Building multicultural competency

Malcolm X sat across the desk from Mr. Ostrowski, his teacher and advisor. Despite being one of his top eighth grade students, Mr. Ostrowski told Malcolm he should be realistic and become a carpenter–not a lawyer–because he was Black. Little did either of the two know at that moment in time what greater vocation lay ahead for Malcolm X. As educators and student development staff in higher education we would like to think that this type of racist interaction is a thing of the past; however, unconscious and conscious biases shape our interactions with students. Building multicultural competency is not an easy task and is a life-long journey and yet taking on this charge is critical if we are to ethically serve all of our students.

Derald Wing Sue and David Sue have researched multiculturalism for 30+ years. Their latest guidelines for building multicultural competence emphasize a tripartite framework of cultural competence and cultural humility (See Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 8th ed. 2019). Applying these concepts to our work with students as they explore vocation will help us avoid harmful mistakes that may discourage students from using their God-given talents.

Cultural competence consists of three major domains: awareness, knowledge, and skills. First, we must be aware of our own cultural conditioning and how it impacts our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Exploring our values as well as owning our biases and being comfortable with differences that exist between ourselves and others helps build self-awareness. We are also required to be knowledgeable about other worldviews and recognize different cultural contexts. Understanding how the sociopolitical structure of the United States impacts groups differently is important. Finally, honing skills in communication (verbal and nonverbal), active listening, and navigating relevant community and institutional support resources is essential to cultural competence. Seeking out opportunities to meaningfully engage with and support diverse groups on campus and in the local community is a great way to be proactive in building cultural competence and earning trust.

As Sue, Sue, Neville, and Smith (2019) outline the tripartite framework they also emphasize the reality that there is no easy “multicultural formula” that can be applied across the board to everyone. We must acknowledge individual differences in our students as well as within group and between group differences. Self-awareness, knowledge of other perspectives, and culturally competent skills in conjunction with honoring students’ lived experiences is a good place to start. An approach of cultural humility includes both interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions. The interpersonal dimension is characterized by an other-oriented stance of openness and respect. Intrapersonal cultural humility is accepting that our cultural identities and experiences limit our ability to fully comprehend the experience of others.

Guiding students in vocational discernment through the lens of identity development has helped me communicate to students a richer understanding of vocation in their lives. (See my previous post entitled “Identity Exploration and Vocational Discernment”). Clearly, cultural conditioning that shapes our values, beliefs, and behaviors is an important part of personal identity. There are numerous models of ethnic identity development (e.g., W.E. Cross, Jr., 1971) and psychologists recognize embracing ethnic identity in adolescence and emerging adulthood positively impacts students’ well-being (See the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, 2013). Ethnicity is part of our multicultural identities that influence our multiple vocations.

Michael D’Andrea and Judy Daniels put forth a model that includes ethnicity and race as well as gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and age among others (cited in Ivey, A. E., Ivey, M. B., & Zalaquette, C. P., Intentional interviewing & counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (9th ed., 2018). All of these components of identity impact our students’ vocational journeys and our conscious and unconscious biases in our work facilitating those journeys. The model centers on the acronym RESPECTFUL:

As David Fuentes wrote about in his essay in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (OUP, 2017), his music students long to express and communicate something bigger than themselves. Students often feel they are called to make an impact in their ethnic community or be an example in their families as first-generation college students. We must work to encourage students to embrace their diversity as a strength in using their God-given talents, while preparing them for potential obstacles they will encounter.

There are some specific recommendations to consider when addressing ethnicity/race in vocational discernment. Caryn Riswold addressed the importance of understanding how we as educators are socialized in a culture of white privilege and racism in her essay in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (OUP, 2015). It is important to acknowledge this and recognize how this socialization can serve to limit and dehumanize our students. She encourages us to transform structures of racism by valuing diversity, engaging students in difficult conversations on the topic and providing examples that challenge the norm of dominant culture. Catherine Fobes has emphasized the harmful effects of “racial battle fatigue” and microaggressions on individuals. Students of color must explore vocational paths while also combating the negative physiological and psychological effects of barriers, limited opportunities, and circumscribed vocational options. {See her essay, “Calling Over the Life Course: Sociological Insights,” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (OUP, 2017); for another perspective on applying Fobes’ insights, see John Peterson’s “Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location”}.

Derald Wing Sue on microaggressions

When addressing gender in vocational discernment some have noted the importance of recognizing multiple vocations of paid and family life. Focusing on female students’ appearance rather than intelligence or steering them toward/away from certain fields of study are not uncommon occurrences (Fobes, 2017). Riswold asserted that “patriarchy rewards women for taking a backseat in public, and that women are uniquely challenged to interrupt that social dynamic by claiming space and voice. This is a crucial part of their being fully human” (81). Encourage female students to lead in and out of the classroom and provide examples of women pursuing traditional and nontraditional vocations.

Finally, socioeconomic status (SES) heavily impacts our students’ journeys of vocational discernment and is closely intertwined with gender and race. It may be difficult for students to find time to engage in vocational exploration, when work schedules barely leave them time to study. Educators must develop mentoring relationships that help students navigate college and see life success beyond their net worth (Riswold). Fobes indicated students often lack “cultural capital” which may include linguistic competence, travel experience, familiarity with certain books, music, art, etc. Cultural capital is often equated with intelligence. Additionally, she suggested we should intentionally recruit first-generation and other marginalized students to our campuses and vocational exploration programs.

We must embrace the beauty and strength of our students’ diversity and multicultural identities. And we must embrace the challenge of engaging in the journey of cultural competence as part of our vocation as educators. Let us not sit across the desk from our students making mistakes that limit their vocational potential.


Rachel Pickett is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of First-Year Experience at Concordia University Wisconsin. She is also a licensed psychologist. Her academic interests include college student development and the role of vocational discernment. She was a member of the 2017 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocation Exploration seminar.

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