Multicultural Awareness Issues for Academic Advisors

Categories: 2004 February 27:1

Leigh Cunningham, Kansas State University

Leigh Cunningham.jpgMulticultural awareness is essential for academic advisors, for our cultural identity "is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves" (DuPraw & Axner, 1997). Lack of understanding about what constitutes cultural identity, and how we are affected by the various aspects of our world view, can be a source of conflict and a great hindrance in the development of productive relationships. As DuPraw and Axner (1997) note, "oftentimes we aren't aware that culture is acting upon us. Sometimes we are not even aware that we have cultural values or assumptions that are different from others!"

There are two guiding principles that we must keep in mind: (1) cultural identity is made up of a myriad of aspects, and (2) while we can learn something from generalizations about cultures, we must not allow these generalizations to cause us to stereotype or over-simplify our ideas about others. It is crucial that we preface any discussion of diversity issues with firm declarations that ALL people have cultural identity and that we value ALL forms of diversity, whether they be majority or minority. One of the most disturbing recent trends has been the equation of the terms 'multicultural' and 'diversity' with ethnic/racial minority status.

Three major issues must be addressed in this discussion:

  1. Race and ethnicity are only two of the many identity factors that contribute to our world view. Some others are gender, socioeconomic status, level of acculturation to majority norms, geographic region of origin, level of mobility (both physical and geographic), sexual orientation, educational achievement, speech patterns, family structure, religious beliefs, age cohort, health status, varieties of 'challenges' and 'ableness,' and various types of life experience.
  2. Recognized racial/ethnic groups in the United States are rarely - if ever - homogenous, and in-group distinctiveness may be as prominent as differences between groups. As noted by Brown and Rivas (1995), "all ethnic groups within our country are an aggregation of many distinct subgroups." Americans from every currently recognized racial/ethnic group "represent a majestic array of diversity" that MUST NOT "be described in generic terms" (Priest & McPhee, 2000, 106).
  3. Ethnic identity is not restricted to minority groups; majority-group members also have ethnicity.

We must not make the mistake of thinking that we know much of anything about anyone simply because we are aware of their racial or ethnic classification! As Brown and Rivas (1995) caution, "advisors must approach the first advising session with few preconceived notions about the student."

In recent years, many people have discussed the 'characteristics' of umbrella-labeled groups they considered representative of various aspects of diversity. While no doubt the intention has been to increase sensitivity and ability to communicate, in all too many cases what has actually been accomplished is a delineation of new sets of stereotypical expectations - or reinforcement of old ones - that inappropriately color expectations and decrease clarity in communication. In the area of race/ethnicity, for example, the most common umbrella-terms used are African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Native American, and Hispanic/Latino - even though research tells us that most people oppose being classified in this way. Other divisions of this kind are also used, such as discussions of the 'common characteristics' of members of American generational cohorts, known by terms such as the 'Silent Generation,' the 'Baby-Boomers,' and the 'Gen-Xers.' If we create these sorts of categorical expectations, then we are in danger of viewing behavior through these preconceived 'filters.'

Rather than focusing on characteristics of specific populations, a better approach is learning to look beyond specific behaviors in order to discover intent, because similar behaviors can serve dissimilar functions (and different behaviors serve similar ones) in different settings. For instance, it is important to know that, in some contexts, respect is shown through the maintenance of eye contact, while in others direct eye contact is viewed as a signal of disrespect, challenge, or sexual invitation. It may also be crucial to be aware that, in some cultural contexts, eating all of the food on one's plate is viewed as a compliment to the preparer (and, conversely, not doing so may be perceived as a great insult), while in others it is viewed as poor manners and low-class status. Rather than focusing on the particular culture involved, or even on the level of eye contact or the amount of food eaten, we need to focus on how we can go about understanding what communication (if any) is intended by these behaviors. (Perhaps my stomach is upset and I am afraid I will become ill if I eat any more; thus, how much I eat has nothing to do with either appreciation or manners!)

For the past five years, I have taught a course in cultural awareness using this approach, and one of the most common end-of-class responses I have gotten is, "I took this course thinking I would learn about behaviors that make us different, but instead I learned about how we can begin to connect with one another." We need to begin by recognizing that each of us views the world through the lens of our own ethnocentricity; and then we need to learn strategies for recognizing our lenses and moving beyond them. We need to understand that all cultural behavior is learned and that all of us have the natural tendency to judge the behavior of others in accordance with our own experiences. While we might like to think otherwise, all of us are ethnocentric, at least to some degree, both by nature and training. This is not necessarily always a 'bad' thing, since a certain amount of love for one's own culture is necessary to hold societies together; however, anything that is positive (functional) at a certain level can become negative (dysfunctional) when we take it too far, as frequently happens. We can, however, train ourselves not to judge one culture by the standards of another, and with vigilance, we can maintain (at least for the most part) a stance of cultural relativism.

We need to learn about ways that cultural perspective can differ, such as high-context vs low-context orientations. For example, we should be aware of continuums of time orientation (circular-'loose'/linear-'rigid'), space/tempo (synchronicity-harmony/independence-individuality), type of reasoning that is valued (intuitive-comprehensive/linear-analytical), types of verbal messages used (formal-verbal/informal-non-verbal), societal role expectations (flexible/non-flexible), and interpersonal relationships (collectivist/individualistic). We should identify where our own experience has placed us on each of these continuums and how that placement might cause us to react to people who are at different points. We should seek to identify areas that might be problematic for us, because we are at one end of the continuum and might be more likely to have strong reactions to people coming from the other end. We need to develop good listening skills and learn how to gather information by asking questions in a non-invasive, non-threatening manner.

These are the skills and strategies that best serve advisors for working with students from any background. We must begin by understanding that behaviors and verbalizations can have a variety of meanings and intentions, depending upon context, and we must seek knowledge of what the possibilities may be. Then we must be willing to take the time for introspection and reflection on our own cultural identity, seeking to understand our personal world view. As noted by Cornett-DeVito and Reeves (1999), "advisors cannot merely increase awareness and knowledge about those from other cultures. They must also recognize themselves as cultural creatures and realize that they must first know themselves to appreciate the cultural lenses through which they interpret others" (p. 39). We must be willing to admit that we have biases and stereotypes, and we must seek understanding of what these are and where they come from. We must have the desire to be continually working to look beyond our world view and the dedication to gaining the knowledge and developing the skills that will aid us in doing so. We must recognize that while it will not ever be possible for us to completely erase the effects of our enculturation and experiences - and that it is unlikely, and perhaps even undesirable, that we will ever come to equally value or appreciate every possible means of cultural expression - we can come to the place that we, for the most part, seek to comprehend before we judge, and offer thoughtful, responsive understanding and respect more often than reactive judgment.

Leigh Cunningham
Academic Advisor
Kansas State University
College of Arts & Sciences
leigh@ksu.edu

References

Brown, T. & Rivas, M. (1995). Pluralistic advising: Facilitating the development and achievement of first-year students of color. In M.L. Upcraft & G.L.Kramer (Eds.), First-year academic advising: Patterns in the present, pathways to the future (pp. 121-137). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Cornett-DeVito, M.M. & Reeves, K.J. (1999, Spring). Preparing students for success in a multicultural world: Faculty advisement and intercultural communication.NACADA Journal, 19(1). (pp.35-44).

DuPraw, M.E. & Axner, M. (1997). Toward a more perfect union in an age of diversity: Working on common cross-cultural communication challenges. Retrieved September 10, 2003 from http://www.wwcd.org/action/ampu/crosscult.html

Priest, R. & McPhee, S.A.. (2000). Advising multicultural diversity: The reality of diversity. In V. Gordon, W. Habley and Associates (Ed.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 105-117 ). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Upcraft, M.L. & Stephens, P.S. (2000). Academic advising and today's changing students. In V. Gordon, W. Habley and Associates (Ed.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 73-83 ). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Cunningham, L. (2004, February). Multicultural awareness issues for academic advisors, Academic Advising Today, 27(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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