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Abstract

In the health and social professions, including occupational therapy and social work, interactions and exchanges with people are essential. Populations encountered by professionals in these fields are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of age, origin, language, health status, and socio-economic background. Sometimes, professionals can have potential misinterpretations regarding intentions and actions, health beliefs and practices, or verbal and non-verbal communication. To overcome obstacles related to practice in a context of diversity, universities must develop students’ intercultural competence. Scientific literature stresses the importance of encountering diversity to improve awareness and sensitivity and to bring attention to biases and prejudices. Considering students’ intercultural experiences before their formation could be a basis to achieve this educational goal. The present study aims to document this topic. Semi-structured interviews with 51 first-year students from two educational institutions in French-speaking Switzerland were conducted to capture the participants’ descriptions of these experiences in private or professional contexts. The interviews were transcribed and submitted to a thematic analysis approach. A thematic map was generated and three main themes emerged: (1) perception of diversity; (2) communication challenges; and (3) transformation of attitudes toward the “Other.” They are described and discussed in terms of developing intercultural competence. Recommendations regarding intercultural education emerge from these findings.

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