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How do I become culturally competent?

Tips for self-reflection and activities to gain a broader understanding of cultural competence

By Rebecca A. Clay

Both research and practice-oriented psychology students can benefit from a healthy dose of self-reflection, experts say.

As a former Asian-American studies minor with an interest in diversity and a minoritygroup member himself, Ali M. Mattu thought that he was ready to tackle just about any cultural issue when he began doctoral studies in clinical psychology at the Catholic University of America five years ago. As it turned out, the future diversity chair for APAGS was flummoxed by one of his first clients.

"He was going on and on about confession, using a lot of Catholic lingo that I'm not familiar with," says Mattu, now chair-elect of APAGS. "Then he looked at me and asked point blank, 'Have you been to confession here?'" Instead of owning up to not being Catholic, Mattu sidestepped the question and missed an opportunity to explore a topic that meant so much to his client.

Since then, Mattu has taken an intensive course on cultural issues in clinical psychology, which included lectures, selfreflection and community service. But while APA accreditation requires programs to cover cultural competence, and many states require such training for licensure, not all psychology programs offer the thorough grounding Mattu received.

"Traditional models of training don't focus very much on learning how to adapt one's skills to different populations," says Janet E. Helms, PhD, director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. "People still have a tendency to make cultural competence the topic they cover at the end of the semester, so they really don't cover it very well."

That won't do, says Helms, who wants cultural competence integrated into every aspect of graduate training. "We're becoming an increasingly culturally complex country," she says, adding that training in cultural competence should include race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, disability status, and other demographic characteristics.

Fortunately, say Helms and other experts, there are plenty of ways to get that training and experience on your own:

  • Learn about yourself. Get started by exploring your own historical roots, beliefs and values, says Robert C. Weigl, PhD, a psychologist at the Franklin Center in Alexandria, Va., who described a protocol for such self-reflection in a 2009 paper in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations (Vol. 33, No. 4). The eight-step process includes such exercises as describing your ancestors and their experiences, thinking about how your family functions as a group, and characterizing your most representative style of thought as emotional or rational, "me-centered" or "we-centered," and the like.

    Self-assessment makes participants realize the pervasive role culture plays in their lives, says Weigl. It also makes people aware of their own biases while sparking open-minded curiosity about other cultures. Plus, it's fun, he says, adding that students are "sometimes swept away by healthy narcissism" as they explore their own backgrounds.

  • Learn about different cultures. If you know you're going to be researching or providing therapy to people with unfamiliar backgrounds, seek cultural insight through journal articles and academic books, says Mattu. But don't stop there. "There's a richness to memoirs, for example, that scientific journal articles just cannot capture," he says. He also recommends novels such as "The God of Small Things" — an examination of India's caste system — and such documentaries as "Divided We Fall," about post-9-11 hate crimes against South Asians.

    However, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in another culture's worldview is to learn a second language, says private practitioner Pamela A. Hays, PhD, of Soldotna, Alaska, and author of "Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Therapy" (APA, 2008). "One of the most mind-expanding experiences is to learn a word or concept that doesn't exist in your own language," she says. "Plus, learning a language means you're more able to reach out and connect with people who speak that language."

  • Interact with diverse groups. Arranging a research project, practicum experience or internship where you work with people from a culture that's unfamiliar to you is a great way to enhance your cultural competence. Depending on the kinds of cultural experiences you're seeking, you may want to volunteer at community centers, religious institutions or soup kitchens, says Mattu. Take a friend or two with you, he recommends, and spend some time afterward discussing how the experience may have changed your views.

    It's also important to supplement work and volunteer experience with nonclinical social interactions, recommends Hays. Instead of solely interacting with members of diverse groups who are seeking help, get a fuller picture by interacting with them as peers at parties, religious services and cultural events. "Put yourself in social situations where you're the only one of your cultural group," she recommends.

  • Attend diversity-focused conferences. Get formal training on diversity-related research and practice issues, learn about the latest research, and meet potential collaborators at APA's Annual Convention, as well as conferences that are focused specifically on diversity issues. Check APA's online events calendar for news about upcoming meetings. One such conference, the biennial National Multicultural Conference and Summit, will take place Jan. 27–28 in Seattle. "We'll be exploring how science can be more sensitive to diversity, as well as how science can have an impact on diverse communities that have been marginalized in the past," says Francisco J. Sánchez, PhD, the summit's lead coordinator and a psychology research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine.

    Interested students who are short on cash can often volunteer at conferences in exchange for reduced fees, or apply for a travel grant. Check out APA's searchable database of scholarships, grants and awards.

  • Lobby your department. If your program isn't giving you the training you need, push the faculty to do better, says Helms. Whether you plan to send the departmental chair a formal letter with concrete suggestions and complaints or handle the matter more informally, be sure to gather allies — students from within and outside your department — to help you make your case. That way, says Helms, "the program gets the message that this is something important to students."

    And remember: These steps are just the beginning, says Hays.

"Cultural competence is a lifelong project," she says, adding that competence with one group doesn't mean you're competent with another. "You have to keep finding ways to expand your learning."

This article was reprinted with permission from September 2010 issue of gradPSYCH.


Copyright © 2010 by the American Psychological Association. Reproduced with permission. The official
citation that should be used in referencing this material is Clay, R. A.. (2010, September). How do I become
culturally competent? Both research and practice-oriented psychology students can benefit from a healthy
dose of self-reflection, experts say. gradPSYCH, 8(3). Retrieved from gradPSYCH. No further reproduction or distribution is permitted without written permission from the American Psychological Association.