Filling a Cross-Cultural Niche in Business Education

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Virtual Exchange +
Cross-Cultural Understanding

Impact report chronicles how virtual exchange is teaching students the value of cross-cultural understanding

An effective cross-cultural course prompts students to mindfully approach the complexities of an intertwined and diverse global world. It does more than simply place a student in a new country, expecting that a passive backdrop will provide the necessary instruction. It fosters strong connections. It encourages students to change their behavior through instructional and assessment tools. It serves as a lasting framework on culturally competent business interactions. 

The William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan saw this distinction and, with the support of the Stevens Initiative and in partnership with Professor John Branch at U-M’s Ross School of Business, created a program to fulfill these unique and necessary parameters. Business & Culture is a virtual exchange —a program connecting students across countries to learn together and collaborate on projects using technology— born of the need to help students better communicate, problem solve and collaborate with their peers around the globe. Informed by its history of forging international connections in the spirit of social and economic growth, WDI developed an impactful course where students learn the significance culture has on business strategy and implementation.

“The business world is increasingly global. Students need to have the skills to communicate with peers and people across cultures and have the sensitivity to be able to do so,” says Amy Gillett, Vice President of Education at WDI. With this in mind, she joined Meghan Neuhaus, Senior Project Manager for Grants Management at WDI, and Branch to start building the experience. They created the learning structure, researched the educational content, worked through the grant process, and even travelled to the campuses of the global partners. In the end, they came away with a dynamic and scalable course.

During Business & Culture’s most recent semester, U-M students were matched with students at the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and from various schools in Benghazi, Libya. Students convened on Zoom eight times over the semester, presented on various topics for one another, learned from faculty and guest lecturers in each region, and worked on cross-cultural teams to complete an internationalization consulting project. Most importantly, they learned and developed the skills they’ll need for their future careers.


Going into the course, many business students reported they understood how to interact with other cultures or work in a globalized business world. But there’s much more to be gleaned from these virtual exchanges. Karma Karira, an undergraduate student majoring in business and an Indian American daughter of immigrants, already had a strong appreciation for different perspectives and cultures before the course—but she had no idea how much deeper she could dig into the topic. “Though I came into this course believing I had a great understanding of culture and its implications, I soon found out that I did not understand the scope of culture’s influence.”

Before the course, Karira believed differences between people around the world were shrinking with increased globalization, but she now echoes the thoughts of one of the course’s professors, Branch at U-M’s Ross School of Business (Michigan Ross) , and said, “Despite globalization, perhaps even because of globalization, culture still matters.” Now, Karira is continuing to work on her cultural competency and improving her cultural intelligence when it comes to business.

Other students also found the lessons meaningful—and not just because of what it taught them about their peers. “The program has granted me something beyond connecting with people from different cultures: the knowledge of how people perceive their own culture and its influence,” says Rami Suleima from the American University of Beirut. For Rami, the course pushed him out of his comfort zone and asked that he challenge his preconceptions. He wasn’t alone in the high value he placed on the experience.

The Stevens Initiative is proud to support the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan along with many other institutions dedicated to cultivating future global leaders through virtual exchange programming. These institutions play a critical role in preparing young people to connect and collaborate across lines of difference, embrace diversity, and demonstrate empathy for all.


An in-depth monitoring and evaluation study facilitated by WDI’s in-house Performance Measurement and Improvement team was a key piece of WDI’s course development process. The team measured impact and success continuously through qualitative and quantitative data, including alumni interviews and student surveys. These analytical efforts provided key insights. For example, of the 294 students that have completed the course so far, 57% of surveyed alumni now use the skills and knowledge taught in the program three or four times a week. It also detailed which program skills students are carrying with them outside the course and using most often, like perspective-taking and cross-cultural communication. (For more information about this approach, check out this article on NextBillion.)

Problem-solving also took top billing when it came to lasting lessons, and it is essential to one of the course’s key takeaways: remain flexible in the face of complex global business interactions. “It’s really about the students becoming more adaptable. It’s easy to get set in the patterns we’re used to — our culture, our context,” explains Neuhaus. “When coming across challenges, we need to learn to be more and more adaptable.”

“The Stevens Initiative is proud to support the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan along with many other institutions dedicated to cultivating future global leaders through virtual exchange programming,” said Christine Shiau, Director, the Stevens Initiative.

“These institutions play a critical role in preparing young people to connect and collaborate across lines of difference, embrace diversity, and demonstrate empathy for all.”

Through its 86 grants, the Stevens Initiative will reach nearly 75,000 young people by 2023 as part of its vision of giving every young person the knowledge, skills, and experiences they need to prosper in an increasingly interconnected world.

“The impact of WDI’s virtual exchange shows the progress we’re making to make our vision possible,” Shiau added.


The WDI team has taken that lesson to heart. With each evaluation period, it adjusted the program. Through evidence-based decision making, Gillett, Neuhaus, and their colleagues fine-tuned the programming to better meet students’ needs. They started to connect students to their global peers earlier in the course. They implemented new technology to encourage deeper collaboration. They used interactive polls to increase online engagement. They initiated informal virtual coffee hours between students and instructions. At each step, they worked to improve the experience and build more opportunities for cross-cultural connections.

Their detailed analysis and continuous improvement efforts ensured the exchange was a major success—as detailed in a newly published impact report. Michigan Ross has decided to put the affiliated course, titled Cross-Cultural Business, into its regular course offerings. It’s an exciting yet unsurprising choice, since 90% of past Business & Culture students say they’d recommend the class to their peers. With this step comes the opportunity for expansion and growth. Students may now have the opportunity to collaborate with peers anywhere around the globe, since the course framework is meant to facilitate cultural understanding across any region. Though the partner institutions may change in the future, the program will remain the same—with all its distinct pieces. “It’s unique,” says Gillett. “There was nothing like it at Michigan Ross, and it fulfills an important niche.”

Impact Report: Connecting Students Across Four Countries

Connecting Students Across Four Countries

Fostering Cross-Cultural Understanding while Creating Lasting Impact

Impact Report: Connecting Students Across Four Countries

Business & Culture: A Virtual Practicum is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

Back to Top