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Story Circles: Intercultural Understanding Workshops

As part of its mission to make Cornell a more diverse and inclusive environment for faculty, staff, and students, the Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity (PADE) awarded a Belonging at Cornell innovation grant to the Office of Global Learning (OGL) to foster understanding and promote effective, respectful communication among individuals from different backgrounds and across a multicultural society.

Based on the concept of “story circles,” the project trains workshop leaders to support students as they share their experiences and stories. Programming focuses on the intersections of nationality and other social identities, which aligns with the audience focus for Belonging at Cornell.  Project leads include Gustavo Flores-Macías, associate vice provost for international affairs; Brandon Lanners, executive director, Office of Global Learning.

President Martha Pollack chats with students at the International Fair.
President Martha Pollack chats with students at the 2017 International Fair.

Our international students contribute daily to the diversity, excellence, and global engagement of our university. To each of our international students, I want to say directly: You belong here, and we will fight for you to be here. We stand with you and with all of our international faculty, staff and the more than 28,000 international Cornell alumni around the world.

~Martha E. Pollack, president of Cornell University, July 8, 2020


Despite the richness of their contributions to the Cornell community, international students face unique challenges in their Cornell experience. Representing about 24% of the student body (11% of undergraduates, 34% of professional students, and 51% of graduate students), they are often targets of bias and discrimination because of differences in cultural, linguistic, and social norms. Such barriers—from others' incorrect evaluations of academic merit because of accented English to uneven access to mental health services—can have significant consequences for their sense of belonging, academic achievement, and personal growth.

Federal government policies that sought to restrict international student number, places of origin, and length of stay in the United States exacerbated feelings of exclusion. Anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti-international rhetoric compounds and amplifies other forms of bias against international students related to their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. 

Not surprisingly, international students increasingly report higher anxiety levels because they do not feel welcome in this country. We believe it is more important than ever to embrace our international student community and support their belonging to Cornell as part of our diversity and inclusion initiatives.

OGL established the Story Circles intercultural understanding workshop to bridge existing gaps between Cornell's international and non-international populations. Fostering understanding between the two can contribute to international students' sense of belonging at Cornell. This novel workshop helps Cornell incorporate the international dimension into its inclusion efforts. International status intersects with racial, ethnic, gender, and other identities at the core of such efforts.

Goals and Impact

Our goals are to increase international students' sense of belonging at Cornell, their satisfaction and loyalty to Cornell, and for all students to increase their intercultural competence by contributing toward:

  • Highlighting the value that international students' diversity brings to Cornell

  • Bringing together groups that might otherwise struggle to find common frames of reference
  • Increasing knowledge and awareness of different cultural practices, values, beliefs, and worldviews, and an understanding of their cultural perspective
  • Fostering understanding and effective, respectful communication with individuals from different backgrounds and across a multicultural society
  • Addressing feelings of isolation and alienation among the international community
  • Raising awareness that issues of race, ethnicity, and inequality transcend U.S. borders 
  • Preventing anti-international bias and discrimination


The workshops foster understanding between international and domestic communities and promote intercultural competency based on the United Nations' Story Circles methodology.

Piloted around the world by UNESCO, Story Circles1 have proven to be a simple, adaptable, and highly effective methodology to nurture the growing cultural diversity within our societies and develop intercultural competency. Intercultural competency refers to the skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to improve interactions across differences, whether within a society or across borders. Story Circles, simply put, involve the sharing of personal experiences within gatherings of three or more people. 

Through the technique of storytelling, participants can develop critical elements of intercultural competence, including greater cultural self-awareness, practice listening for understanding, openness, respect for others, reflexivity, empathy, increased awareness of others, relationships with culturally different others, and ultimately greater cultural humility. 

1 Based on Darla Deardorff, Executive Director AIEA, Duke University (2020): "UNESCO: Story Circles: Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies."

Contact Us

Please be in touch for more information or to request a Story Circle session for your unit.