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Intercultural competence (IC) is an important skill to be gained from higher education. However, it remains unclear what IC means to students and what factors might influence their definitions of IC. The aim of the current study was to qualitatively assess how students at one higher education institution in the USA define IC and to quantitatively test for relationships among IC components and various demographic characteristics, including intercultural experience and study context. A further aim was to descriptively compare the IC definitions from the US sample with the definitions obtained from another sample of university students in Germany.

Materials and methods

A purposive sample of n = 93 undergraduate, second semester students at Dickinson College, USA, participated in the study by completing an online questionnaire. The qualitative data were content-analyzed to define the dimensions of IC. The quantitative data were cluster-analyzed to assess the multivariate relationships among the IC components and the demographic characteristics of the sample.


The most important dimensions of IC were Knowledge, External Outcomes (interaction, communication), and Attitudes (respect, tolerance) according to the US sample. The most frequently chosen dimensions of IC differed between both samples: Knowledge was chosen by the sample in the USA while External Outcomes was chosen by the sample in Germany. Relative to the US sample, significantly more students chose Attitudes, External Outcomes, and Intrapersonal Skills in the sample in Germany. The relationships among IC components and demographic characteristics were only weak in the US sample. A person with IC was rated as Open-minded and Respectful by students who lived predominantly in the USA or Tolerant and Curious by those who lived outside the USA for at least six months.


The current results suggest that students residing in two countries (USA or Germany) define IC using similar dimensions. However, IC definitions may depend on the intercultural experience and the current global discourse. Longitudinal studies with representative samples are required to assess how IC definitions change over time.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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