Investigating Students’ Experiences of Diversity, Inclusion, and Intercultural Learning  

By Michelle Pugle, marketing & communications, Thompson Rivers University 

Post-secondary institutions are no strangers to data analysis. But at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), researchers are going beyond numbers to better understand students’ university experience to drive meaningful change.  

“For more than a decade, Thompson Rivers University, like many post-secondary institutions in North America, has been tracking intercultural learning and engagement as part of institutional strategic planning efforts,” said Dr. Kyra Garson, intercultural coordinator in the Faculty of Student Development. 

TRU recognizes intercultural learning as an important aspect of the student experience and in particular, our responsibility to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action “Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” (2015, 63iii). This call is increasingly important given the rapid increase in international student enrolment and the fact that results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) across the province continues to demonstrate that large percentages of students are not engaged with people or perspectives different from their own. 

Garson explains that traditionally TRU’s intercultural data has included perception-based ratings collected from surveys, course enrolments and completion rates, and event participation related to interculturalization, internationalization, and Indigenization. Data collected has been primarily numerical or quantitative in nature. Until now. 

Beyond Numbers 

“The research literature and B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner have identified that quantitative metrics fail to capture rich, nuanced information about people’ experiences of inclusion and belonging,” said Dr. Alana Hoare, assistant teaching professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.  

“TRU faculty researchers recognized the need to gather students’ stories of their lived experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the cognitive, affective, and behavioural domains of intercultural learning,” she said. 

“Early efforts to better understand students’ experiences of diversity, inclusion, and intercultural learning started with a small pilot study with 12 student participants in 2021, which included open-ended responses on their experiences of intercultural learning and engagement at TRU,” Hoare explained. 

In 2024, the TRU research team was awarded a BCcampus Research Fellowship to broaden the study: Exploring students’ experiences of diversity, inclusion, and intercultural learning.  

The research team consists of Garson and Hoare, along with Dr. Brad Harasymchuk, assistant teaching professor, Education; Dr. Amie McLean, intercultural coordinator, Student Development; Dr. Anila Virani, assistant professor, Nursing; and Yujie Jiang, recent graduate, Master of Education. 

The research fellowship allowed the team to expand and adapt the research methodology into a more fulsome mixed-methods study. The project involves an analysis of student responses to the NSSE and the Fall Student Census, along with students’ stories reflecting their experiences of diversity, inclusion, and intercultural understanding.  

Both on-campus and Open Learning students enrolled in any program in the fall semester are invited to participate in the annual study. 

So far, over 400 students from across TRU faculties and schools have responded to the open-ended questions aimed at understanding their unique experiences of diversity, inclusion, and intercultural learning. By the end of April, the team anticipates they’ll have closer to 500 study participants. 

Data for a Difference 

“Ultimately, the research team aims to elevate how post-secondary institutions have historically used data for quality assurance and accountability purposes, to expand upon these efforts through more rigorous and culturally relevant research practices and to inform actionable change,” said Hoare. 

Garson adds that the study is designed to better understand students’ experiences of diversity, inclusion, and intercultural learning through qualitative analysis aimed at better understanding discrepancies in the quantitative responses. The data will enable a deeper understanding of students’ perceptions including how and where they are engaged in intercultural learning, the impact of their experiences, and what they perceive to be barriers to intercultural learning in post-secondary education. The team hopes a more nuanced understanding of students’ experiences and perceived barriers will lead to recommendations for educational programming and inclusive learning environments with the aim of enhancing engagement and outcomes for all students in the province. 

Using data to make a difference can support TRU’s ability to meaningfully respond to repeated calls related to intercultural development presented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.