Future health professionals becoming 'culturally competent'


building cultural competency workshop
Workshop participants are encouraged to share their own thoughts and experiences during small-group discussion.

Meeting the health care needs of a diverse population requires cross-cultural awareness, sensitivity and respect. Preprofessional health students at James Madison University have been on the leading edge of this training for more than a decade thanks to a workshop developed by JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services.

The Building Cultural Competency Workshop, which is offered during the fall and spring semesters and has involved over 2,500 students and faculty over the years, brings together future physicians, nurses, psychologists, therapists, social workers, hospital administrators and other health professionals to explore cultural issues of diversity, power and privilege.

“We bring ourselves into our professions,” said Emily Akerson, associate director of IIHHS. “There are lots of ways for us to become more whole human beings, and we need to engage that perspective if we are truly going to be effective in health and human services. We should always be listening to those whom we serve and wondering what part of their story is not being told.”

The workshop begins with a set of assumptions, among them that all of us have certain prejudices; that differences between people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class and socioeconomic status are often the basis for discrimination; and that each of us is on a lifelong journey of understanding one another.

“We believe that when we develop a community of respect and people listen and hear what others have to say, this will cause each of us to rethink some of our attitudes and behaviors,” said Marsha Mays-Bernard, associate vice president for multicultural awareness and student health at JMU. “Some of our discrimination and stereotyping is so institutionalized that we’re not even aware of it. It’s just our normal, and it will continue to be until we’re made to think about it.”

Health professionals aren’t immune to cultural bias. Studies have shown that physicians tend to deliver less information and are generally less supportive of patients from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Workshop participants tackle these issues through discussion of shared readings, movie clips and small-group activities, and they are encouraged to share their own thoughts and experiences.

“In our coursework, we’re exposed to issues of white privilege,” said Chance McDermott, a first-year student in JMU’s combined-integrated doctoral program in clinical and school psychology. “One of the ways that I can dedicate myself is to be involved in workshops like this. This burst of information and the exposure to these concepts are very important. It encourages us and it builds our confidence in asking tough questions and immersing ourselves in dialogue that otherwise we might be afraid to talk about.”

“For me, the most dynamic part of the workshop was having the conversations as a small group and hearing people’s opinions and thoughts and biases that they didn’t even realize that they had,” said John Harper, a senior social work major and group facilitator.

Indeed, our beliefs and values are the basis for our actions, according to associate professor of graduate psychology Dr. Gregg Henriques, one of the organizers of the workshop. These justifications are often grouped into systems and lead to different views of the world.

Jason Cha, an Asian-American doctoral student who grew up in California, said the workshop challenged him to look at JMU and the surrounding community differently. “We may all look similar, but we come from different experiences,” he said.

Harper, who was recently accepted into the Teach For America program, said he plans to apply some of the lessons from the workshop in his role as a social studies teacher at an Alabama high school beginning next year. “The majority of the students I will be teaching are from different ethnic backgrounds, so I’m not going in with a standard [set of ideas] about how a ninth grader should act. I’ll be giving thought to gender differences, sexual orientation differences, racial and cultural differences and just try and be open … and recognize that I’m on this journey and striving to get better.”

“A workshop like this makes me more aware of and appreciate the person [who will be] sitting across the table,” added Mariah Good, a junior social work major. “They’re not just a case file. They’re unique.”


By Jim Heffernan (’96), JMU Public Affairs

Dec. 20, 2013

Published: Friday, December 20, 2013

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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