Strength in diversity

March 14, 2018
Assoc. Prof. Juana Du (left) and MAIIC students

In a world where technology, trade and travel blur borders, Royal Roads researcher Juana Du understands the importance of communicating across cultures.

Du, associate professor in the School of Communication and Culture, embodies ideas around intercultural communication in her personal and professional life.

Born and raised in China, Du is an international citizen. Before relocating to Canada, she completed her PhD in Hong Kong, undertook post-doctoral research in the United States and was a visiting scholar in Germany. For the past four years, she has led the Master of Arts in Intercultural and International Communication (MAIIC) program at Royal Roads, which attracts a diverse range of students from around the world.

“I believe everybody carries their own cultural package,” Du says. “Everybody is engaging with other cultures on a daily basis. That makes intercultural communication a very important thing to understand.”

Du’s research builds on this understanding. This summer, she delivered two new papers about intercultural communication: one paper explored intercultural learning practices at a volunteer-taught English language program in Sri Lanka, and the other examined ways that museums can better engage with international visitors.

At the rural school in Sri Lanka, Du and a graduate student researcher from Royal Roads’ MAIIC program discovered stark differences in cultural norms, practices and expectations among volunteer teachers, local students and the community.

The research, collected through observations and 25 in-depth interviews, found the English-speaking volunteers who came from North America and Europe, used multiple activities such as dance and sports to facilitate language learning with the young students.

The researchers also found Sri Lankan students had difficulty understanding the accents and idioms used by the volunteer teachers who were from different countries. The teachers, meanwhile, struggled with what they perceived to be a lack of resources to teach.

Despite the challenges, Du says the volunteer-taught program created an intercultural learning space that involved students, families and residents of the village. The learning extended into the online world, with the volunteers continuing to communicate with students when they returned home.

Du, who presented this research at the International Communication Association conference in San Diego, says the cultural context of Sri Lanka hasn’t been as thoroughly studied as other Asian countries.

“This study has practical implications for both policy makers and education practitioners in Sri Lanka as well as in other developing countries,” she says.

Du says similar opportunities to improve intercultural learning exist in museums, which attract thousands of foreign visitors a year in British Columbia.

“Museum administrators can better design programs and provide museum education and learning opportunities to international visitors,” Du says.

For the museum research, Du and a graduate student from the MAIIC program partnered with Royal BC Museum to develop interactive exhibits that better engaged visitors. The graduate student designed a bilingual program that held visitors’ attention with narrative about certain artifacts.

The researchers interviewed a group of 30 Chinese visitors about the experience and found the bilingual program, which included activities and assessments, had indeed facilitated deeper intercultural learning and reflections.

Du, who presented these findings at a congress in Toronto, says the research shows an overlap between her research and teaching. The MAIIC program, for instance, has students from 13 nationalities, making Du’s classroom an exercise in intercultural communication and understanding.  

“There is an interesting connection between these two projects and my teaching. They really support each other,” she says. “My personal story, research and teaching come together, sometimes with surprising results.”

Du’s research focus has a practical purpose for those studying at Royal Roads. She says students who learn to negotiate cultural differences have an advantage in the job market.

“The capacity to be more open and able to switch perspectives is important in today’s world,” she says.  “Intercultural empathy is about how people can understand and interpret other perspectives. It’s about putting yourself in other people’s shoes.”

Du says being more collaborative, open and aware of different cultures makes people better team members and also team leaders. These abilities also make people more sensitive to other issues including age, gender, sexual orientation and diversity.

In a country like Canada, where multiculturalism is part of our identity, Du says we can all learn from each other.

“Intercultural learning is also self-exploration. It motivates you to become a better person.”

This profile was developed with the assistance of the Research Support Fund and is part of the forthcoming 2018 Research in Action publication featuring Royal Roads University faculty and student research.