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IU leads national initiative to build cultural competency in Chinese learners

Apr 4, 2024

A student from an American University has just arrived in Taiwan for a 10-month capstone program, where she will also be completing an internship at a foreign trade corporation. She is praised by colleagues for making rapid progress within her company. What is the culturally appropriate way for her to respond to these compliments? Should she emphasize how hard she has worked? Should she downplay the difficulty of her tasks? Or should she simply say, “Thank you”?

Attendees of the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative Student Conference IU hosted 27 pre-capstone students, six alumni and 13 staff members from Chinese Flagship programs at universities across the country for the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative Student Conference. Photo courtesy of Yea-Fen Chen

Students from across the country are being prepared for these types of cultural situations by the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative — a project led by Yea-Fen Chen, IU Chinese Flagship director and Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies professor. Funded by The Language Flagship, an initiative of the National Security Education Program within the U.S. Department of Defense, the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative enhances the cultural competencies of students at the 13 American universities currently hosting Chinese Flagship programs.

Chinese Flagship students typically spend their fourth or fifth year abroad as part of a capstone to their Chinese studies. While the Chinese Flagship Capstone has previously operated out of China, students are currently studying in Taiwan. They are enrolled at National Chengchi University, learning alongside Taiwanese students, and also complete an internship with a local organization arranged by The Language Flagship and customized to meet their individual professional goals.

To help students gain critical cultural awareness before their capstone years that they can carry into their careers as global professionals, Chen and her team developed the following cultural materials:

  • A student resource page on important cultural aspects written in English, targeting especially students going abroad for the first time.
  • Interactive online culture modules in both English and Chinese based on cultural scenarios and case studies.
  • Podcasts in which Chinese Flagship alumni reflect upon their capstone experience and provide tips.
  • A specialized teacher’s manual for instructors and tutors participating in Flagship programs to suggest strategies for using these materials to teach intercultural competence.

All of these materials are available through an open-access platform hosted by the Flagship Technology Innovation Center hosted at the University of Hawaii. Students can access scenarios via The Language Flagship’s Culture App as well. The materials will also be used for Project Global Officer, a national initiative that provides full scholarships for ROTC students in approved language programs in the U.S. and overseas. IU provides Project GO scholarships for the study of Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

As part of this project, Indiana University hosted 27 pre-capstone students, six alumni and 13 staff members from Chinese Flagship programs at universities across the country for the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative Student Conference on March 30 and 31.

Students in attendance were separated into six teams, each with a Chinese Flagship alum acting as mentor, and tasked with using the app to identify additional cultural difficulties they may have while abroad. They then worked in their teams to write new scenarios for these challenges, which they performed for the larger group at the end of the conference.

These students had the chance to experience the wide variety of language and cultural offerings on the IU campus outside the conference, too. Attendees enjoyed the third annual Hamilton Lugar School Music Festival and visited the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Asian art collection. They also networked with an IU Chinese Flagship alumna who recruits for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“I really appreciated being able to hear the experiences from the alumni who completed their capstones in Taiwan and understand some of the cultural and practical aspects of what my study abroad program will be like next year,” said Abner Hardy, a Chinese Flagship student from Brigham Young University. “I also got to meet some of the students who will be there with me next fall, so it’s gotten us all excited and makes us feel more prepared for that experience.”

While other Language Flagships participate in culture initiatives of their own, the work that Chen and her team have been doing will be used as a model for other languages.

Chen said that the success of the Chinese Flagship Culture Initiative and the student conference is a reflection of IU’s leadership in global language instruction. IU teaches more languages than any other university in the United States. In addition to the Chinese Flagship, IU boasts an Arabic Flagship and a Russian Flagship — the most Flagship programs of any university in the nation.

Chen’s place at the helm of the initiative is also apt, given her leadership and dedication in the field of Chinese language instruction. She will receive the Outstanding Contributor Award from the Chinese Language Teachers Association at its annual conference this weekend.

“Language instruction is what we are known for at IU,” Chen said. “It’s why I returned to teach after receiving my Ph.D. from the university. Our faculty are well known and respected, and our leadership invests in the infrastructure needed to stand out as language instruction leaders.”


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Marah Yankey

Deputy director for storytelling

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