Cross-Cultural Counseling

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This past week has been a sharp reminder of the importance of learning and utilizing skills when counseling across cultures, particularly during a crisis. I worked with two students this past week who are both experiencing tremendous anxiety:  one because she is experiencing a challenging relationship with her parent here in the US, the second because she is too far from her family in Western Europe.

In each case I received a somewhat panicked email or phone call asking if I could meet on the same day, which is rather out of character for each of these young women.  Both were tearful, uncertain and confused.  Each was unsure of how much to share and how much I would or could, in turn, share with others.

These experiences reminded me of the value of a graduate class in Cross-Cultural Counseling that I took many years ago at the School for International Training.  The work of Dr. Paul Pedersen really stood out for me, as his readings were based on the simple idea that “since all behaviors are learned and displayed in a cultural context, accurate assessment, meaningful understanding and appropriate interventions are done from the perspective of the client’s cultural context.”  As an American counselor, I have to style switch to address each student’s concerns, sensitively ask questions to determine understanding, make sure that my listening skills are particularly fine tuned to “hear” what might not have been said directly, and be keenly aware of the non-verbals.

One of the potential challenges for an adviser is how to handle the hand off to formal counseling services. For many students, American or otherwise, confidentiality is of tremendous concern. Many international students (and their family members) are not aware that universities in the US are not able to disclose information about a student to family members and perhaps not even colleagues within the institution, due to a law called FERPA – The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. For the first student, who is not from Western Europe, this was of great concern. She was uncomfortable with the thought of her family finding out that she was seeking counseling due to her strained relationship with a parent. I spent a great deal of time explaining the law and thankfully, due to our two year history and time dedicated to trust building, she was willing to try the free counseling.

Pedersen’s work illustrates that “Competence is measured by your ability to know what your client is thinking but not saying.”  In this case, I knew that this student was thinking that people in the US talk about these things publicly, as they do in her own culture.  Because of this, I made sure to pull up the FERPA web page to show her, in writing, that this is a firm law in the US and to explain that laws are very seriously followed in this country.

This past week has reminded me that it is time again to revisit the important work of Dr. Paul Pedersen. If you are interested in learning more about cross-cultural counseling, Pedersen’s website offers valuable power point presentations and simple exercises that you can easily utilize for staff training.


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