Why is International Fun and Multicultural Hard?

Yesterday I was invited to join 40 faculty members of the College of Education from the University of Turku for their end-of-the-semester celebration on a 12-hour-cruise to Åland (a Swedish-speaking island between Finland and Sweden). Turku is located on the coast and it is very common for people to go on a cruise from Turku to Åland or to Stockholm. These cruise ships are nice! You pay $35 for an all-day cruise trip, which includes a very nice breakfast buffet. You can purchase a lunch from a buffet for another $20. Below is a picture of our cruise ship at the harbor.


The day consisted of college planning meetings and professional presentations. The cruise was paid for by funds from the College’s initiative of multiculturalism so I was invited as one of the speakers. My talk, which I had framed as a discussion focused on the differences between international and multicultural education and a call for the need to combine force, expertise, advocacy and resources. Here’s a recap of our discussion.

My personal and professional lives started out in the area of international. My family and I traveled to different countries almost every year on vacation. I studied three foreign languages while in school at K-12. I loved languages and cultures. At the university in Finland, I majored in Swedish and German education, earning my secondary teaching license in both. I studied abroad while in college, spending a year in Germany, a summer in Sweden and a summer in the States (California and Nevada) in language practica. Languages were fun and cultures exciting. I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity.

After I got married in Finland to my wonderful husband, I immigrated to the United States. The day we left, I knew everything was different. I was very much in love and couldn’t wait to begin our lives together in America, but I knew that this was forever. That’s what made it different. I knew I was leaving my life and family behind and permanently moving to another country. I’ve shared elsewhere that the beginning of my new life in the States was very hard. For four years. I was homesick. People didn’t take me seriously. I was a curiosity. My credentials from Finland (I was a GOOD student) were worth nothing. I was watching Oprah at home and was miserable. This experience set in motion my personal and professional goals and my passion for multiculturalism. I wasn’t as much interested in “study abroad” and “travel abroad” anymore as I was in advocating for people who for a reason or another move to another country more or less permanently. Very quickly I realized that we treat people very differently if they’re learning a foreign language and studying abroad (cool, neat, that’s amazing) than if they’re learning English as a second language and “studying abroad” in the States (broken English, why don’t they want to be like Americans, weird, strange).

This was the backdrop for our discussion at the cruise. We brainstormed for associations (common assumptions) for each of the areas and then tried to create connections between the two (which are there!) and find ways to capitalize on these differences to offset the challenges/assumptions each of the fields face in the States, namely:

• International Education: a nice extra, for the privileged, why learn other languages since everybody speaks English, not a priority

• Multicultural Education: difference is hard, let’s not talk about that, I don’t want to lose “American” culture

The discussion was amazing. Below is a recap of the Venn Diagram that we co-created. First we brainstormed for the differences between the two areas. Then we sought for commonalities, strengths, and ways to advocate for both groups of people and professional fields. We called this common, shared space, “intercultural” (suggested by one of the participants and emerging from research literature). Intercultural is focused on creating communities where participants negotiate cultures, come together seeking to understand one another’s cultures, respect other cultures and live in integrated ways, where people can exist as wholesome beings. There are genuine connections between various multicultural groups and the focus is on a constant, cultural, equitable, dialogue. A main facet of this approach is that all individuals and groups change. We truly negotiate a culture and community that represents all of us.

venn diagram

A similar concept is pluralism, which takes into account the reality of majority and minority groups in a society. Pluralism supports the ability of minority cultural groups to maintain their cultural identities and values while integrating into the new society. This supports the notion of biculturalism.

My personal and professional work continues. I feel renewed and re-energized. Two more days and I’m flying home… [I’m not counting ;-)]

Photo on top: I’m being embraced by the mascot for the cruise ship line, Silja Line, one of the two major cruise ship lines in Finland.