, Table 1). A consensus definition of intercultural competence was
developed based on elements with 80% to 100% agreement among scholars. In the
final phase of the study, the scholars and administrators were also asked to accept or
reject each element with 80% to 100% agreement among scholars. The final definition
comprised 7 elements and 22 components of intercultural competence with the highest
acceptance rates (see Table 1 based on Deardorff, 2006, Table 2).
A number of parallels exist among the definitions provided by the scholars in
Deardorff’s (2006; Table 1) study and the two theoretical models of intercultural
Odağ et al. 121

Table 1.  Elements and Components of Intercultural Competence Based on 80% to 100%
Agreement Among Intercultural Scholars (Deardorff, 2006).

Elements of Intercultural Competence (ranked by highest acceptance)

1. Ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on
one’s intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes
2. Ability to shift frame of reference appropriately and adapt behavior to cultural context;
adaptability, expandability, and flexibility of one’s frame of reference/filter
3. Ability to identify behaviors guided by culture and engage in new behaviors in other
cultures even when behaviors are unfamiliar given a person’s own socialization
4. Behaving appropriately and effectively in intercultural situations based on one’s knowledge,
skills, and motivation
5. Ability to achieve one’s goals to some degree through constructive interaction in an
intercultural context
6. Good interpersonal skills exercised interculturally; the sending and receiving of messages
that are accurate and appropriate
7. Transformational process toward enlightened global citizenship that involves intercultural
adroitness (behavioral aspect focusing on communication skills), intercultural awareness
(cognitive aspect of understanding cultural differences), and intercultural sensitivity (focus
on positive emotion toward cultural difference)
Components of Intercultural Competence (ranked by highest acceptance)
1. Understanding others’ worldviews (100% agreement among scholars)
2. Cultural self-awareness and capacity for self-assessment
3. Adaptability and adjustment to new cultural environment
4. Skills to listen and observe
5. General openness toward intercultural learning and to people from other cultures
6. Ability to adapt to varying intercultural communication and learning styles
7. Flexibility
8. Skills to analyze, interpret, and relate
9. Tolerating and engaging ambiguity
10. Deep knowledge and understanding of culture (one’s own and others’)
11. Respect for other cultures
12. Cross-cultural empathy
13. Understanding the value of cultural diversity
14. Understanding of role and impact of culture and the impact of situational, social, and
historical contexts involved
15. Cognitive flexibility-ability to switch frames from etic to emic and back again
16. Sociolinguistic competence (awareness of relation between language and meaning in
societal context)
17. Mindfulness
18. Withholding judgment
19. Curiosity and discovery
20. Learning through interaction
21. Ethnorelative view
22. Culture-specific knowledge and understanding

Source. Adopted from Deardorff (2006; Table 2, pp. 249-250).

122 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

Table 2.  Pyramid and Process Model of Intercultural Competence According to Deardorff

External Outcome (top Tier 1)

  Behaving and communicating effectively and appropriately (based on one’s intercultural
knowledge, skills, and attitudes) to achieve one’s goals to some degree
Internal Outcome (informed frame of reference/filter shift; Tier 2)
  Adaptability (to different communication styles and behaviors; adjustment to new cultural
  Flexibility (selecting and using appropriate communication styles and behaviors; cognitive
  Ethnorelative view
Knowledge (Tier 3 together with Skills)
  Cultural self-awareness
  Deep understanding and knowledge of culture (including contexts, role and impact of
culture and others’ worldviews)
  Culture-specific information
  Sociolinguistic awareness
Skills (Tier 3 together with Knowledge)
  To listen, observe, and interpret
  To analyze, evaluate, and relate
Attitudes (bottom Tier 4)
  Respect (valuing other cultures, cultural diversity)
  Openness (to intercultural learning and to people from other cultures, withholding
  Curiosity and discovery (tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty)

Source. Adopted from Deardorff (2006; Figure 3, p. 254).

competence described above (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005; Stier, 2006). Specifically,
the most accepted definition of intercultural competence was the “ability to communi-
cate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one’s intercultural
knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (Table 1; Deardorff, 2006, Table 2, p. 249). This defi-
nition closely resembles the final level of development in the Developmental Model of
Intercultural Maturity that requires engaging in relationships with diverse others (King
& Baxter Magolda, 2005).
The second important definition lists important trait elements of intercultural
competence in terms of “the ability to shift frame of reference appropriately and
adapt behavior to cultural context; adaptability, expandability, and flexibility of
one’s frame of reference/filter” (Table 1; Deardorff, 2006, Table 2, p. 249). Such
alteration of perspective/shift in reference frame is noted in both the Developmental
Model of Intercultural Maturity (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005) and Stier’s (2006)
The only component of intercultural competence with 100% acceptance among the
scholars was “understanding others’ worldviews” (Table 1; Deardorff, 2006, Table 2,
Odağ et al. 123

p. 249). The understanding of “alternate cultural worldviews” can also be found in

King and Baxter Magolda (2005, p. 576), while Stier (2006) describes this element as
part of a content-competency.
The components of intercultural competence (Table 1) were summarized into the
Pyramid and Process Model of Intercultural Competence (Deardorff, 2006, Figure 3;
Table 2).
The main assumption of the pyramid is that lower levels (Attitudes, Skills, and
Knowledge) enhance the effectiveness of the upper levels (Internal and External
Outcomes). Thus, it is through the attainment of attitudes, skills, and knowledge that
the individual is led to the internal outcome (empathy, adaptability, and flexibility).
The internal outcome then facilitates the external outcome of “behaving and commu-
nicating effectively and appropriately” (Deardorff, 2006, p. 254). An example for this
would be that “listening” is a skill (on a lower level tier of the pyramid) that is neces-
sary for the external outcome of communicating effectively across cultures (on a
higher level tier of the pyramid). Thus, the Pyramid and Process Model not only lists
components of intercultural competence but also implies that these components are
related to each other in a sequence of development from foundational to more advanced
levels (Deardorff, 2006).
While the models of intercultural competence described above are developed
through a Western lens, by Western scholars, and for Western intercultural contexts
(especially in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia), the intercultural
encounters reach far beyond the borders of the Western world. In contrast to the
Western models, the non-Western models of intercultural competence appear to be
focused on collectivistic aspects (community and social connectedness). For example,
in Africa, seeking “consensus and a common framework” and emphasizing “commu-
nity rather than the individual” are principles widely upheld to promote connection
with friends and family (Nwosu, 2009, p. 162). Similarly, communication in the Arab
world is characterized by a strong commitment to the group (the family or tribal col-
lective), giving group goals precedence over individual ones (Zaharna, 2009, p. 184).
In China, human communication behavior is placed in the context of “the dynamic
movement of yin and yang” (Chen & An, 2009, p. 198), rendering it an ever changing
and never completely finished process with emphasis on “mutuality, respect, and hon-
esty” (p. 199). Similarly, intercultural competence in India is understood in terms of
mutual respect, responsibility, and acceptance that are values born from a philosophy
of life that has “oneness of all life” at its core (Manian & Naidu, 2009, p. 246). In Latin
America (Bolivia and Ecuador), intercultural competence is conceptualized in the con-
text of indigenous social movements as a response to colonial structures (Medina-
Lopez-Portillo & Sinnigen, 2009).
The emphasis on the group rather than the individual in the non-Western models of
intercultural competence is in line with the idea that countries or cultures can be
located on a continuum between individualistic and collectivistic orientations
(Hofstede, 1991; Triandis, 1995). Individualistic societies (including the United States,
Australia, and Northern European countries) are characterized by values such as self-
fulfillment and self-preservation, giving personal goals and development priority over
124 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

those of the wider collective. In contrast, behavior in collectivistic societies (including

countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa) is guided by group interests and collective
well-being (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005). Although criticized for being overly simplis-
tic by glossing over the considerable variety that exists within each country or culture
(Gudykunst & Lee, 2002; Zaharna, 2009), the distinction between individualistic and
collectivistic cultural orientations is important when defining intercultural compe-
tence beyond the Westernized world.
Interestingly, while definitions and conceptualizations of intercultural competence
are manifold, little research has so far focused on how the receivers of higher educa-
tion, namely, the students, define intercultural competence. It is likely that due to the
incorporation of various social media into daily life after the launch of Facebook in
2006 (Boyd & Ellison, 2007), along with continuous internationalization efforts of
higher education via increased mobility (student and staff exchanges), distance/online
learning, franchising, and double/joint degrees (Knight, 2012), already the undergrad-
uate university students around the world experience intercultural encounters more
frequently these days. Thus, young university students might conceptualize intercul-
tural competence differently than older, mostly U.S.-based, scholars in Deardorff’s
(2006) study or other scholars who developed the theoretical models of intercultural
competence reviewed above.
Only very few studies utilized student samples to define intercultural competence so
far. In general, students were asked about intercultural competence only indirectly, in
the context of their perception and evaluation of internationalization efforts (Jones,
2010). For example, in one of the most systematic student-centered studies on this
topic, Krajewski (2011) uses Deardorff’s (2006) methodology to assess intercultural
competence as part of quality teaching and graduate outcomes in undergraduate and
graduate students at Macquarie University in Australia. While expert opinions were
assessed in the first Delphi round by means of an open question (“What constitutes
intercultural competence?” p. 28), student opinions were assessed by means of a survey
that asked students about their agreement with and the importance of a number of
expert statements defining intercultural competence (derived from the Delphi study
with the experts). Indeed, the opinions of the expert panel of 22 staff at Macquarie and
208 students differed regarding what constitutes intercultural competence. Specifically,
95% of the expert panel and only 65% of students agreed that the awareness of own
cultural norms and assumptions is important (Krajewski, 2011, p. 54). The opposite
was true in terms of the ability to adapt own behavior that was seen as crucial by 90%
of students and only 74% of experts (Krajewski, 2011, p. 54). Thus, the results of this
study suggest a trend toward differing opinions between those delivering (experts) and
those receiving (students) intercultural competence on the academic level. However,
the results of this study may not be representative of undergraduate students in general
because the response rate was low (15%-20%), the sample was biased toward females
(76%), included only 50% of undergraduate students, and mostly international students
who focused mostly on linguistic issues when defining intercultural competence. The
same was true for the expert panel which consisted mainly of female, European
members of the faculty of linguistics (Krajewski, 2011, p. 23). In addition, as already
Odağ et al. 125

mentioned above, Krajewski did not assess student definitions of intercultural compe-
tence with as open a methodology as she assessed expert definitions. It is unclear, there-
fore, whether the findings yield genuine student opinions or opinions that are affected
by expert statements. Krajewski conducts a more open focus group study with students,
to remedy this uncertainty, but this study, on the contrary, is based on a sample of six
students only, and a systematic analysis of the focus group data is missing.
In other studies, domestic students studying in Australia and international students
studying in Hong Kong identified three dominant components that describe what it
means to be interculturally competent (Leask, 2010, p. 6 f.): (a) “understanding the
world out there” (in the sense of understanding both other cultures and one’s own
culture through personal experience and interaction), (b) “openness and respect for
cultural difference” (in the sense of nonjudgmental and undiscriminating attitudes
toward people from different cultures), and (c) “working effectively across cultures”
(in the sense of communicating and working successfully across cultures in the busi-
ness context). In a similar vein, in their focus group and interview study at two univer-
sities in Southwest England, Harrison and Peacock (2010) identify benefits and
challenges of intercultural encounters between home and international students from
the perspective of the students themselves. The ability of thinking up new ideas and
looking at topics from different angles were mentioned as the most beneficial aspects
of intercultural encounters in the educational setting. Seating segregation, lack of
mutual commitment to group work, and English language barriers were mentioned
among the challenges of intercultural encounters. In addition, students pointed to their
difficulties of being “mindful” (Harrison & Peacock, 2010, p. 135) and open to stu-
dents from different cultural backgrounds, finding it hard to use the right words when
interacting with them and being aware of the dangers of stereotyping international
students in the educational setting. Their responses implied that intercultural compe-
tence in educational settings requires a substantial level of self-monitoring and sanc-
tioning of prejudice and discrimination.
Taken together, the various components students mentioned so far in relation to the
concept of intercultural competence resonate mostly attitudinal components of inter-
cultural competence such as openness and respect (in line with the bottom tier of
Deardorff’s Pyramid and Process Model, 2006), knowledge and comprehension of
one’s own, but especially of other cultures (in line with the second tier of Deardorff’s
Pyramid and Process Model), and effective cross-cultural interaction, communication,
and adaptation on a behavioral level (in line with the top tier in Deardorff’s Pyramid
and Process Model: “desired external outcome,” p. 254).
The following study was designed to assess the understanding of intercultural com-
petence in undergraduate university students. Specific aims of the present study were
as follows:

1. To find out how (young, undergraduate) university students conceptualize and

define intercultural competence.
2. To find out how similar or different these definitions are from those proposed
by intercultural scholars.
126 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

Both of these aims were based on a methodology that is open enough to capture
genuine student definitions, yet broad enough to capture a high number of definitions
(see “Method” section). The sample for the present study was selected from under-
graduate students at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany, which is a private, interna-
tional university with English as the language of instruction. There are approximately
1,300 students enrolled at Jacobs University with 25% German students and 75% of
students from more than 100 nations. Connected to this high level of diversity in the
student body is the explicit mission of Jacobs University to educate “leaders of tomor-
row” who will tackle global challenges and provide innovative solutions to the com-
plex problems of our contemporary world through a transdisciplinary, academic
approach (see Jacobs University thus represents
an exemplary institution of private higher education with a strong internationalization
mission, fitting well into the “global landscape of higher education” depicted by
Deardorff and colleagues (2012, p. 457). Most importantly, because Jacobs University
students live and study in a state of constant cultural exchange on a small residential
campus, they constitute an ideal population in which to study intercultural competence
in a higher education setting.

A total of 136 undergraduate students participated in the present study early February
2013, following a written informed consent. Participants were sampled purposefully
along two criteria: They had to be (a) first-year undergraduate students in the begin-
ning of their second semester of studies at Jacobs University Bremen and who (b) had
fully completed the Dive Into Diversity intercultural peer-training workshop1 in
August 2012. The workshop explicitly dealt with the practical implications of intercul-
tural competence (in terms of living and learning on a multicultural campus) rather
than with an academic definition of this concept. This sampling strategy homogenized
the sample, as differences in the length of time spent on living and studying in the
intercultural environment at Jacobs University could have created an unnecessary con-
found in the responses of the participants. It needs to be noted that the unique student
recruitment strategy and environment at Jacobs University explained above did not
allow us to distinguish between typical “domestic” and “international” students in our
sample. Thus, we refer to our sample as “undergraduate university students” of any
cultural background.

Data were collected by means of a self-devised pen-and-paper questionnaire compris-
ing 47 closed-ended questions on a 5-point Likert-type scale, 1 open-ended question,
and 12 demographic questions. The questionnaire was written and administered in
English (the main language of instruction on our campus). The questions were
Odağ et al. 127

developed based on the interview guide used to qualitatively assess the effectiveness
of the intercultural peer-training at our university (Binder, Schreier, Kühnen, &
Kedzior, 2013). This study zooms in on the responses to the open-ended question of
the questionnaire (Q1): Please describe in your own words, what “intercultural com-
petence” means to you. By phrasing this open question, we aimed at capturing genuine
student definitions (see above). The responses to the quantitative questions were ana-
lyzed for the purposes of another study.

Data Collection
The questionnaire was pretested with three students to ensure that they comprehended
the questions. Once this was confirmed, the questionnaire was administered during
class time of four large undergraduate courses in February 2013 at Jacobs University
(corresponding to the first week of the second semester of studies and 6 months after
the intercultural peer-training). Participants received course credit for taking part in
this study.

Data Analysis
The qualitative data were index coded in line with Coffey and Atkinson (1996) and
content analyzed according to guidelines by Schreier (2012). The indexical coding
(developed based on models by Deardorff, 2006, and Stier, 2006) was used on the
surface level prior to the content analysis to identify the general topic of each defini-
tion of intercultural competence provided by students. Once the topic was identified,
content analysis (also based on Deardorff, 2006, and Stier, 2006) focused at a deeper
level on the specific subcategories that students described about these topics (Table 3).
Most subcategories were developed deductively in this content analysis; Table 3 dis-
plays the majority of deductive along with the few inductive subcategories of the cod-
ing scheme.
The rationale behind subcategory development and the details of the coding frame
are shown in the supplementary appendix to this article (Tables A1-A6). The interrater
agreement was high for indexical coding and the content analysis (Supplementary
Appendix Tables A7 and A8). Furthermore, the substantive categories on the whole
were able to fully encompass the various meanings of the units of coding because only
4% of segments were classified as miscellaneous (Supplementary Appendix Table A9).

Due to missing responses to the open-ended question of the survey (Q1), only the data
of 130 out of the 136 participants were included in the current analysis. This sample
represents 47% of all first-year students (n = 277) at Jacobs University in February
The participants were on average 19 years old (17-23 years old), mostly female
(62%), and enrolled in study majors in the humanities and social sciences (51%) or
128 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

Table 3.  Final Subcategories of the Coding Frame Used in the Current Content Analysis.

1. Attitudes 1.1: Openness [deductive]

1.2: Intellectual Curiosity [deductive]
1.3: Respect [deductive]
1.4: Tolerance/Acceptance [inductive]
2. Knowledge 2.1: Understanding Other’s Worldviews [deductive]
2.2: Understanding Other’s Behaviors [deductive]
2.3: Cultural Self-Identity/Awareness [deductive]
2.4: Intercultural Awareness [deductive]
2.5: Culture-Specific [deductive]
3. Intrapersonal Skills 3.1-1: Problem Solving [deductive]
3.1-2: Critical Thinking Skills [deductive]
3.1-3: Judgment Inhibition [deductive]
3.1-4: Culture Detection [deductive]
3.1-5: Coping Skills [deductive]
4. Interpersonal Skills 3.2-1: Listening [deductive]
3.2-2: Observation [deductive]
3.2-3: Interactive Learning [deductive]
5. Internal Outcomes 4.1-1: General Adaptability/Adjustment [deductive]
4.1-2: Empathy [deductive]
4.1-3: Communicative/Behavioral Adaptability [deductive]
4.1-4: Ethnorelativism [deductive]
4.1-5: Informed Frame of Reference/Filter Shift [deductive]
6. External Outcomes 4.2-1: Effective/Appropriate Communication [deductive]
4.2-2: Effective/Appropriate Behavior [deductive]
4.2-3: Effective/Appropriate Interaction [inductive]
4.2-4: Relationships [deductive]
4.2-5: Integration [inductive]
4.2-6: Intercultural Harmony [inductive]
4.2-7: Offence Prevention [inductive]
4.2-8: Collaboration/Cooperation [inductive]

Note. Brackets indicate deductive/inductive subcategory development (see Supplementary Appendix

Tables A1-A6).

engineering and science (39%), or both (10%). In terms of intercultural experience,

most students were of non-German nationality (58%), with no prior study abroad
experience (58%), and had attended local public (not international) high schools
prior to enrolling at Jacobs University (71%). A categorization of all nationalities
represented in the sample along Hofstede’s individualism/collectivism index
(Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005) showed that 38% (n = 49) of the sample came from
collectivistic cultures (emphasizing collective interest of social groups over indi-
vidual interests) and 52% (n = 68) came from individualistic cultures (emphasizing
individual goals over collective ones); 10% of the sample did not report their coun-
try of origin.
Odağ et al. 129

Table 4.  Definitions of Intercultural Competence Provided by 130 Undergraduate

University Students in the Present Study.

Index codes/content analysis Subcategories of content analysis dimensions

dimensions (n; % of 130) (% of n for each index code)
1. External Outcomes 1. Interaction (31%)
(n = 102; 78%) 2. Communication (18%)
3. Intercultural harmony (13%)
4. Integration; collaboration/cooperation (11% each)
5. Offence prevention; miscellaneous (6% each)
6. Relationships (3%)
7. Behavior (2%)
2. Attitudes (n = 72; 55%) 1. Tolerance/acceptance (50%)
2. Respect (25%)
3. Openness (17%)
4. Intellectual curiosity; miscellaneous (4% each)
3. Knowledge (n = 59; 45%) 1. Intercultural awareness (48%)
2. Understanding other’s worldviews (31%)
3. Culture-specific (10%)
4. Understanding other’s behaviors (7% each)
5. Cultural self-identity (5%)
4. Internal Outcomes 1. General adaptability/adjustment (38%)
(n = 24; 18%) 2. Empathy (33%)
3. Communicative/behavioral adaptability; informed
frame of reference/filter shift; miscellaneous (8% each)
4. Ethnorelativism (4%)
5. Intrapersonal Skills 1. Problem solving (32%)
(n = 22; 17%) 2. Culture detection (27%)
3. Judgment inhibition (23%)
4. Coping skills (14%)
5. Critical thinking (4%)
6. Interpersonal Skills 1. Observation; interactive learning (50% each)
(n = 2; 2%)

Note. Percentage scores exceed 100% because multiple responses from the same participants were
coded into more than one index code.

According to a frequency analysis conducted in SPSS-21, the undergraduate stu-

dents in our sample described intercultural competence mostly in terms of External
Outcomes (78%), Attitudes (55%), Knowledge (45%), Internal Outcomes (18%),
Intrapersonal Skills (17%), and finally, Interpersonal Skills (2%; Table 4).
The top three most important features of External Outcomes were interaction, com-
munication, and intercultural harmony (Table 4). The top three Attitudes, that is, toler-
ance/acceptance, respect, and openness (Table 4) are closely related to these External
Outcomes. Specifically, the Attitudes listed above are necessary for the successful
implementation of the External Outcomes identified by our participants.
130 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

The current participants also noted that Knowledge is a necessary component of

intercultural competence. The top three aspects of Knowledge were intercultural
awareness, understanding of other’s worldviews, and culture-specific knowledge
(Table 4). It is likely that these aspects of knowledge would improve both External
Outcomes and Attitudes listed above.
There was less emphasis placed on the Internal Outcomes by our participants. The
important issues related to this index code were adaptability/adjustment, empathy, and
informed frame of reference (Table 4). Finally, the least important aspects of intercul-
tural competence were problem-solving skills, culture detection, judgment inhibition
(the Intrapersonal Skills), and observation/interactive learning (Interpersonal Skills;
Table 4).

The definitions of intercultural competence provided by young undergraduate students
in the present study were mostly in line with both the definitions of intercultural com-
petence that received the most consensus from the intercultural scholars in Deardorff’s
Delphi study (“the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercul-
tural situations based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes”;
Deardorff, 2006, p. 249) and the components of intercultural competence identified by
students in the studies by Krajewski (2011) and Jones (2010). Specifically, the under-
graduate university students at Jacobs University describe intercultural competence in
terms of External Outcomes (interaction, communication, intercultural harmony),
Attitudes (tolerance/acceptance, respect, openness), and Knowledge (intercultural
awareness, understanding of other’s worldviews, culture-specific knowledge). Thus,
the External Outcomes, Knowledge, and Attitudes dimensions (Deardorff, 2006) were
given a similar level of importance in the present as well as the aforementioned
Additional agreement with other studies (Deardorff, 2006; Jones, 2010; Krajewski,
2011) is also evident through the high frequency of Jacobs University students who
included effective and appropriate communication or effective and appropriate inter-
action in their responses (similar to Deardorff’s components of intercultural compe-
tence on the “External Outcomes” dimension; Deardorff, 2006, p. 254). These desired
external outcomes seem to allow the undergraduate students to navigate the extent of
interculturality in their highly international academic and residential environment on
Jacobs University’s campus.
Furthermore, many students indicated that an essential part of intercultural compe-
tence is the ability to understand other’s worldviews (representing the “Knowledge”
dimension of Deardorff’s Pyramid and Process Model, 2006, pp. 254, 256) and (to a
lesser extent) to adapt to cultural differences (representing the “Internal Outcomes”
dimension in the Pyramid and in line with results of Krajewski, 2011). By contrast, the
acquisition of interpersonal skills (such as observation, listening, and interactive learn-
ing located on the “Skills” dimension in the Pyramid) hardly played any role in the
students’ responses in our study.
Odağ et al. 131

Interestingly, the acquisition of cultural knowledge was something the students in

Jones’s (2010) compilation also emphasized in the context of international education,
more so than internal changes (such as adapting to cultural difference) or interpersonal
skills. Again, these results indicate that students at Jacobs University and other stu-
dents (more so than experts or scholars) deem cultural knowledge as more crucial than
internal adaptation or interpersonal skills in the context of their day-to-day living
arrangements on a highly international residential campus. Rather than focusing on
their own identity or skill set, it appears that the students at Jacobs University placed
a greater emphasis on the understanding and awareness of other cultures similarly to
students in Australia (Krajewski, 2011) and the United Kingdom (Harrison & Peacock,
One possible explanation for this difference is that students at Jacobs University
(similar to students in the few other student-centered studies) saw an understanding of
the multitude of cultures around them as a more critical factor for successful social and
academic life at this institution. In fact, it could be argued that our multicultural stu-
dents are similar to the multicultural employees of some large international companies
that use a recruitment strategy similar to that of our university. This is because, similar
to such employees, our students need to “work” (deliver academically) in a highly
intercultural environment. However, in contrast to the employees who live outside the
company doors, our students also live on a residential campus and are thus required to
socially interact with other cultures in their daily life beyond the classroom. Therefore,
our university exemplifies a very high level of internationalization in the educational
context, and our students represent a sample of young global citizens (who subsequent
to their education will enter a job market that resembles the global social and “work”
life they have already experienced on their residential campus). It is thus not surprising
that their opinion regarding intercultural competence focuses precisely on intercultural
interaction, communication, awareness, and understanding—in line with other studies
focusing on student perceptions in the context of international education (Jones, 2010;
Krajewski, 2011), and in slight contrast to the more comprehensive conceptualization
provided by (mostly U.S.-based) scholars in Deardorff’s (2006) study.
A further important difference between the results of our study and existing inter-
cultural competence models can be found in the emphasis that Jacobs University stu-
dents put on the concept of tolerance—a concept that is also found in the
student-centered studies by Krajewski (2011) and Jones (2010) as well as in the expert
study by Deardorff (2006), though not with the same level of significance in the latter.
Specifically, Jacobs University students, just like students in Krajewski’s (2011) and
Leask’s (2010) studies, used tolerance to imply a fair perspective and lack of prejudice
toward individuals from different cultures. Thus, in general, the students found toler-
ance and respect to lie at the heart of intercultural competence. Interesting to note is
that tolerance was in fact referenced the most in the data obtained from our students,
with 36 students including this element in their definition of intercultural competence.
In Deardorff’s (2006) study, a similar understanding of tolerance is captured by the
attitude dimension “openness” on the lowest and most basic level of the Pyramid and
Process Model in the sense of “withholding judgment” (p. 254). In addition, the actual
132 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

term tolerance is placed in the Pyramid and Process Model again under the attitude
dimension “curiosity and discovery” and referred to as “ambiguity tolerance,” that is,
the ability to accept things that are not immediately understood (Deardorff, 2006).
The fact that tolerance is placed on the most foundational, bottom tier of Deardorff’s
(2006) Pyramid and Process Model suggests that in their definitions of intercultural
competence students in our and other studies (Jones, 2010; Krajewski, 2011) stress the
most fundamental aspect of intercultural competence, while rarely focusing on com-
ponents on the upper levels of Deardorff’s model. Arguably therefore, their responses
appear as less comprehensive in scope compared with those of the intercultural experts
in studies by Deardorff (2006), and Krajewski (2011). However, the conceptualization
of intercultural competence on this foundational developmental stage cannot be inter-
preted as less valid or developmentally less advanced compared with the expert defini-
tions, for two reasons in particular. First, Byram (1997) denotes openness and respect
as attitudes serving as an entry point into intercultural understanding. Similarly, the
American Council on International Intercultural Education (1996) proposes a four-
stage model for the development of global competence, in which the first stage centers
on openness to other cultures, values, and attitudes. This first stage, they argue, is most
important to global competence, and the most crucial entry ticket into more advanced
forms thereof. It can be concluded, therefore, that the students of the present study (in
line with students in other studies) emphasize a level of intercultural competence that
is highly fundamental to a further development and acquisition of intercultural compe-
tence. Certainly, such fundamental responses are to be expected based on the demo-
graphics of our sample: The participants were on average 19 years old, only in the first
year of university degree, for most the first time away from their family and abroad
outside of their home country. It is thus not surprising, that their definitions of inter-
cultural competence are derived from more foundational stages of intercultural under-
standing. In addition, it is likely that aspects of intercultural competence defined by
these students as important would change over time as they acquire more intercultural
experience. Such development could be tested longitudinally in the same participants
but was beyond the scope of the present study.
Second, it can be assumed that in their definitions of intercultural competence (in
contrast to the intercultural experts in Deardorff (2006) and Krajewski (2011), but in
line with students in Krajewski and Jones (2010)) our students place an emphasis on
essential practical aspects of “intercultural competence” needed to successfully deal
with academic and social life on a multicultural campus in the beginning of their uni-
versity studies. It should be noted that even though the two studies used entirely dif-
ferent methodologies, both our own and Krajewski’s study yielded a similar difference
between scholar and student definitions, with students stressing the said fundamental
practical aspects of getting by with people from other cultures, and scholars drawing a
more comprehensive picture. The opinion of the students in our study may thus indeed
be similar to that of other students of similar age studying outside their home countries
(and even to that of older employees who complete their first work assignments
abroad), representing a more applied version of intercultural competence. Needless to
say, this applied understanding may differ from a more comprehensive definition of
Odağ et al. 133

intercultural competence provided by intercultural scholars. Yet, the expert opinion of

highly developed scholars is necessary to understand the full scope of intercultural
competence beyond the practical know-how issues related to this concept. Thus, we
argue that both definitions complement each other.
Finally, a further reason for the difference in emphases between the Deardorff study
(based on expert definitions; 2006) and the present and other studies based on student
definitions may be the generational differences among the samples. Our students, as
well as those in Jones (2010) and Krajewski (2011), can be described as the “Facebook-
generation,” meaning that they have grown up already being global citizens regardless
of their nationalities and schools attended prior to the university. Thus, it is likely that
due to their extensive presence in international social media, they perceived intercul-
tural competence as a real, daily issue to deal with in 2013 when the data were col-
lected. This is in contrast to a generally older generation of experts in the field who
provided their opinion on this topic prior to the wide spreading of the social media
(before 2006; Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Thus, although our sample may not be represen-
tative of undergraduate university students worldwide, it is interesting that students,
who experience other cultures in their daily life on campus of an international univer-
sity, place more importance on different aspects of intercultural competence than an
older generation of experts on this topic. However, it is also likely that active reflection
rather than age alone could have contributed to the differences among the opinions of
students and the scholars.
It is worth mentioning that some inductive categories saw a notable degree of refer-
ence in responses from students at Jacobs University (in contrast to definitions pro-
vided in Deardorff, 2006; Jones, 2010; Krajewski, 2011). Among these were
integration, collaboration/cooperation, and intercultural harmony. The common
underlying theme in these inductive subcategories generated by the student responses
is that of an individual who must live and study/work successfully and in harmony
with those from other cultures. In other words, a collectivistic type of intercultural
competence is addressed here, emphasizing a dimension of intercultural competence
that is more typical of non-Western conceptualizations such as those developed spe-
cifically for Africa (Nwosu, 2009), the Arab world (Zaharna, 2009), China (Chen &
An, 2009), India (Manian & Naidu, 2009), and Latin America (Medina-Lopez-Portillo
& Sinnigen, 2009). Integration, collaboration/cooperation, oneness, and intercultural
harmony are principles that maximize collective interests over individual ones and
promote the well-being of the community, friends, and family—thus representing col-
lectivistic values that are more generally characteristic of the non-Western world. With
38% of our sample coming from collectivistic societies, it is hardly surprising that
such collectivistic components of intercultural competence are more pronounced in
our study compared with the Western-based experts in Deardorff (2006) and Krajewski
(2011) studies. At the same time, definitions of intercultural competence provided by
our students overlapped with definitions provided by students in other studies (Jones,
2010; Krajewski, 2011). Thus, it is essential that not only expert but also student opin-
ions are incorporated into models of intercultural competence particularly, since the
students are receivers of such competence at most modern universities.
134 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

Although the methods of data collection and analysis were supported by sufficient qual-
ity checks, resulting in information that was both reliable and valid, some limitations in
the method of data collection could have potentially influenced the quality and the con-
tent of student definitions of intercultural competence. First, because the questionnaires
were distributed during class time, it is possible that students did not provide as thorough
definitions as if this questionnaire had been administered in a setting with more time to
focus on the individual definitions. This threat to the validity of the data is evident in
particular answers (such as one word answers) that imply limited effort in answering the
question. Furthermore, the majority of definitions provided were both conceptually
broad and textually concise. This creates difficulty in the interpretation of the data
because there is little contextual information to draw on when making decisions about
meaning, particularly in case of polysemous words such as “coping.” It is likely that
some elements of intercultural competence require a deeper level of explanation that was
not solicited in the one-to-two sentence responses of the majority of the participants in
our study. However, the strength of our open-ended question used to assess the meaning
of intercultural competence (Please describe in your own words, what “intercultural
competence” means to you.) was that it allowed the respondents to define this concept
according to their own definition without the assumption that a valid and reliable defini-
tion already exists and that intercultural competence can be measured. In this, our study
was more open to students’ genuine own understanding of intercultural competence, in
contrast to, for example, Krajewski’s (2011) survey method that confronted students
with already existing statements about intercultural competence. At the same time, in
line with Krajewski (2011), our study retained the breadth of student opinions by using
survey methodology. Second, because English was a second language for the majority of
participants, it is likely that some responses were limited/incorrect due to linguistic limi-
tations rather than inability to accurately define the intercultural competence. However,
a low miscellaneous rate and the fact that English is the official language of instruction
at our institution suggest that any linguistic barriers did not systematically affect the cur-
rent results. Third, as the analyzed definitions in the present study were drawn from
first-year undergraduate students, it is possible that intercultural competence could hold
a different intrinsic meaning for more senior students. In our daily interactions with stu-
dents, both in the classroom and in the social context, it is evident that students on our
small campus develop interculturally over time and change not only their external
behavior but also internal values and beliefs. However, measuring such a development
over time was beyond the scope of this study. It is also evident that our campus does not
represent a typical university campus with “domestic” and “international” students.
Thus, the opinions of our students may differ from those on more traditional campuses
and be more representative of how young staff at large international companies perceive
intercultural competence. Fourth, based on the choice of models, not all aspects of inter-
cultural competence were investigated in this study. For example, our study does not
address the relational element of intercultural competence, such as belonging, which
fosters positive relations and active reflection. Finally, our study assessed the definitions
Odağ et al. 135

of intercultural competence at one moment in time (cross-sectionally), whereas

Deardorff’s (2006) Pyramid and Process Model (that represents the foundation for the
content analytical coding in the present study), is developmental. Thus, some of the
components that are separate in Deardorff’s (2006) developmental Pyramid and Process
Model were inseparable when applied to the cross-sectional definitions provided by our
students. For example, our students often referred to “the ability to communicate effec-
tively across cultures,” which was subsumed under Deardorff’s (2006) “External
Outcomes” dimension in our content analysis. However, communicating effectively
across cultures is certainly as much a “Skill” as it is an “External Outcome,” especially
when looking at this component of intercultural competence not through a developmen-
tal, but a compositional lens. Again, a developmental (i.e., longitudinal) study, assessing
the development of intercultural competence over time, would shed better light on inter-
dependencies between skills and external outcomes and other components of intercul-
tural competence.

Implications. Needless to say, student definitions of intercultural competence are

essential for understanding their most relevant needs and perspectives—which may be
(and indeed are) partly in contrast to how scholars define the term. Most importantly,
our findings are crucial for guiding higher education efforts to more properly address
student understandings of intercultural competence, such that students become
equipped with the competences necessary to navigate a multicultural academic and
work environment. The study thus highlights components of intercultural competence
that may be used by other institutions seeking to integrate intercultural competence
into their programs. An emphasis on practical and applied aspects of intercultural
competence as well as more collectivistic versions of intercultural competence appears
to be especially fruitful for designing new curricula that aim at helping students to not
only become global citizens but also solve the persistent problems of a globalized
society. Remaining research questions are as follows: How can student demands and
emphases on intercultural competence be addressed in the educational context and in
study programs? How can the student version of intercultural competence be mea-
sured? In what ways can expert and student definitions of intercultural competence be
integrated into curricula without losing the valuable input of any of the two groups?
In addition, future research would benefit from a comparison of student conceptu-
alizations of intercultural competence over time. The intercultural experience and
development may continue to shape the idea of what it means to be interculturally
competent well beyond the first year of study and, importantly, toward the entry to the
globalized job market. Furthermore, apart from a mere replication of studies such as
the present one or any other existing student-centered studies on the topic (e.g.,
Krajewski, 2011), it would be interesting to better understand what intercultural com-
petence means on traditional university campuses to answer the following questions:

1. Do domestic students with little international experience understand the impor-

tance of intercultural competence? Would this knowledge/understanding help
them to better interact with the international students at their university?
136 Journal of Studies in International Education 20(2)

2. How do international students evaluate the understanding of intercultural com-

petence among domestic students? Would addressing the discrepancies help to
integrate the international students into their new universities? And, does an
international student possess intercultural competence per se by physically
moving to another country?
3. How do global nomads (or Third Culture Kids or Adults) define intercultural
competence having moved around the globe frequently? How do they integrate
into higher education without being easily classified as either “domestic” or
“international” students?

According to this study, undergraduate university students defined intercultural com-
petence in terms of understanding worldviews of others and being able to effectively
communicate and interact with people from other cultures. Unlike the intercultural
scholars, the students placed less emphasis on cultural self-reflection, cultural self-
awareness, and skills. Instead, tolerance and lack of prejudice are important compo-
nents identified by young university students (from Western and non-Western cultures)
at the foundational stages of intercultural development. Thus, universities could
expand and improve their internationalization efforts by nurturing intercultural toler-
ance and collective harmony in accordance with societal principles of collectivistic
cultures in the non-Western world. University graduates should be equipped with such
intercultural competence skills to successfully work in a diverse and mutually depen-
dent world.

We thank Wiebke Röhrs for her assistance with developing the questionnaire and data collec-
tion and Robin Wallin for her assistance with data rating to compute the interrater agreement.
We also thank our colleagues at Jacobs University Bremen (Drs. Illenberger and Maubach, and
Professors Wilhelm and Boehnke) for permission to collect data in their undergraduate courses.
Finally, we acknowledge and thank our students for taking part in the study.

Author Contributions
Ö.O. and K.K.K. conceptualized and designed the study. All authors developed the question-
naire; H.R.W. and K.K.K. collected the data; H.R.W. and Ö.O. analyzed the data; H.R.W. wrote
the first draft of the manuscript; Ö.O. and K.K.K. revised the manuscript.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
Odağ et al. 137

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Author Biographies
Özen Odağ completed her PhD in media psychology (in 2007) and is the coordinator of the
Methods Center of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences. She is also a
lecturer in empirical methods at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany. She teaches research-led
qualitative and mixed-methods courses as well as courses in social psychology.
Odağ et al. 139

Hannah R. Wallin completed her BA in integrated social and cognitive psychology at Jacobs
University Bremen, Germany, in June 2013. This study is based on her bachelor’s thesis (sub-
mitted in April 2013) under the supervision of Drs. Odag and Kedzior.
Karina K. Kedzior completed her PhD in science at the University of Western Australia, Perth,
Australia, in 2004. She is currently a professor of statistics and research methods in psychology
at the University of Bremen, Germany. She has become interested in intercultural competence
based on her experiences in teaching of multicultural students at Jacobs University. She is a
coauthor on the study evaluating the peer-training in intercultural competence at Jacobs
University Bremen (Binder, Schreier, Kühnen, & Kedzior, 2013).