Fostering Global Agility and Intercultural Connections

More than one million international students are studying in the United States this year, the largest number ever and an 85-percent increase over the past decade, according to Marissa Lombardi, EdD. Helping to ensure that they, and U.S. students studying abroad, get the most from international experiences is Marissa’s goal.

An assistant teaching professor and the faculty lead for the Global Student Mobility concentration in the Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program, Marissa specializes in international exchange and intercultural competence. She is the coauthor of the book In Their Own Voice: Intercultural Meaning in Everyday Stories.

“International students contribute a huge part of our economy and give us opportunities to internationalize our campuses,” she says, adding that there is a need for university-based professionals to support these students and their academic success.

In 2015, Marissa was selected to join Northeastern’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning through Research (CATLR) as a faculty scholar. With a staff that brings a wealth of experience in research methods and assessment, the center supports faculty research that informs teaching. Invited to stay on for a second year as a lead scholar, Marissa is now preparing to publish her findings while supporting other scholars in the program.

As part of CATLR, Marissa has explored international students’ experiences in online learning environments and how universities can better support them. In interviews with 42 students at Northeastern, she found that international students taking online classes have different needs and expectations than domestic students. Although many reported that online courses were beneficial to their writing skills, they are seeking a sense of community and to develop a professional and social network, as well as honing their verbal and nonverbal language abilities, which includes peer-to-peer engagement.

Offering co-curricular structured and informal opportunities to meet face-to-face can go a long way, she says. “Students are asking for this.”

Marissa’s work at CATLR will inform her, and other faculty members’, teaching across the university, which welcomes a significant number of international students and ranks 6th among leading U.S. institutions with the most international students, according to the Institute of International Education.

Marissa joined Northeastern in 2014 after spending eight years in Italy, where she served as dean of students at Lorenzo de’Medici Italian International Institute in Florence, Italy. Many of the students in her Global Mobility concentration have come to Northeastern from all over the United States and the world, seeking to enter or advance in the field of international higher education—for example running study-abroad offices or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs—or to work for governments or nongovernmental organizations. Last year, her “Global Literacy, Culture, and Community” course had eight countries represented, including China, Mexico, Peru, and Sierra Leone. Students also take “Managing Study Abroad,” “Managing International Students,” “International Higher Education,” “The Business of International Higher Education,” and a capstone class that can include an international field-study experience.

Marissa designed the innovative international field-study experience course. The class meets for eight weeks online and then comes together for one intense week in Italy, where students meet with a different company every day. Working in teams, they do a consulting project that addresses a problem facing industry; in 2015 and 2016, the theme was sustainability. Students developed a 2025 sustainability plan for La Marzocco, a high-end espresso-machine maker, based on interviews with surveys of leadership and staff across the world. The company is now implementing the plan and acknowledges the students’ work on its website.

“This is synergy between industry and academia at its finest,” Marissa says, adding, “The course is closely aligned with our university priorities: it gives students a global experience, is flexible and interdisciplinary, and offers them the chance to work together and in an international location.”

Marissa worked in Rome after her undergraduate studies, for an international bank that had both Italian- and Arabic-speaking staff. She found herself designing an ESOL curriculum as the bank moved toward using English in business transactions. That work led to intercultural training for bank executives who traveled all over the world.

“Many bankers were finding that deals fell apart because they didn’t have basic international competence about the regions they visited,” she says.

Measuring Intercultural Competency

As part of her research at Northeastern, which “promotes global citizenship and cultural agility,” Marissa says, she has used assessment tools to measure students’ intercultural development and competency. Among her top findings: students get the most out of global experiences when they have faculty guidance and when there are opportunities for active reflection on their experiences. “That means developing competencies such as empathy for other people, adaptability, curiosity, and open-mindedness to other customs,” she says. In addition, in short-term faculty-led programs, students who had previous intercultural exposure, even through friendships, experienced more intercultural development when they went abroad than those who hadn’t had that previous exposure.

Marissa’s research at CATLR has helped her better understand the experiences and needs of international students enrolled in online classes. She hopes her findings will be helpful to academic institutions that deliver parts of the curriculum to international students in online formats. In June 2017, she will present her research at the University of Professional and Continuing Education Association’s Summit for Online Leadership.

“The Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning through Research has provided incredible support and a wonderful community of scholars around the university to help me in my work,” she says.