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Developing counseling students' multicultural competence through the multicultural action project.

The Multicultural Action Project (MAP) is a cultural immersion project that requires counseling students to engage with diverse cultural communities on 3 levels: observation, information seeking, and action. To ascertain if participating in MAP improved the multicultural competence of graduate counseling students, the authors conducted an evaluation in which narrative analysis was used to examine the experiences of 3 graduate counseling students who participated in MAP. Through their narratives, the participants reported increased knowledge, awareness, and skills. The importance of sustained contact and interpersonal relationships in improving student learning outcomes is discussed and recommendations are provided.


Counselor educators are charged with the preparation of multiculturally competent counseling professionals. Multiculturally competent professionals possess the awareness, knowledge, and skills to work with diverse communities and implement strategies and techniques that are consistent with the life experience and cultural values of their clients (Lee, 2006). To improve the multicultural competence of counseling students, counselor educators seek out pedagogical and instructional activities that improve the counseling students' awareness, knowledge, and skills. A proposed method to promote self-awareness, reduce bias, and develop the multicultural skills of counseling students is cultural immersion (Alexander, Kruczek, & Ponterotto, 2005; Ishii, Gilbride, & Stensrud, 2009; Pope-Davis, Breaux, & Liu, 1997). However, limited research exists on the efficacy of cultural immersion in increasing multicultural competence.

This article describes the Multicultural Action Project (MAP), a cultural immersion project designed to improve the multicultural competence of counseling students, and provides an evaluation of MAP involving three participants. The evaluation findings of the three graduate-level counseling students provide initial insights into how participating in MAP was related to an increase in self-reported multicultural competence. Additionally, we discuss how the sustained interpersonal contact associated with this immersion project makes MAP a promising pedagogical tool for improving multicultural competence in counselor education.

Cultural Immersion Projects

Cultural immersion projects require students to engage in activities with a cultural community that is different from their own (Pope-Davis et al., 1997) and are based on the contact hypothesis, which holds that sustained, significant, direct contact between divergent social groups reduces tensions and misunderstandings (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005). Cultural immersion projects were first championed in the field of counseling by Pope-Davis et al. (1997) as a method to provide counseling students with in vivo training aimed at increasing cultural awareness, reducing bias, and improving multicultural skill development. DeRicco and Sciarra (2005), Ishii et al. (2009), and Pope-Davis et al. (1997) asserted that effective cultural immersion experiences occur over an extended period of time. Additionally, Alexander et al. (2005), Arthur and Achenbach (2002), DeRicco and Sciarra (2005), and Pope-Davis et al. (1997) recommended that students reflect on their immersion experience prior to, during, and upon conclusion of their experience. The rationale for MAP rests on these recommendations.

Research on Cultural Immersion Projects

There is limited research on the efficacy of cultural immersion projects. A recent review of counselor education, marriage and family therapy, and psychology literature yielded three articles on cultural immersion projects. Alexander et al. (2005) outlined the steps necessary for the development and implementation of an international cultural immersion project. In their project, school counseling trainees led six guidance lessons and conducted 25 hours of individual and group counseling over a 3-week period. Students also kept reflection journals and participated in daily supervision. Alexander and colleagues noted that students experienced enhanced awareness and examination of biases. Although Alexander et al.'s article may be useful in the development of international cultural immersion projects, it provided counselor educators with limited knowledge of the efficacy of cultural immersion projects in improving multicultural competence, because of the limited empirical evidence documenting the students' growth. Furthermore, the authors did not note whether students were able to develop prolonged and significant relationships with the cultural community they sought to study.

Using qualitative methods, Ishii et al. (2009) analyzed the reflection journals of 15 students who participated in a l-week cultural immersion trip to New Mexico. During the trip, students visited historical sites of native tribes, Pueblo and Hispanic businesses, festivals, and a traditional healer. Upon completion of the trip, students produced a journal demonstrating they had attained the eight educational goals related to the course. Through the analysis of the students' journals, Ishii et al. found that students experienced cognitive, affective, perceptual, empathetic, and culturally dissonant reactions. Ishii and colleagues argued that cognitive and empathetic reactions were related to cognitive complexity and enhanced the ability to form bonds with others; affective reactions were related to emotional understanding of self and others; and perceptual reactions may increase empathy. Furthermore, the authors used multicultural counseling literature to argue that cognitive complexity, emotional understanding, and empathy are important components of multicultural competence. Ishii and colleagues maintained that their students progressed toward multicultural competence. Their work provided an indication of the merit of cultural immersion projects; however, a weakness of this study was that the analysis and findings did not use awareness, knowledge, and skills as a framework against which to demonstrate multicultural competence (as proposed by Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). The lack of a framework made it difficult to contextualize how the results are indicative of increased multicultural competence, particularly in the dimensions of knowledge and skills. Additionally, the authors did not address if students were able to develop prolonged and meaningful relationships with members of native communities.

DeRicco and Sciarra (2005) discussed the use of cultural immersion in confronting covert racism. Using excerpts from the journals of one graduate student involved in a 10-week cultural immersion project associated with a multicultural counseling course, DeRicco and Sciarra documented the interactions and subsequent reactions of a White woman immersed in a predominantly Black community. The authors discussed how the immersion experience, in its totality, led to a deeper understanding of cultural identity, the incorporation of culture into counseling practice, and increased skills in working with people who are culturally different from the participant and argued that this was evidence of increased multicultural competence. The findings of this study are encouraging, but the authors failed to discuss their results within the multicultural competence framework of awareness, knowledge, and skills. Further, DeRicco and Sciarra did not provide evidence to support their claims of growth in the student, leaving the reader to question what this growth entailed. They noted the importance of prolonged meaningful engagement, discussing how relationships with members of the community allowed the student to realize subconscious biases.

Although the three above-mentioned works provide preliminary indications of the merit of cultural immersion projects, additional research is necessary to document growth in awareness, knowledge, and skills gained through participation in cultural immersion projects. Research is also necessary to document the role of prolonged and significant engagement in promoting growth associated with cultural immersion.


MAP is a cultural immersion project, developed by Dr. Max Parker at the University of Florida, designed to provide students with the awareness, knowledge, and skills to work with culturally diverse clients (C. C. Lee, personal communication, February 10, 2009). MAP is a semester-long assignment in a multicultural counseling course taught by the first author. As part of MAP, students identify a community that is culturally different from their own based on one or more of the following: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or age. Next, students identify emotional, educational, and professional objectives for working with a particular community and develop an action plan for completing each level of involvement: observation, information seeking, and direct action.

In the observation phase of MAP, students learn about their chosen community through activities that do not require direct engagement; students may attend a movie, a lecture, or a community meeting that focuses on their chosen cultural community. In the information phase, students research values, issues, and needs of their chosen community by directly interacting with community members. Students may conduct site visits to centers, agencies, and political advocacy offices; meet with community leaders; or survey community members. In the direct action phase, students participate in community service; possibilities include volunteering and providing services, participating in an advocacy project, or becoming a member of a community group. The community service requirement was added to MAP so students could interact with their chosen community in a cooperative setting (as recommended by the contact hypothesis). For the current study, students were not provided with guidelines on the number of hours to spend on direct action; they were asked to determine what was feasible given their schedule and the needs of their chosen community. However, the instructor assessed each student's MAP proposal to ensure that sufficient time was spent on direct action. If this was not the case, specific recommendations for increased involvement were provided to the student. In the current analysis, students spent approximately 10 hours volunteering over 2 months. At the conclusion of MAP, students write a report documenting their cognitive and emotional reactions to the immersion experience and compare their observations of their chosen community with the counseling literature related to their community. For this analysis, students kept weekly journals during their MAP, so they might draw on these journals when composing their final narratives.


Guiding Question

A narrative analysis was conducted of three graduate students' experience of MAP to assess whether this new version of MAP, which integrates prolonged contact and community services, contributed to the development of counseling students' multicultural competence* This analysis sought to examine these students' self-reported increased awareness, knowledge, and skills as a product of participating in MAP.


Crotty (1998) stated that "meaning is not discovered, but constructed ... different people may construct meaning in different ways, even in relation to the same phenomenon" (p. 9). This statement defines a constructivist view of reality and captures our view of reality. To be consistent with our constructivist view of reality and to obtain a detailed insider perspective of the experience and (potential) growth that comes from cultural immersion projects, we selected a qualitative research design. The qualitative researcher does not assume the existence of an objective truth but seeks to understand a phenomenon from the personal perspectives of those involved in the phenomenon (Creswell, 2007). Thus, we hoped that a qualitative examination of MAP would provide greater insights into how MAP might influence the multicultural competence of graduate students* It should be noted, as is consistent with some qualitative research traditions, that the participants in this evaluation assumed multiple roles (Haverkamp, 2005). The three participants were integral members of the research team, were involved in data analyses, and served as coauthors for this article. The participants are henceforth referred to as participant-researchers (PRs).

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of multicultural competence as awareness, knowledge, and skills, as described by Sue et al. (1992), was the underlying framework of MAP and was also used to interpret the findings of this evaluation* This framework was selected because it is the definition of multicultural competence endorsed by the American Counseling Association and the Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development (Arredondo et al., 1996; Sue et al., 1992). Therefore, the results of this study are presented in terms of awareness, knowledge, and skills*

Methodological Approach

Narrative inquiry was selected as the methodological approach for this study in order to provide insights into the lived experience of the researchers, to be attentive to contextual issues, and to be sensitive to issues related to culture* Shabani Varaki (2007) defined narrative inquiry as "the process of gathering information through storytelling" (p. 2). Narrative researchers believe storytelling is an essential part of communicating about and understanding the human experience (Czarniawska, 2004; Merriam, 2002; Shabani Varaki, 2007), a position that aligns closely with the overall practice of counseling (Hoshmand, 2005)* Additionally, narrative inquiry provides rich and multilayered information about personal events (Josselson & Lieblich, 2003), allowing the researcher to examine how the storyteller experiences the world (Shabani Varaki, 2007), including the storyteller's thoughts, feelings, and motivations (Abes & Jones, 2004; Merriam, 2002). In the current analysis, narratives provided access to examining the PRs' personal experiences and their development of awareness, knowledge, and skills. Because narrative inquiry attends to contextual issues, it is particularly appropriate for studying culturally diverse communities (Hoshmand, 2005) and was deemed most appropriate for this evaluation.


Within qualitative research, the researcher serves as "the primary instrument of data collection and analysis" (Merriam, 2002, p. 142). Therefore, it is crucial that we provide information about our positionality, as it undoubtedly affected this study. In discussing the researchers' positionality, Jones, Torres, and Arminio (2006) urged researchers to discuss their social identities because identities influence all stages of the research process. The first author is a 33-year-old, heterosexual, Chicano, male counselor educator, who served as the lead researcher and the instructor of the course with which this study was associated. It is possible that his dual roles may have influenced the decision of the PRs to participate in this study, the content of the narratives composed by the PRs, and the findings associated with this study. The first author's role as a counselor educator and as an advocate for the multicultural movement influenced the decision to use multicultural competence as the theoretical framework.

The PRs were all first-year graduate students and all identify as White women. Two PRs identified as heterosexual, and the third PR was queer-identified. They ranged in age from 29 to 30 years and reported being of lower middle to middle socioeconomic statuses. The PRs' MAP projects focused on people who were homeless, people over the age of 65, and women who were incarcerated. After discussing the risks and benefits, the PRs decided collectively not to use pseudonyms for themselves. Not disguising participant identity is accepted practice in qualitative studies (Jones et al., 2006).


This study took place at an urban university in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. The university is a public, research-intensive institution with a counselor education program that enrolls approximately 250 graduate students. This study chronicles the MAP experiences of three graduate students enrolled in a multicultural counseling course of 16 students taught by the first author.

Recruitment and Criteria for Inclusion

The PRs in this study were recruited from a multicultural counseling graduate course in which MAP was a course requirement. Students in this program typically enroll in the multicultural course during the first year of study. Purposeful sampling was used in this study to identify participants who the first author believed could best contribute to understanding the phenomenon under investigation. To this end, the first author sought PRs who demonstrated self-awareness (awareness of biases, values, and beliefs), an ability to self-reflect on their experiences (both cognitively and emotionally), and an ability to express themselves in written English. The students who best demonstrated these inclusion criteria in their MAP proposals were invited to participate in an analysis of MAP. Only the three PRs were invited to participate in this evaluation; other students in the class were not informed of the study. The PRs were invited to participate in data collection, data analysis, and presentation of research finding, both at conferences and in journal articles. Additionally, the PRs were informed that their participation would not influence their grade in the course and that they could drop out of the research project at any time. All three PRs provided informed consent. This study was approved by the human subjects research committee of the university where the study took place and followed all protocols outlined for research involving human subjects.

Data Collection

During the 16-week semester and their MAP experiences, the PRs kept a weekly journal of their experiences. These journals aided the PRs in documenting their experiences and in later composing their narrative about their participation in MAP. There were no specific prompts for the journals; rather, the PRs were asked to document their experiences and their cognitive and emotional reactions. Upon completion of the academic term and the MAP project, each PR composed a narrative describing her experiences. Each PR submitted a draft of her narrative to the first author, who provided feedback, asking for additional details on activities, additional cognitive and emotional reactions, and corrections in grammar. Approximately 2 weeks later, the PRs submitted a final draft of their narratives, which ranged in length from 18 to 21 double-spaced pages. Each narrative discussed the motives behind selecting a community, experiences that occurred during MAP, and final reflections.

Data Analysis

There is no one accepted method of data analysis in narrative inquiry (Abes & Jones, 2004; Josselson & Lieblich, 2003). For this study, a constant comparative method of data analysis was implemented. In the constant comparative method, data analysis is structured and systematic and proceeds through three phases: open, axial, and selective coding (Jones et al., 2006). This method of analysis was selected because it allowed large narratives to be synthesized into more manageable categories and themes--themes that can readily be compared between and within narratives. This method provides a defined trail of evidence to support conclusions.

Prior to beginning coding, the first author and the PRs read each narrative. All coding was conducted as a group. During the coding process, the first author facilitated discussion, provided guidance on the research process, and assisted in providing interpretations of the narratives. The two PRs whose narrative was not being analyzed interpreted each narrative and developed codes. The PR whose narrative was being analyzed did not participate in the interpretation of narratives and development codes. Rather, she provided clarification, when requested, and assessed the accuracy of interpretations, providing an in vivo form of member checking. During every level of the coding process, there were often disparate opinions about meanings of coded segments of narrative. In such instances, the PR whose narrative was being analyzed was consulted. If her insight did not resolve the disagreement, the group members discussed their opinions; these discussions sometimes required as long as 30 minutes to resolve. If consensus could not be reached, the group collectively decided to use the interpretation endorsed by the majority of the research team.

In the first step of the coding process, open coding, a line-byline reading of each of the narratives was conducted, which led to the identification of 425 codes across all three narratives. These coded segments ranged in length from a few words to an entire paragraph. In the second step, axial coding, we began by comparing the categories within each individual narrative and then between the three narratives. This process led to the consolidation of similar codes, the elimination of codes that were deemed unrelated to the phenomenon under investigation, and the creation of new codes. At the end of axial coding, a total of 45 codes remained. The process of open and axial coding occurred over 4 months. In the third step, selective coding, we identified the core criteria that captured the experience of each PR. This led to the further consolidation of codes and the elimination of codes that did not add to the understanding of the core criteria.


Trustworthiness is understood as the authenticity and consistency of interpretations based on constructivist research (Yeh & Inman, 2007). There are various methods to accomplish this, and in the current study a form of member checking and an external auditor were utilized. For member checking, a researcher presents findings to participants to ensure the accuracy of interpretations (Creswell, 2007). As noted earlier, the PR whose narrative was being analyzed provided an in vivo form of member checking. Additionally, when coding was completed, an outside researcher, employed by the university where this study took place and familiar with qualitative methods, was invited to examine all data and conclusions associated with this study. Although this outside researcher was able to provide alternative interpretations for various codes, she felt that the conclusions of the research team were supported by the data from this study.


The following selections from the PRs' narratives are provided to demonstrate how the PRs perceived their growth through MAP. To be consistent with the theoretical framework of multicultural counseling competencies and to remedy the limitations found in previous literature, we report the present findings in terms of awareness, knowledge, and skills. Presenting the growth of the PRs in terms of awareness, knowledge, and skills allows the reader to view how MAP may contribute to multicultural competence. Although the PRs were not providing counseling services through MAP, they were developing the core competencies that will enable them to become multiculturally competent counselors.


Awareness, defined as "the process of examining the content and validity of personal and societal attitudes, opinions, and assumptions about societal, racial, and cultural groups" (Helms & Richardson, 1997, p. 75), is an integral step toward becoming a multiculturally competent counselor (Lee, 2006). Although the PRs had some level of self-reported awareness prior to embarking on MAP, as demonstrated in their MAP proposals, they self-reported increased levels of self-awareness at the conclusion of the academic semester. For example, Jennifer, through her sustained contact with her chosen community, became cognizant of her own unprocessed feelings about people over the age of 65 and those in her life who had passed away. Elaine and Erica became more self-aware of their gender and how it influenced their interactions with their chosen communities. Elaine also became aware of the role of food in her life. Elaine's narrative best depicts the process of increased self-awareness and is presented in detail in this section.

Elaine chose to study the homeless population for her MAP to challenge some of her biases about this community. She stated, "I chose a population that not only I was uncomfortable with but that I also carried biases about." Before she volunteered at the homeless shelter, Elaine reflected on her anxieties about being a woman entering a male-dominated environment. It is interesting that she had never experienced concerns related to gender prior to her MAP experience. Elaine noted, "I was also quite concerned about my gender. I am a female entering the homeless community and I was going [there] with the knowledge that there would probably be more men than women.... It made me feel quite uncomfortable." When she began volunteering at the shelter, she found that she was the only woman volunteering and she recorded these feelings: "IS]imply walking through the halls makes me feel like I am being stared at and checked out. How am I supposed to help men who are looking at me in such a sexual manner?"

During her second visit to the shelter, Elaine began to feel more comfortable with the setting and working with the homeless men. This was due to the positive encounters with the homeless men to whom she served drinks. Elaine commented, "I enjoyed engaging with them and was joking with several of them ... some grabbed the drinks themselves and others were very polite and used please and thank you. The ones that smiled made me want to smile." Despite a couple of negative experiences, Elaine felt positive about this second visit: "I went around and helped clear trays and bus the room. I felt some of the men staring awkwardly at me and it made me feel uncomfortable, but most of [the men] were very pleasant. Overall, the experience was humbling." During this visit, Elaine also had an interesting realization about the focus of her attention: "It was also a little weird to be in this situation and be more concerned with myself and how I felt. How are they making me feel? How comfortable or uncomfortable am I?" A month later she realized that this internal focus inhibited her interactions with the men at the shelter.

Four weeks into the immersion experience, Elaine became aware of the role of food in her life and how she uses food for comfort.
   Today was not a pretty realization for me ... while helping prep
   some of the food for the evening, I felt sick to my stomach. Here I
   am volunteering with an organization that provides 200 people, 4
   times a day with a meal that is of lower quality than I would like
   to consume and I have the audacity to use food as a comfort for
   myself.... I am an emotional eater, and I ate too much just a few
   hours before.... When I left I realized that by doing this a couple
   hours a week I have to be aware of the choices that I am making in
   between those hours. I can't believe that I was so selfish, weak,
   and self-absorbed.

In her subsequent visit to the shelter, the issue of food was still prominent in Elaine's mind.
   Realization today: I am serving people food that I would not eat
   myself and that makes me feel guilty and confused ... waiting
   tables at a very corporate restaurant I would never want to serve
   soggy lettuce or cucumbers.... Why then am I OK with serving it to
   those less fortunate[?] ... All I know is that when I am asked to
   eat the food with the other volunteers, I am grateful to say that I
   have a dairy allergy ... as I hear the words come out I feel like a
   snob, a woman who has lived a privileged life.

The opportunity to work in food preparation at the shelter allowed Elaine to consider not only the role of food in her life but also the privileges she possesses with regard to socioeconomic status, specifically being able to be selective of the food that she eats.

As Elaine heard the stories the homeless men shared with her, the focus of her attention shifted from internal to external. The most impactful of these stories was shared with her 6 weeks into the immersion experience and came from a volunteer who was once homeless:
   I discovered a story that was unexpected and broke my heart.... He
   is 28. He lost his wife and 9-month-old child less than a year
   ago.... He says helping [the homeless] helps him not focus on the
   things he has lost, but the things that he has.... I felt that a
   connection had been made.... I was not concerned about my feelings
   ... I was just listening and allowing a person to share their
   painful story with me.... It made me WANT to return.

At the end of the semester, Elaine reflected on her experience and had the following realization:
   I went from feelings of fear and anxiety when I began the project
   to being angered and saddened by the injustices and stories that I
   found while there.... I became less concerned with my story and
   more enthralled with the stories of others.... I became more aware
   of my own insecurities about working with such a male-dominated
   population and how that made me feel. I became curious and lost the
   fear of the unknown.

Prior to beginning MAP, Elaine was not aware how her gender would contribute to her insecurities when working with an all-male, homeless population. Additionally, she had limited understanding of how she used food for comfort and of her socioeconomic privilege in relation to food choice. Through the process of becoming more selfaware, Elaine was able to move from being focused solely on herself to a place of greater awareness in which she was able to more fully experience the population with whom she was working.


Heppner (2006) stated that "learning about different cultural groups is essential to the development of broad knowledge bases about human behavior across cultures, which is in turn essential for effective counseling" (p. 159). Through the PRs' MAP proposals, it was evident that each PR possessed some knowledge of her chosen population, yet through the immersion process, each PR reported increased knowledge. We argue that it is essential for counselors-in-training to increase their knowledge about the communities they will serve, including the biases and discrimination that diverse populations experience.

Each PR learned about the lived experience of her chosen community through sustained interactions with the community. In particular, Jennifer gained insight into the discrimination experienced by her chosen community. Her story is the focus of this section.

Jennifer's reason for selecting her population differed from Erica and Elaine's, insomuch as she stated she was not interested in challenging her biases or learning about a new community: "I did not want to be challenged. I just wanted to get back to something that I felt like I had lost in my life--the storytelling of the elders." Jennifer chose a community for whom she had a profound respect and admiration dating back to her childhood when she was surrounded by caring older adults. Although it was not a goal, Jennifer was ultimately challenged, as she gained knowledge of the discrimination faced by people over the age of 65.

In the following, Jennifer discussed how her initial experiences at a local nursing home were unsatisfying:
   The first two times I volunteered, I did so as a person who helps
   the residents get to an entertainment time the facility holds ...
   there was not as much concentrated time with the residents.... I
   felt like I was just shuffling the people around from place to
   place like some lowly servant.... I wanted to interact with the
   residents in a more significant way.

During her last day volunteering as an escort in the nursing home, Jennifer had her first insight into the discrimination faced by people over the age of 65.
   I was helping a woman who was in a wheelchair get to the
   entertainment time. ... When we got to the place ... I said, "Thank
   you for letting me bring you down here today," and I started to
   walk away. She said, "Wait! Why did you thank me?" I told her,
   "Because I feel honored when people allow me to help them." And she
   looked me straight in the eye and said, "No one has ever said that
   to me before. I always feel like a burden when other people help
   me." At that moment, I felt a bit of sadness.... I wondered how she
   came to feel that she is a burden when other people help her and I
   wondered whether or not someone had been mean to her or told her
   that. I wondered how many other elderly people feel that way about

Through this experience, Jennifer gained insight into the lived experience of this older woman, particularly the feelings of being a burden. Although Jennifer did not directly witness an incident of discrimination, she did view what she felt was the by-product of discrimination.

A month into her immersion experience, Jennifer began to go on outings with the nursing home residents. On her first outing, Jennifer escorted a group to breakfast at a restaurant. During this outing, Jennifer witnessed the discrimination faced by people over the age of 65.
   At one point on the ride [to the restaurant], the young woman who
   works for the nursing home turned to me and whispered ... "I am
   going to sit with everyone until the food comes but then I am going
   to move to another table and eat by myself.... I can't stand to
   watch those people eat. It makes me sick."... I could not believe
   what I was hearing. This same young woman who had just finished
   telling me, not 10 minutes earlier, how much she loved her job ...
   was telling me that the people whom she allegedly cares for make
   her sick.

This was only one of the discriminatory incidences that Jennifer would witness on this outing. The next entailed the restaurant's employees. Jennifer recalled,
   The hostess led our group to the very back of the restaurant, to a
   separate, empty room. As we situated ourselves around the table, I
   noticed that there were other tables available in the main dining
   room of the restaurant that could have easily accommodated our
   group.... Was our group placed in the back on purpose? Were we
   being discriminated against because the residents are elderly or in
   wheelchairs? I tried to quiet these thoughts. I tried to appreciate
   how much easier it was to hear one another without all of the extra
   noise ... then I realized that I was also trying to ignore that the
   lights were off in the room where we were seated and that the
   server was ignoring us. I also tried not to take it personally that
   some of the orders were incorrect and that we were overcharged on
   the bill at the end of the meal. Does all of this add up to

It is unknown whether the group was actually being discriminated against; however, this experience provided Jennifer with a look into the phenomenological experience of her chosen community. This experience increased Jennifer's empathy and understanding of what this population experiences in society. Such an increase in knowledge base is crucial for the development of culturally competent counselors.


From the perspective of multicultural competence, skills encompass more than helping behaviors. Sue et al. (1992) defined skills in multicultural competence to include attuning oneself to the cultural reality of the client so that interventions are respectful and relevant. Thus, we argue that multicultural skill development entails understanding a cultural context and what behaviors and interventions are appropriate in a specific cultural context.

Through their narratives, all PRs self-reported increased multicultural skills. Elaine and Jennifer were initially uncomfortable and unsure of themselves when interacting with their communities; however, through repeated interactions with their chosen population, both became more confident in their abilities and interaction became more comfortable. For Erica, volunteering in a women's prison required her to learn new cultural norms and develop new skills. Given the uniqueness of this context, the story of Erica's skill development is examined in depth in this section.

Erica immersed herself with women who were incarcerated to challenge herself. She selected a community she was personally unfamiliar with, that faces various biases, and that is difficult to gain entry to work with. Through a mutual acquaintance, Erica was introduced to Tom (pseudonym), a veteran yoga and meditation instructor at a local women's prison. However, prior to volunteering, Erica was required by the department of corrections to attend an 8-hour training. During the training, it was clear to Erica that she was entering a new cultural context and that she would need to learn new skills to successfully navigate this context.
   Throughout the day the teacher told stories of various scams
   committed by inmates.... The stories providing evidence of why we
   were to distrust the inmates ... although of course I cannot ignore
   the fact that I am going into a prison and that people have
   committed crimes, sometimes violent crimes, I cannot help to ask
   how much of this is self-fulfilling prophecy.... It is a tricky
   process to combat my fear about inmate populations, but also not be
   naive or stupid about working with them.

The cultural distinctions of the prison became more evident to Erica as she toured the facility where she would later volunteer.
   Most of [the inmates] greeted us with polite "hellos."... At
   security level three however, women acted as if they wanted us to
   know we were in their territory. Some banged on the walls or
   skipped around wildly. Some just stared at us. ... My assumption is
   that since they are locked in cages, they feel powerless.... One of
   the women would not stop staring at me and it was clearly an act of
   aggression and dominance.... [I was] glad there was three feet of
   glass between us.

Erica made an assumption, because she was uncertain of the meaning of certain inmates' behaviors, due to a lack of understanding of the cultural context of the prison. As such, she relied on her personal knowledge and beliefs, attributing the women's behavior to be an act of dominance related to feelings of powerlessness. It is understandable that Erica felt frightened and uncomfortable, feelings which would manifest in her first two class sessions and in individual encounters with inmates.

Erica is an experienced yoga instructor and has led yoga and meditation groups for women in the past. However, the cultural context of a prison provoked some anxieties for her that made leading the class more challenging.
   The first class I taught, I joined [the instructor Tom].... The
   [female inmates] respect Tom a great deal.... They were of course
   very weary [sic] of me.... I taught for a half an hour on my own
   ... I was nervous ... I felt like a little kid, nervous, scared,
   wanting to impress.

Erica's anxieties were compounded during her second class session, the first class she taught on her own.
   Tom asked me to substitute for his class.... I was late because Tom
   asked me at the last minute.... Two students got up and left as
   soon as they saw that it was me teaching ... which is hard not to
   take personally.... I was totally uncomfortable in my own skin....
   Two women left in the middle of class saying it was too hard. And
   the other two women kinda chatted and talked the whole time.... I
   felt tired, defeated and sad.

Although Erica felt the second session went poorly, she had an opportunity at the conclusion of the session to interact individually with an inmate, Paula (pseudonym). Unfortunately, Erica's nerves and insecurities impeded her from maximizing on this opportunity.
   At the end of class, Paula, who has bulimia and is a cutter, was
   crying.... I knew she needed to talk ... [but] I didn't ask
   [her[what was wrong or offer any consolation. I guess I was just
   wrapped up in my own insecurities and wasn't really sure what my
   role was.

Erica's comfort level both in leading her class and in individual interactions improved by her third class session.
   I meditated for half an hour before I went [to the prison], and I
   cannot tell you what a difference it made. I felt so much more
   comfortable and excited about the class.... Felt much more grounded
   and capable. Felt like I knew what I was doing. I made a deal with
   the chatty girls, explaining that I knew that they valued their
   time together and that I would end class 15 minutes early and give
   them time to chat.... When the [class completed] the final
   meditation pose, I noticed they were a little light in their faces,
   a little more relaxed.... A few of the women thanked me.

Erica's comfort also extended to a second encounter with Paula: "Paula also opened up to me about her bulimia and said she was trying to fix it.... I tried to offer some words of empathy, saying something about how we all do different things with our pain." Although this brief encounter does not highlight a profound counseling intervention, it does demonstrate that Erica had grown in confidence by at least attempting to interact with Paula.

By her fourth class, Erica had grown in confidence so much that she decided to use more advanced skills during her yoga class.
   Getting more and more comfortable and used to the prison
   environment.... The women are opening up more to me and talking to
   me about their issues. [During class] I took the ladies into
   headstand today. Paula, the woman battling bulimia and a cutting
   habit, was soooo proud of herself.... She truly couldn't believe
   that she was standing on her head.

Through sustained interaction with her chosen community, Erica moved beyond her initial nervousness, which constrained her interactions with the inmates, and became more comfortable, which allowed her to more easily interact with the students in her class.

Multicultural skill development also entails the realization that the traditional understanding of counseling roles and ethics may not translate to diverse cultures and requires professionals to take a more culturally specific perspective on counseling roles and ethics and to rethink how they are used in the counseling process (Lee, 2006). For example, establishing appropriate boundaries is important in all counseling interactions. However, these boundaries may look different depending on the client's cultural context. In the following, Erica described her initial hesitation to set boundaries with one of her students at the end of her first yoga class:
   I thanked the women for sharing their practice with me and [one]
   woman blew me a kiss.... Normally I wouldn't think anything of it.
   But the paranoia that is instilled about prison politics was
   certainly there.... It felt like boundaries were being crossed....
   I hate that I have to be weary [sic] of this kind of thing. It
   borders on homophobia and fear, but I also have to set some very
   strong boundaries. I did not say anything to this woman however, I
   think feeling so intimidated and scared preventing me from saying
   anything, so I just gave her a small yoga bow and in some ways, I
   feel that is an appropriate response.

Erica was uncertain of the connotation of having a kiss blown to her in this new cultural context. In Erica's cultural context, being blown a kiss is an "innocent act of showing affection." Erica's internal dialogue reflected her struggle to understand the context of the prison, her personal context, and the ramifications that could follow if she had confronted the woman. In the end, Erica responded in a way more indicative of her cultural reality than that of the inmate.

As Erica grew in confidence and became more attentive to the prison's culture, she enacted more cohesive boundaries with the inmates. Erica described another occasion, prior to her third class, when her boundaries were tested.
   I got there a little early and all of these inmates were pouring
   out of the gym and lots of comments came pouring out with them.
   "Oooh she's cute" and "Damn--who's that?" One of my students said
   to one of the shouting inmates, "Oh--I know you ain't hitting on
   our yoga teacher." She then turned to me and said, "Don't worry,
   I'll protect you." It made me feel good to be defended, but I also
   know that prison politics might be an indirect form of domination
   over me by my so-called defender. So I said, "I appreciate it, but
   I think I should probably set my own boundaries."

In the last two instances, Erica moved from a passive stance of boundary setting to an active engagement stance. We believe that movement from passivity to action is often inherent to the process of learning to set boundaries in any setting, but particularly in a structured, controlled environment such as a prison. Through multiple encounters with the inmates, Erica synthesized her cultural perspective with that of the inmates'. Erica's personal progress in adapting her boundaries to a new cultural context highlights her self-reported skill development.

Discussion and Implications

The findings of this study present preliminary implications for the implementation of MAP in counselor education. This study highlights merits of MAP, such as increased multicultural competence through enhanced awareness, knowledge, and skills; the importance of multiple contacts during the immersion project; and the importance of significant interpersonal contact during the immersion project.

Consistent with the general conclusions of DeRicco and Sciarra (2005) and Ishii et al. (2009), the findings of the present evaluation provided insights into the self-reported gains in multicultural competence experienced by students engaged in cultural immersion. Ishii et al. (2009) found that students who engaged in cultural immersion experienced cognitive, affective, and empathic reactions. The PRs in the current study also experienced affective, empathic, and cognitive reactions during their MAP that were related to growth in multicultural awareness and knowledge. The PRs' affective and empathic reactions included Elaine feeling objectified by the homeless men, Jennifer's empathic reaction to the woman who considered herself a burden, and Erica's fear after touring her volunteer site. Elaine's affective and empathic reactions eventually led to growth in self-awareness; she became aware of her insecurities pertaining to working in a male-dominated context and how this limited her ability to engage with the homeless men. Cognitive reactions included Elaine's attempt to reconcile her standards of food and the inferior quality of food she served the homeless; Jennifer's attempt to understand if her group was being discriminated against during their restaurant outing; and Erica's attempt to reconcile how she would build rapport with the inmates while being vigilant for her safety. For Jennifer, in particular, these cognitive reactions were related to growth in the dimension of knowledge: Witnessing the poor service provided to the nursing home residents facilitated her learning about the lived experience of this cultural community.

According to DeRicco and Sciarra (2005), cultural immersion leads to developing skills in working with diverse communities. The PRs also self-reported increases in their ability to work with culturally diverse communities. The process of skill development was documented through Erica's yoga and meditation class, where she went from being unsure and self-conscious to feeling confident in her abilities; her individual interactions with Paula and her ability to demonstrate empathy toward Paula; and her ability to set culturally appropriate boundaries.

It is argued that effective immersion projects ensure frequent and significant interactions (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005; Pope-Davis et al., 1997). This point is supported by the findings of this analysis, particularly in the cases of Erica and Elaine, both of whom had negative encounters in their first visits to their volunteer sites. For Erica, it was the feeling of fear that came from an inmate's piercing stare. For Elaine, it was the feeling of being degraded and sexualized by homeless men. However, both Erica and Elaine became more comfortable and confident 2 to 3 weeks into the immersion, as is evident in Erica's positive reflection following her third class and Elaine's positive feelings following her second visit. In both cases, it is likely that a single encounter would have been counterproductive, reinforcing existing biases (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005; Pope-Davis et al., 1997). It was through continued interactions that the PRs were able to learn and grow.

DeRicco and Sciarra (2005) stated that interpersonal contact is an important component of cultural immersion experiences. In this analysis, interpersonal relationships also contributed to two of the PRs' reports of increased multicultural competence. Jennifer expressed frustration because of the lack of interpersonal contact in her first volunteer position; when she had more sustained interpersonal contact accompanying the nursing home residents on outings, she was able to gain insight into the lived experience of people over the age of 65. Elaine discussed how the stories shared with her by the homeless men, particularly the story of the 28-year-old volunteer, aided her in "humanizing" this community and helped her connect to it.


Throughout this study, we discussed recommendations for making MAP meaningful for participants. For example, the importance of frequent and meaningful interactions with diverse groups has been established (Pope-Davis et al., 1997). In light of this knowledge, it would be beneficial if MAP participants were required to spend a minimum of 10 hours over at least five volunteering interactions with their population. It may also be important to have additional ways for students to process and discuss their experiences during MAP. The PRs expressed gaining insight through the narrative analysis used for this study. Instructors may consider using process groups (PopeDavis et al., 1997) or narrative analysis of journals to help students reflect on their experiences. Having a process group led by students, without the course instructor, may also allow students to discuss their experiences and have peer validation, support, and challenge.


It should be noted that the findings of this analysis are based on graduate students who were not directly involved in counseling activities; thus, the skills they acquired may not transfer to counseling practice. The research methods used in this study also carry limitations. Because the researchers and participants were one and the same, biased interpretation and social desirability may have been present in the data and analyses. Furthermore, because the participants in this study were students of the first author, they may have been inclined to highlight the learning that occurred for them during their MAP experience when composing their narratives. Additional methods could have been used to improve the trustworthiness of this analysis, including inviting an outside reviewer to review data earlier in the coding process and examining the PRs' weekly journals to confirm interpretations and conclusions.

Future Research

Although the findings of this study provide initial insight into the potential merits of MAP in promoting multicultural competence in counseling students, additional research is warranted. Researchers may seek to understand the lived experience of students engaged in MAP in order to understand the growth of students during the project and so that counselor educators might modify MAP to better serve the needs of students and their chosen community. Future studies could examine the experience of students who may have limited exposure to diverse populations. There is also a need to understand the MAP experience from the perspective of students who are not a part of the dominant culture, which could provide a more complete understanding of MAP's efficacy. Additionally, further research could evaluate processing strategies associated with MAP, such as group discussions and journaling, to assess if these strategies would improve students' multicultural competence.


MAP represents a promising pedagogical tool in multicultural counselor education. It is a tool that bridges theory and practice by allowing students to experience firsthand the cultural communities they have read about. MAP challenges students to examine their values, beliefs, and assumptions about communities different from their own--through direct interaction with, and immersion in, these communities.

The findings of this evaluation also provide insight into how participating in MAP leads to increased awareness, knowledge, and skills. Furthermore, the way in which MAP is structured provides a framework for counseling students to learn about diverse communities that can be taken into their future practice.

Counselors in the United States work in an increasingly diverse society. It is time for counselor educators to take responsibility for the preparation of counseling professionals who can address the needs of an increasingly global community in a culturally respectful manner. Despite this study, there remains limited research on the efficacy of instructional methods that adequately prepare students to serve this global society. On the basis of our findings, we believe MAP represents an advancement in the preparation of multiculturally competent counselors. To this end, we encourage counselor educators to implement MAP.

Received 05/01/09

Revised 01/19/11

Accepted 06/15/11


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Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado. Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling, California State University, Long Beach; Jennifer M. Cook. Elaine M. Avrus, and Erica J. Bonham, Counseling Psychology and Counselor Education. University of Colorado Denver. Jennifer M. Cook is now at Counselor Education. Virginia Tech. Elaine M. Avrus is now at Learning Assistance Department. City College of San Francisco. Erica J. Bonham is now at Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network, Denver, Colorado. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling, California State University. Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, MS2201. Long Beach. CA 90840-2201 (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:Innovative Methods
Author:Hipolito-Delgado, Carlos P.; Cook, Jennifer M.; Avrus, Elaine M.; Bonham, Erica J.
Publication:Counselor Education and Supervision
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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