The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Ethan Swergold '24 RGLP Reflection: Reflecting on Past Intercultural Experiences with the Lens of RGLP

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Growing up in a privileged, homogenous town, I rarely thought critically about my cultural biases or practices. This entirely shifted over the past year when I lived in a small village of Achuar Indigenous people in Ecuador. I often hear the term “culture shock”, what I displayed upon arrival would be better described as “cultural ineptitude.” I quickly learned that my individualism, materialism, and communication style were not natural in any way, but rather a product of my culture. The Achuar people embrace collectivism, tradition, and spirituality, and are far happier than people I encounter at home. During my stay, I had few intercultural tools and thus created a false dichotomy in deciding how to act: I could fully maintain my cultural attitudes and behaviors, or attempt to live very closely aligned to the practices of the Achuar people. I chose the latter, and while this facilitated a large amount of personal growth, I now understand how I failed to maximize cultural differences to make a positive impact.

My approach to intercultural differences has evolved throughout RGLP. I now understand that intercultural differences must be recognized and appreciated, before one works to diminish barriers to cross-cultural communication. This learning was facilitated by our conversation with Dr. Sophia Koustas, specifically when she discussed how to balance authenticity and adaptability. In any intercultural situation, no party must fully adapt to another’s culture, but rather educate themselves on cultural differences, and confront any potential biases. This is where I failed last year. I now realize the Achuar people with whom I lived did not need me to emulate their practices, but instead respect, appreciate and educate myself on their culture, while simultaneously informing them of my own cultural traditions and practices.

I now possess greater awareness of how people from different cultures can grow and learn through shared appreciation of foreign practices. This approach enhances intercultural communication, cohesion, and teamwork to the greatest degree. To me, this skill represents what it means to have an “intercultural toolkit.” RGLP has not prepared me to be perfect in one distinct situation, but rather made me confident that I can be successful across a range of intercultural contexts.

Written by Ethan Swergold, a member of the Spring 2021 Cohort of the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program

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