4. Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, Skills, and Ability
I entered the CSSA program with a sound grasp on my own multicultural development in undergrad. As I have stated in previous posts (“What is My Culture?”, “On Multiculturalism”), I entered college with an underdeveloped sense of who I was in terms of identity development. I was often “the token brown girl” in my circle of friends, and while I enjoyed ethnic Filipino food and get-togethers with my mother’s Filipino friends, I was somewhat uncomfortable with being so blatantly different than my peers. I had previous trouble fitting in growing up due to several factors: my parents’ age gap, my ability to read at an early age, and my early love for wearing dresses every day. My ethnicity made me just a bit more odd to others, and as I grew up, I down-played its importance to my friends and, in turn, to myself.
My own development as a multicultural individual has been complicated, to say the least. I grew up in rural eastern Washington, the child of an older White father and a young Filipino mother. In Wenatchee, the population is approximately half White with the other half Latino or Hispanic. As someone of Asian descent, I was automatically classified as “Other.” Most of the time, in casual encounters, people classified me as “Unknown” or, due to the color of my complexion, “Probably Mexican.” Although I can easily look back and rationalize why these things happened, it still does not change the fact that I grew up thinking that somehow, my ethnicity, culture, and heritage was less valuable than those of a more majority population.
Two particular incidents stand out in my mind when I think about moments that made me question how I fit into a diverse world. The first incident involved me browsing the books at the local library. A man approached me, greeted me in Spanish, and I replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish. Hi.” He responded with a smug smile and said, “Yes, you do.” Taken aback, I told him that I did not, in fact, speak Spanish. He grew visibly irritated and said, “Yes, you DO. Why are you lying to me?” I cannot remember if I simply walked away, but the conversation stuck with me.
The other incident was not a confrontation, but another assumption of what my identity is. A little boy was pointing to things at my work, asking his father what said items were, and when the little boy pointed at me, the father responded matter-of-factly, “Well that’s a Mexican girl!” I was entering the elevator, and I turned around to correct him, saying, “No, sorry; I’m Asian.” It was about that time that I realized some people were more interested in assuming they understood my identity, and as such, they ascribed some forms of prejudice to me.
Arriving at Western Washington University, though, I was able to undo some of the messages I had previously received. At WWU, I had resources like the Ethnic Student Center (ESC), and mentors and peers that could relate–but perhaps not fully understand–to what I had experienced growing up. These new interactions validated my existence as a person of color and as a mixed-race person. It was powerful and very positive.
In my role as an emerging professional, I worry about students that do not find these resources. It is not a secret that Oregon State University’s campus is not the most diverse environment many students have encountered. Yet the support services are there. Here at OSU, there are Cultural Centers and Intercultural Student Services. The individuals who staff these areas are also mentors. They provide safe spaces, and they provide services which help students process their understandings about who they are and how they fit in with the world around them. While it is ignorant to assume our services will reach every student, it is still important to realize the impact I can make in students’ identity development. I know that my involvement in student affairs is partially due to my interactions with the WWU Ethnic Student Center’s advisor. Like me, he is of mixed-race, and additionally, he is also Filipino. His presence at the center was inspiring to me–and other FASA members, one can contend–because we had stories that were relatable, and his enthusiasm for the field of higher education and leadership within that field showed me that I could eventually play the same role.
Multicultural competence is something around which much discussion stems. One common theme in my career as a graduate student has been the assertion that one can never be truly multiculturally competent, especially considering that multiculturalism goes far beyond dialogue on race and ethnicity. Saying that people cannot be multiculturally competent is a statement that I have disagreed with, arguing that “competence” means, in this case, acknowledging the shortcomings inherent in trying to understand how “the other” thinks, feels, and lives. It does not mean understanding to the smallest detail the history and contemporary issues each culture encompasses. It does mean accepting my limitations and working to be as inclusive as possible regardless.
The first tenet is that I am only one individual. My perceptions and my world views do not match those of anyone else. I can only try to imagine how a situation–like a microaggression, for example–makes someone else feel. I can, however, say that I relate; using empathy along with the acknowledgement that I will not fully be able to experience and understand first-hand differences is an important step in becoming multiculturally competent. This type of relation is something that some students seek. To be able to share struggles with one another without judgement is one way in which students process their experiences; processing and assigning meaning leads to growth. I can, in my professional roles, have conversations with students that allow them to approach situations with new perspectives.
In AHE 552, Student Development Theory, and AHE 520, Multicultural Issues, I learned about racial and ethnic identity development, sexual identity development, gender identity development, and systems of oppression and privilege. Privilege, particularly White Privilege, can be subjects that are uncomfortable to discuss. Fortunately, there is literature available which allows positive facilitation of these topics. McIntosh’s (1988) article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” still provides valid points of discussion in terms of White Privilege. The first time I read this article, I found myself nodding, agreeing with the items on the list which I had dealt with as a person of color. Recently, I challenged some of my friends who are not student affairs professionals to read the article; the reactions were nothing short of, “This is incredible.” The power in having conversations around privilege is that it causes people to re-examine where they stand, and hopefully, it causes people to understand what they do or do not take for granted. In doing so, I can help students learn to interact in more sensitive ways, or at least consider the messages their actions send.
There are also many other ways in which I can challenge and support my students and, to an extent, my colleagues. One of the best ways to do this is to participate in professional development workshops. For instance, it is easy to attend workshops that cater to aspects of my own identity, such as workshops on Asian and Pacific Islander issues. However, it is just as valuable to attend sessions about serving first-generation students, LGBTQ populations, or students in low socioeconomic standing. One does not have to travel far, either, to find groups of people that can challenge long-held perceptions and assumptions. During my AHE 520 course, one of the assignments was to outline a multicultural competency development plan. I wanted to learn more about the impact that socioeconomic standing has on the educational experience, so as part of that, I attended a workshop at OSU on race and the US Census. For one, the input and perspectives provided were varied, as the audience consisted of not just OSU administrators, but participants from the greater Corvallis community. I was one of the youngest attendees, and it was very helpful to hear community members talk about representation in things like PTAs and community boards. One person stated that there was a lack of underrepresented members in groups like the aforementioned examples. While some people might view that as parents’ fault or lack of interest, it could very well be a manifestation of the hardships of working-class groups. This is directly relatable to how different populations experience college, as parents might well be involved in making ends meet for the family. This perceived lack of involvement in a student’s college career could be detrimental to that student’s experience, and as such, administrators need to be ready to provide support and understanding in order to bridge an apparent gap.
Other ways of bolstering multicultural competence in order to benefit students is to continue to learn. It sounds simple, but it is something in which professionals should be proactive. For me, my graduate program has been a chance to take classes in disciplines outside of education. To supplement my area of specialization, I took WS 580 – International Women to better understand the struggles women face globally. While there were many different facets included in the class, one of the most valuable pieces for me was learning about how educational opportunities vary for females around the world. It is a stark reality that in some countries, women are still discouraged from partaking in education; males are still more valuable, and there is a careful balance between respecting local customs and helping women advance. This highlights the challenges I may face as an administrator interested in globally-connected education, whether that means working with students from immigrant families, or working in international education, or even just traveling. It is a reminder that the way I view progress may be viewed as nearly a crime, but it is also a reminder that I have the ability to change lives one at a time. Maybe I will not be the person who finds the courage to work in countries where education for females means administrators and teachers put themselves in danger, but I may be able to inspire my students to become those pioneers.
The most important thing I can do in terms of multicultural competence is to take the knowledge and foundations I have and apply them to my daily interactions. To be an effective communicator, I must be actively empathetic. I must be willing to have my own assumptions challenged, and I must be available to facilitate difficult conversations. While I often speak of development in a positive light, I realize that sometimes, the most impacting moments are those that shake students to the core. I want to be someone who can support a student through tough transitions, and I want to be able to direct him or her to other collaborative support systems. Ultimately, it is about making marginalized students realize they matter, as the Transition Theory asserts (Goodman, Schlossberg, & Anderson, 2006).
One way to promote cross cultural engagement is the implementation of cross-cultural mentoring programs. At OSU, a new mentoring program was recently developed by a CSSA alum. Before it was unveiled, I wrote my AHE 520 term paper on cross-cultural conflict, which deconstructed conflict into issues of trust and understanding, and how mentoring could alleviate conflict to a degree. It was quite the task, as I had not intended to write my paper with a communication scholar’s approach. However, as I combined my scholarly interests and my professional passions, I found that I was able to develop a document which could effectively function as the basis for future program proposals at other institutions at which I may eventually become employed.
I have ample room for personal growth and development which will ultimately make me a more caring and effective administrator. Some may bristle at seeing the word “caring” as used in the leadership context, but it is part of my personal belief that I lead best by building bridges, not just navigating tricky rapids. Currently, I am still looking to find a support system for myself here at OSU, as with my schedule and network, it has been a bit difficult to connect with some intercultural services. I have turned to social media in some cases to find that sense of community, and I have networked with several #FilAm individuals (that’s the Twitter hashtag that is sometimes used in the Filipino-American community) throughout the country that are involved in higher education and student affairs.
I know that I need diversity in my life, and that goes beyond in terms of ethnicity. By being an individual that seeks out people with different experiences, I can grow. I will have more to share with my students. I will have a greater understanding of how to empathize and create change. Furthermore, I will be able to function as an ally for change, as I want to be able to help students create positive change. It is not easy to change organizational culture, for instance, but one way to move towards a more inclusive environment is to identify allies who will be on-board; I hope to be one of those individuals, a person that others will turn to. For more about creating inclusive environments, please read my AHE 558 – Organization and Administration Diversity Critique of the University of Washington. I learned quite a bit from examining UW’s Diversity Plan, in the sense that I was able to look at concrete plans and metrics for improving a university’s climate. The challenges a large public research university in an urban area will certainly be different from a two-year community college, but there are still many transferable concepts. I plan on revisiting UW’s plan as well as pairing it with any materials from my future employer to develop a personal diversity plan. Hopefully, from there, I can contribute to the wellness of the entire college.
As mentioned previously, what is important in creating a sense of multiculturalism and true commitment to diversity is the willingness of students, staff, and faculty to have conversations about relevant topics. Two of my committee members have posed questions regarding how I facilitate these conversations, and I suppose one of the first aspects to address is how conversations even come up. I tend to share articles I find interesting with students and staff, and follow-up conversations occur both online and in-person. I have limited experience with people coming to me to discuss an issue that is not in response to something else, but in those times, I have done my best in listening actively and being empathetic. TCE 530 further gave me the basis for how to explore and deepen conversations, by asking follow-up questions and allowing for silence to serve as a probe. Although the details of these conversations will depend on the current context, I remind myself that I have the appropriate skills to carry out sensitive conversations in a respectful and productive way.
There are definite areas in which I would like to become more actively involved, like issues surrounding disability access and services, LGBTQ communities, and interfaith engagement. For instance, I have a set of close friends that identify as LGBTQ, and I personally identify as a heterosexual female. I recognize my privilege in this aspect of my identity, but I also recognize that I have the positioning and leverage to become a great ally. Additionally, as an individual interested in spirituality and holistic development, I hope to become more involved in the conversations surrounding faith/non-faith and community interactions. The belief systems we hold or do not hold should be the basis of creating positive engagement, instead of creating conflict and hatred. Although I am not sure as of yet how to initiate these types of conversations, I do want students to know that I am someone open to engaging in conversation.
Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. K., & Anderson, M. L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Retrieved from http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf