You may have heard of X-Culture. That’s not to be presumptuous — from a numbers standpoint alone, it wouldn’t be unfair to assume.
The program, started by Dr. Vasyl Taras at UNC Greensboro in 2010, has involved tens of thousands of students at hundreds of universities around the world. It has led to countless internships and job offers, and if Taras’ memory serves him right, at least one marriage proposal.
“The idea originally was very simple,” he says.
Take students from across the globe, split them into global virtual teams, and give them a problem to solve. This, Taras hoped, would add a practical element to international business courses.
“At first, I didn’t care much about the task, as long as students were working in international teams, across time zones and cultural differences, that’s all that mattered,” he said.
But by 2013, professors at partner universities around the world began referring companies to the program. Past clients include Louis Vuitton, Mercedes-Benz, Hard Rock International, and many other small-to-medium sized businesses based in different countries.
Those companies pose real-life challenges, giving the students an opportunity to be business consultants. A company, for example, might be considering an expansion into new markets. It would be one thing, Taras says, if one team suggested somewhere like Norway. It’s quite another if 1,000 teams look at the prompt and 900 of them suggest Norway.
“It gives us so many different, useful, authentic ways of looking at doing business,” says lecturer Karen Lynden who, similarly to Taras, works tirelessly to keep the program going.
All the while, students here in Greensboro are working with various international teams on their own time. They need to navigate teammate schedules, time zones, other university calendars, and various holidays around the world. In the beginning, Taras thought cultural differences would pose problems within the groups.
“It turns out the bigger problem, for example, is people don’t show up. Some are (not engaged), maybe less organized. Some are not motivated or don’t know what to do, so actually participation is a bigger issue,” he said. “I thought it would be cultural things, but in reality, people don’t know how to use a Dropbox.”
Experiences with X-Culture are part of the reason 25-year-old Jan Strewie came to study at UNCG in the first place. He’s originally from Germany.
“Cultural awareness was a big learning experience,” he said. “Communication is different among cultures, having the awareness and experience by working with a multinational team.”
In a recent interview, Taras used phrases like “it led to more interest than we anticipated” and “not really planned, but rather us reacting to demand” while discussing various milestones from a decade with X-Culture. One example is the conferences, which have been held in places like Macerata (Italy), Miami (U.S.), and Calgary (Canada).
“We never thought it would involve a face-to-face component,” said Taras. “But then students started joining us for conferences, and then at some point, there were just so many of them coming.”
Allison Hampton is a UNCG student studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul (South Korea). She describes her trip to Calgary as incredible.
“The opportunity to meet and present to executives of the Calgary Airport Authority, the company my group worked with, was amazing,” she said. “And getting to meet the people I had been working with for months in person, as well as all the other participants, was an experience I will never forget. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met on the Calgary trip and it is so inspiring to see the professional directions everyone is going in.”
There’s also the X-Culture Coaching Program, which involves former participants. That’s where Lynden comes in. She says it has become its own global community.
“They really wanted to mentor and become this alumni group, it was this organic process,” she said.
Hampton became a coach in the fall of 2019.
“I want to pass on this knowledge to other students because I remember how hard it was for me and my teammates dealing with communication issues. Knowing how challenging that made me want to alleviate that challenge for other students in order to give them a more positive experience with the program and to give them something to take away from the project,” she said.
Taras said the coaching program just made sense, with students wanting to participate a second, third, and fourth time. It’s this sense of volunteerism, both on the part of professors and former participants, that keeps the X-Culture train rolling. Taras says there were similar programs that came before X-Culture, but they often existed because of grants. When the money ran out, those programs went away.
It didn’t hurt that free resources such as Google Docs, Dropbox, Slack, Trello, and Skype became available during X-Culture’s infancy.
So what will the next 10 years look like? Well, they may have only scratched the surface on the research potential for a program of X-Culture’s magnitude. Additionally, younger and younger participants have taken an interest. Perhaps X-Culture will become the next Model U.N. or Mock Trial at the high school level.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain.
“I have a dream. Not a dream, it is a necessity,” Taras said. “We have to find a source of some sort of revenue so we can hire some sort of manager. One of the big problems is while it works as a volunteer model, the truth is I, Karen, and all of these professors commit their own time to it. It works fine, as long as we are able to commit this extra time.”
Keep in mind that more than 60,000 students have gone through this program. Even if a fraction of them decide to say hello or tell Taras about a new job, that’s a significant chunk of unread emails.
“X-Culture had a big impact on my professional career,” said Strewie. “In the future, I hope to see more sponsorship toward the program to further increase the reach and impact of the program on students all over the world.”
It’s hard not to look back and appreciate what Taras, Lynden, and countless others have been able to accomplish in 10 years. The X-Culture Facebook page has more than 200,000 likes. The new Master’s of International Business program at the Bryan School is even a byproduct of X-Culture’s success.
Taras says their philosophy from the very beginning was different, and very well may be what makes it appealing.
“People who come to us aren’t customers,” he said. “You come to us and we provide the service, and the mindset was people see themselves as part of the project, and there is a sense of community. In our case, it’s designed as we are all together. I am one of many professors. It’s managed more as everybody is, in a sense, equal. It’s a group. It’s a tribe.”
Taras said studies show that from before X-Culture to after, cultural intelligence of its students goes up, skills and interest in working with people from other cultures increases, and prejudice toward others decreases. In this divisive era, Taras believes X-Culture is preparing the next generation of collaborative international problem-solvers one student at a time.