Transformation within College Students Participating in a Cultural Awareness Program: Perceptions of Becoming Culturally Competent

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Virginia Tech


Cultural competence is defined as having the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to interact and assist people from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds (Sue, 2001). People who are culturally competent are aware of their own cultural background and the backgrounds of groups that are different. These individuals understand and appreciate a variety of cultures. Much of the research on cultural competence has focused on practitioners or graduate students in medicine, psychology, education, and social work (Eunice, 2004). Primarily, this research has looked at the training that these individuals have received and their attitudes about interacting with diverse groups.

Howard-Hamilton, Richardson, and Shuford (1998) proposed that a set of competencies be developed for college students similar to those created for practitioners. Examples of those competencies include an understanding the cultural backgrounds of other groups, being able to interact with diverse individuals, an appreciation for diversity and valuing social justice for all cultural groups, etc. Research on cultural competence and college students has primarily focused on attitudes of college students towards diverse individuals (Hu & Kuh, 2005; Nelson-Laird, Engberg, & Hurtado; 2005; Pascerella & Terenzini, 2005; Pacerella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1996; Whitt, Edison, Pascerella, Terenzini, & Nora, 2001). Students' in and out-of-class experiences give them a holistic education in which they develop an appreciation of individuals whose cultures are different (Kuh, 1995). Yet, very little research has focused on students' experiences learning about and interacting with individuals from other cultures.

The purpose of this study was to gain insight from students participating in a cultural awareness program regarding their experiences before and during college that shape their cultural competence. Specifically, I examined students' perspectives on pre-college and college experiences that influence their values and beliefs about their own and others' racial/ethnic culture. The participants of the study were college students who participate in a cultural awareness grant program.

This study is phenomenological by nature. Data was obtained from interviews, field notes, and students' journals. Three interviews were conducted with each of the participants. In the first interview, the students were asked about their backgrounds and how they describe their racial or ethnic culture. In second interview, the participants were asked about their interactions and experiences with other racial or ethnic groups on campus. The third interview focused on students' opinions about learning about issues of race and ethnicity.

The data were analyzed using constant comparative analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), inductive analysis (Patton, 2002) and open coding (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Profiles of the participants were created from the interview transcripts and field notes (Seidman, 2006). The background, experiences, and perspectives of students were described in narrative form. Results of this study indicate that four factors have an impact on participants becoming culturally competent: (a) family influences, (b) formal learning, (c) encounters with others, and (d) personal interests.



cultural competence, college students, diversity, multiculturalism