March 2017
Shondel Nero, New York University, New York, New York, USA

On 20 January 2017, I returned with 19 preservice teachers—all graduate students in New York University’s (NYU)’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development—from an annual study abroad program that I created and led in the Dominican Republic (DR) during the January intersession. The paradox of the day was not lost on us, as we were just returning from spending 3 weeks in the DR learning about and immersing ourselves in the culture and language of the country from which many students in New York City (NYC) public schools hail, even as our newly inaugurated president was touting “America first” to the country and world. It is important that we confront this cognitive dissonance in the 21st century—the fact, and frequent celebration of, an increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse population and, by extension, student body, even as many fear and try to retreat from it. Teacher education programs are an appropriate place to constructively confront this tension because teachers are on the front lines of engaging cultural and linguistic difference in our schools today. They are, by default, cultural brokers. This article thus describes the conception, goals, design, and highlights of the aforementioned study abroad program as one approach to addressing cultural diversity in teacher education.

The Demographic Imperative

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2012), immigration to the United States has increased significantly since 2000 with the Latino population from the Caribbean and Central and South America leading the way. This demographic shift nationally has translated into a marked increase in English learners (ELs) in public schools across the country. At roughly 4.4 million (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016), ELs are the fastest growing segment of the K–12 student population and are predicted to represent 25% of all public school students by 2025. In NYC in particular, the most culturally and linguistically diverse city in the country, more than 3 million of its 8.4 million residents are foreign born, the largest group of approximately 380,000, or 12.4%, hailing from the DR. This is directly reflected in NYC classrooms where Dominicans are the largest Spanish-speaking population. Therefore, most NYC teachers, regardless of their subject area, are likely to have Dominican children in their classrooms. For this reason, teachers in NYC need a more in-depth understanding of Dominican culture to better serve this population.

Teacher Education Curricula

I believe bolder steps need to be taken to enrich teacher education curricula, which must go beyond including cultural diversity issues in course readings. We should bolster these readings by providing real opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers and their professors to experience “otherness”—in other words, to engage linguistic and cultural difference first hand by temporarily living and learning in the countries of their students’ origin. Thus, I led the first group of mostly MA TESOL and/or foreign language preservice teachers from NYU’s Steinhardt School on a 3-week study abroad program to the DR in 2010, and the program has run uninterrupted annually in January since then.

The program, entitled Culture and Language Learning in Real Time (CLLRT), was conceived and developed as a collaborative learning experience between Steinhardt and Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM), the leading Catholic University in the DR, located in Santiago, the second largest city. The conceptual framework for the program is situated within four interrelated areas of research—second language acquisition (SLA), study abroad as a component of SLA, culturally responsive pedagogy, and intercultural competence.

Second Language Acquisition and Study Abroad

Krashen (1982) has proposed the well-known distinction between language acquisition (learning language by immersion in naturalistic settings) and language learning (formal study of language in a classroom) to explain differential outcomes in SLA. In fact, many studies in SLA have examined language learning from the learner’sperspective but have not looked at the extent to which having teachers engage in language immersion raises their sensitivity to their own students’ language learning process and how that might inform their teaching of such students.

One way for teachers to engage in language immersion is through study abroad programs, which often include specific learning objectives, such as developing competence in a foreign language; understanding how cultures and societies are formed, sustained, and evolve; and developing empathy for the values and perspectives of cultures other than one’s own. CLLRT encompasses all of these objectives, including a required language learning component.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Intercultural Competence

CLLRT is also informed by the work of researchers who have argued that culturally responsive pedagogy should be a focal point of teacher education curricula if we are to adequately prepare teachers for the growing diversity in the student population. Gay (2000, p. 29) defines culturally responsive pedagogy as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students.” Such pedagogy requires as a starting point certain dispositions toward learners (e.g., empathy, openness, curiosity). Furthermore, engaging students’ prior knowledge and experiences requires intercultural competence, in other words, having or seeking in-depth knowledge of students’ cultures and interacting and communicating with students in ways that are contextually appropriate and effective (Lustig & Koester, 2010). These issues are all addressed in the graduate course that is part of CLLRT.

Program Design

CLLRT is a two-part learning experience, both theoretical and experiential. Students take a three-credit Steinhardt graduate course that I teach at PUCMM, entitled Intercultural Perspectives in Multicultural Education. Topics include cultural norms and values; intercultural competence; cross-cultural communication in and beyond the classroom, including the role of race/ethnicity, class, and gender; and culturally responsive pedagogy. Prior to departure in early January, students must attend two predeparture orientations to obtain background information on PUCMM, discuss program goals, and review the course syllabus. Students are also required to read and respond to predeparture readings on differences in values, beliefs, and practices across cultures, and the history and current state of the DR to provide some context.

In addition to taking the Steinhardt graduate course, students simultaneously learn Spanish through an immersion model by taking a one-credit undergraduate-level Spanish class offered by PUCMM faculty. All students admitted to the program are required to take the Spanish class regardless of whether they know Spanish. The goal for taking the Spanish class is not to become fluent in Spanish but for these prospective teachers to experience what it feels like to be a language learner and hopefully develop empathy for the language learning challenges of ELs who are new to the United States and must learn English for schooling and survival.

The most important experiential component of the program is that students stay with Dominican host families for the entire duration of the program, which provides an authentic setting for language and cultural immersion. We also complete a number of educational tours and cultural activities across the island, all arranged by PUCMM’s Office of International Students. We visit Dominican schools, observe classes in session, and have a debriefing session with teachers to get a better understanding of the Dominican education system. We also visit museums, an orphanage, a market at the Haitian border, and the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, among other places.

Evaluation of the Program

The program is evaluated through a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures, including the following:

  1. The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a 50-item survey instrument used to measure intercultural competence. Students complete the same survey pre- and postprogram, and then paired sample t-tests are calculated to assess changes in their intercultural dispositions.

  2. A qualitative evaluation form that I developed for the program that asks students to comment on the Spanish class, my graduate course, living with a host family, the various educational tours that we do, their overall experience in the DR, and how they would connect their experiences to their teaching.

  3. The regular Steinhardt course evaluation form.

Students always rank the homestay as the best part of their experience; they say it gives them authentic exposure to Dominicans with all of their complexities. They also experience first hand Dominican cultural values, norms, beliefs, and practices—those subjective aspects of culture that are subtle, deeply embedded, and often the most difficult aspect of teachers’ intercultural work. Participants emphasize that the visits to schools help them to understand the educational experience of Dominican children so that they can be better prepared to build on their students’ strengths and address the challenges they face in NYC schools. Students note that the Spanish class provides models of language teaching as well as shows them the pros and cons of an immersion model. Those who don’t know Spanish say that they immediately feel empathy for their beginner ELs, but they also note that they’re acutely aware of the difference between their voluntary short-term stay in the DR and the permanent residence of their immigrant children who are brought to the United States not by their own choice. Finally, students report that this experience makes them more willing and able to negotiate the uncomfortable moments of engaging students from different cultural backgrounds.


Studying abroad is one approach to helping teachers better engage with our culturally diverse students today. There are obviously many other approaches that can be equally constructive. As migration patterns continue to change and students bring new and different cultures, languages, and funds of knowledge to our schools, teacher education programs would do well to adjust their dispositions, curricula, and practices to engage our students in academically enriching and culturally responsive ways.


Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Lustig, M., & Koester, J. (2010). Intercultural competence: Intercultural communication across cultures (6th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The condition of education 2016 (NCES 2016-144). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States, 2012. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from statab/cats/education.html

Shondel Nero is associate professor of language education at New York University. Her work on educating speakers of Caribbean Creole Englishes and World Englishes, language and identity, and language education policy has appeared in three books and numerous scholarly journals. She also directs a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic for preservice teachers to better prepare them for practicing culturally responsive pedagogy.