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Strengthening students’ intercultural competences at the World Expo

A fascinating journey exploring how it is to work for World Expo 2020 in Dubai started for 28 Haaga-Helia students in September 2021. We conducted a survey in October 2021 in order to gather the first expressions and to find out the students’ reflections on the international and intercultural competences gained.


Päivi Käri-Zein

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Katri Salmi

kansainvälisten asioiden päällikkö
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 10.12.2021

Finland is one of the 191 nations to participate in the first World Expo arranged in the Middle East. As key partner in the Finland pavilion, Haaga-Helia is very visible, since our students work as part of the Business Finland team, guiding and hosting guests.

A fascinating journey exploring how it is to work for World Expo 2020 in Dubai started for 28 Haaga-Helia students in September 2021.

Training for the Dubai experience

Before leaving for this work placement, the students had to complete the Dubai Expo Academy training course. The course included a diverse set of topics: Expos, expo culture and history, details about Finland and Finland’s bilateral relationships with UAE, Arabic culture, people and religion, Gulf Co-Operation countries UAE and Dubai as an environment, information on participating companies as well as First Aid.

However, despite the preparations and training, we could not prepare for the climate. The temperature in Dubai, at the time of our arrival, was very hot (+37-40 degrees Celsius) and hit us hard.

Students have to meet the learning objectives of their work placement. Their work placement continues until March 2022, when the learning will be assessed and the work placement credits will be awarded. In addition to the work placement learning objectives, it is interesting to know whether any intercultural learning takes place during the international placement. We also wanted to find out if the students have any challenges in adaptation, so that we could continue supporting them in the right way.

We conducted “Your International learning in Dubai” student survey in October 2021 in order to gather feedback and follow the group’s learning curve while abroad. Our goal was to find out the students’ reflections on the international and intercultural competences gained and their first expressions. We asked the students to consider culture in the broad sense, considering not only the national cultures but also the organizational, the Expo and any sub cultures.

The survey, done after four weeks working in the Finnish pavilion and six weeks of being part of the exciting Dubai environment, showed already great results in learning in several of the training areas.

Coping with adaptation stress and culture shock

When asked about the symptoms of adaptation stress (culture shock), 74 % of the respondents reported experiencing some symptoms. For example, all reported feeling tired and sleeping a lot, many reported feeling sad and lonely, feeling lost and confused and noticed that they were idealizing their own culture. Four students said that they had not experienced any symptoms.

We also presented some popular coping mechanisms for tackling the symptoms; spending time with friends, colleagues or house/team mates, calling loved ones, maintaining the sense of humor and familiar elements in one’s life, pampering oneself, enhancing understanding by talking to locals/others and reminding oneself that it is not useful to blame other cultures as all cultures have good and bad sides.

While the visible elements of culture (food, clothes, music, arts, festivals, traditions etc.) are usually easy to spot, the more invisible and intangible cultural elements and differences are trickier to notice. Most of our students had for example noticed differences in time concept, personal space, hierarchy or power distribution. Some noticed differences in values and communication styles or norms, and in rules of conduct or manners and personal beliefs.

Gaining international and intercultural competences

Once asked what they had so far learned the answers were diverse. There were comments stressing learning about different cultures and especially Arabic culture (e.g. N-shallah culture), flexibility as well as patience. There were comments about learning different communication styles, English and small talk. Learning about detailed information of the partnering companies was mentioned. Some mentioned learning the importance of teamwork, guiding skills, to be open minded, problem solving and fast reaction skills.

We also asked how important do the students see international and intercultural competences and the ability to adapt in different situations in the future job market on a scale from not important at all to very important. 90 % answered very important and the rest considered it important.

When asked what has been best so far about the Dubai experience, many students replied the people and the networks for the future. This is how tourism student Mario Malm put it:

“…meeting all the people in our group of guides. I feel like I have made so many friends here that I would have never even met if it wasn’t for the expo and the opportunities that we have gotten and will most likely get from this experience. Be it future workplaces or invites to amazing events, the things that happen here are magical.”

All people are the same, it’s only their habits that are so different, said Confucius. According to our student survey this saying seems to be correct. The Dubai Expo2020 theme “Connecting Minds, Creating Future” seemed to be coming true already after one month of work.