Teaching Cultural Diversify Beyond the Classroom:
Intercultural Immersion Project
Fanli Jia Seton Hall University
Qiong Wang State University of New York, Oneonta
In recent years, the psychology community has emphasized the need for multiculturalism within psychology classrooms. This shift is reflected in the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, in which the need for diversity was changed from a nonessential, elective educational goal to an underlying requisite theme to be found throughout all psychological curriculums (APA, 2013). Currently, patterns of diversity within classrooms seem to be following a particular trend. For decades now, the population of instructors has continued to grow more and more racially uniform, while the growing population of students has diversified (Cabrera, 2012). Multiculturalism is necessary to effectively communicate with students whose cultural backgrounds differ from those of their educators. As educators, we must update our pedagogical practices in a diversity-centered way to help prospective teachers gain a competitive edge in terms of employment and real world skills. This will contribute to the strides that the field of psychology has been making towards creating a more holistic discipline for the future, benefiting students and teachers alike. It will also improve the psychological community as a whole, by decreasing the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes and widening the level of ubiquity with which psychology professionals will be able to operate by providing them with a global range of cultural competency.
Methods of Emphasizing Multiculturalism
Currently, several factors contribute to the lack of culturally competent students and professors in the psychology educational community. Because preservice teachers hail from mostly white, middle class backgrounds with little to no experience dealing with individuals from different cultures (Cabrera, 2012), they lack understanding and knowledge about communicating effectively with individuals from different cultures. However, the discipline of multicultural psychology and counseling is predicated on the notion that multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills can be taught and learned (Smith & Silva, 2011). To reduce ignorance surrounding other cultures, exposure to individuals from a diverse range of cultures and socio-economic statuses is required. Often this intermingling of groups is limited because of the lack of diversity in many institutions. To combat this limitation, we should design educational programs to take students out of their classrooms, and place them in direct contact with out-group members. Often times these interactions yield the best results when the instructors in these programs take the role of guiding mediators, instead of rigid disciplinarians (Dinh, Weinstein, Nemon, & Rondeau, 2008). This contact can reduce previously held notions of racism by students. This interaction is a core component of contact theory (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011), which holds that association with groups toward whom students have negative attitudes, and with whom they are unfamiliar, will reduce stereotypes and prejudices towards that group. The theory stipulates that the participants in the interaction must have equal status, work cooperatively, and share common goals (Nordstrom, 2015).
Educators who find themselves having classrooms with students from diverse cultures can emphasize a multicultural approach by employing more integrative didactic strategies and by making efforts to understand different social structures found within their students’ cultures. From the perspective of teaching, educators should make sure that their students understand that what they are learning is information created by victors throughout history, and some aspects of what they are learning do not necessarily reflect the interests of all ethnic groups. To this end, multiple culturally significant and relevant techniques should be used to ensure that all students are instructed in ways that are beneficial to them. Instructors should administer multiple types of assessments to ensure fairness, so that students who learn differently are able to show their comprehension of subject matter. Students should also be taught directly about different ethnic groups and the negative effects of racism to reduce stereotypes and prejudices. They should have several chances to interact under supervised, carefully considered conditions that facilitate understanding and acceptance. Interactions should occur during school hours as well as outside of school in extracurricular activities within the community. Discussions that occur during these interactions should promote a two-way cultural exchange in which students are aware of their own culture as well as cultures different from their own. Without awareness of one’s own role within culture, it becomes difficult to develop intercultural competencies (Nordstrom, 2015).
Intercultural Immersion Project in New York City
Service learning is a powerful pedagogical method that offers students immediate opportunities to apply classroom learning to real life situations, particularly through their engagement with, and service for local agencies or communities. However, cultural diversity in psychology has rarely been implemented in service learning. The Intercultural Immersion Project facilitated this process with a focus on culturally diverse groups using an intergroup contact approach to enhance cultural sensitivity in teaching psychology.
From May 17th to May 25th, 2015, we led an 8-day Chinese Intercultural Immersion Project, structured as a 1-credit summer course in Manhattan and Flushing, NY. The Intercultural Immersion Project aims to cultivate and foster a passion in students for service, learning, and self-development in a multicultural environment. The goals of the project align with the vision of cultural diversity in several ways. First of all, this project allows students to explore socio-cultural and psychological components of human behaviors (e.g., interpersonal relationships, cultural evolution, stereotypes, ethnic identity) not only in a classroom setting, but also in a real world context via direct interactions with community members, groups, and organizations. Second, the project fosters a deeper understanding of another culture by comparing it with one’s own culture, examining its strengths and weaknesses, and reflecting upon the educational and practical implications of cultural diversity and globalization issues. Last, but not least, students have the opportunity to develop cross-cultural competence that helps them succeed in their future careers and social lives, which are likely to be conducted in a multicultural world. Therefore, this project provides students with a platform to learn about cultural diversity and global connectedness via active engagement in community partnerships.
The students were exposed to significant and meaningful service learning opportunities, in which they were able to explore the multicultural world they live in by actively engaging with the Chinese community. Students were challenged to leave their comfort zones and work with people in a community with which they may not normally have contact in the college context. Before the trip, we gave several workshops to train students’ cultural conflict-solving and intercultural communication skills, in addition to safety training. During the Immersion Project, the students were able to gain an understanding and appreciation of the fact that every culture is different yet equal, and that we can learn from one another when we engage in effective intercultural communication. The students also demonstrated what they learned through the Immersion Project through group discussions during the trip as well as presentations of their observations and reflections at the end of the trip.
The Project offered students great opportunities to experience cultural diversity through various community activities and services. For example, our students:
- Were paired cultural partners with Chinese high school students volunteering at the Chinese Community Center;
- Taught English to elderly Chinese;
- Interviewed Chinese-American high school and college students about how they adapt to the American culture while maintaining their ethnic identities;
- Played traditional Chinese sports, such as Tai-chi and table tennis;
- Visited a Chinese language school and assisted teachers in language classes; and
- Learned Chinese traditional painting, calligraphy, and Chinese chess.
Narrative reflections were collected at the end of each day during the trip, as well as at the end of the project.
At the beginning of the project, students experienced some levels of cultural shock:
- “I found it so hard to believe we were still in NY. It felt like another world; all of the ads were Chinese and even the people that were in them were all Asian. Until then I had never realized how advertising all around me was geared toward a white demographic.”
- “The amount of restaurants and food was overwhelming. It took me a second to realize that how I was feeling at that exact moment must be how a person from another culture must feel when they go to a food court in the mall that I typically go to.”
A few examples demonstrated students’ cultural competence through actively engaging in cultural practices such as religion, art, and sports.
- “The trip to Mahayana Temple was refreshing to walk into a place of worship that was different from the Catholic church I have at home. They story of Buddha made it easy to appreciate the culture even if you did not fully understand all that it had to offer.”
- “I liked reading about the various steps that the Buddha had to take to become enlightened. It reminded me of my hometown church where the stages of the cross are shown. These include the steps Jesus took to become God such as carrying his cross, being crucified and rising from the dead. I really appreciated the walls where people's loved ones were remembered and the offerings were placed there for the people that they want to remember.”
- “As a realistic painter, I found myself becoming frustrated trying to paint a lotus plant, when I had no reference to paint from. I had never seen a lotus plant, and in the absence of fact, my brain was making up fiction. I was timid to step out of my comfort zone with my artwork. But I soon realized that I am already out of my comfort zone in this whole experience, and I might as well introduce Chinese culture to the most intimate aspect of my life: my artwork.”
- “Tai Chi class proved to be much harder than I had anticipated. Contrary to my belief, it was about strength, grace, balance and power all at once. I never saw myself as the type to enjoy tai chi but after taking this class.”
- “I also enjoyed the painting and calligraphy sessions. It was interesting to see the different techniques used and it was certainly a lot harder than I expected. I often found the ink to be too dark or that I had put too much water on the brush, there seemed to be no perfect in between. While it was difficult, I really enjoyed the experience. It was fun to try a new way of painting, and to have some insight to the process of how these types of pieces are made.”
Direct contact with community members appeared to have strong influences on the students during their cultural immersion experiences. Here are some other examples that illustrate how communication with individuals from a different culture improved the students’ cultural competence.
- “Its much easier to talk to the generation of East Asians who live here that are close in age to me. Many of them speak English and attended school in America, making their behavior much more Western but those in generations older than myself have a more Eastern style behavior and are harder to interact with because of my status as a stranger.”
- “Working with the little kids was much different than working with the older kids. The younger children were more open to talking to us, and they seemed more excited for us to be here. I talked with two little boys in particular, Oscar and Andrew. Andrew is an ABC (American born Chinese) and Oscar is a CBC (Chinese born Chinese), and it was interesting to see the differences in the two boys.”
- “All seniors enrolled in the ESL class at the community center had all been living in the United States since the mid-1980s. They had all also been involved in the class for an average of 2 years. None of them could answer a basic question posed to them in English without considerable effort. I wondered why… The instructor explained how once the elders leave the class they go right back to speaking Chinese and forget about their class until the next week. He asked us what advice we can give to help them learn English better, and I said it would help to practice outside of the class as much as they can.”
Our intercultural immersion project not only greatly enhanced students’ understanding of cultural diversity in general, and Chinese culture in particular. It also brought excitement, inspirations, and new opportunities of institutional collaboration to the local communities.
As diversity in the classroom grows, emphasizing multicultural practices and studies has become less of a suggestion and more of a requirement. Students who are exposed to other cultures and backgrounds different from their own develop their intercultural communication skills. Educators who adjust their assessment strategies to accommodate students of all cultures ensure clarity and fairness for all students. In general, awareness of our own place within culture and how we can relate to other cultures will improve the quality of education and learning within psychology classrooms. The psychology community itself will diversify and thus improve in terms of real world skills and employability. As the pool of knowledge grows, a focus on diversity will only facilitate globalization for the future of the discipline.
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Washington, DC: Author.
Cabrera, N. L. (2012). Working through Whiteness: White, male college students challenging racism. Review of Higher Education, 35, 375–401. doi:10.1353/rhe.2012.0020.
Dinh, K. T., Weinstein, T. L., Nemon, M., & Rondeau, S. (2008). The effects of contact with Asians and Asian Americans on White American college students: Attitudes, awareness of racial discrimination, and psychological adjustment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 42, 298–308.
Nordstrom, A. H. (2015). The Voices project reducing White students’ racism in introduction to psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 42, 43-50.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Smith, T. B., & Silva, L. (2011). Ethnic identity and well-being of people of color: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 42-60.
Authors’ note: Support for this project was provided by Domestic Intercultural Immersion grant awarded to both authors.
Authors’ Biographical Sketch
Fanli Jia is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Seton Hall University. He was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at State University of New York, College at Oneonta. His research interests include the interface between cultural variations in moral identity, environmental identity, and acculturation in relation to reading in English as a second language learner.
Qiong Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at State University of New York, College at Oneonta. Her research interests include Asian Philosophy and Comparative Studies, Culture Studies, Social Philosophy, and Ethics.