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Multicultural Awareness Issues for Academic Advisors (2nd Edition)   
Authored By: Leigh Cunningham

NOTE: The first edition of this article was published simultaneously in the February 2004 edition of Academic Advising Today and the Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.

Multicultural awareness is an essential helping skill; as humans, cultural identity “is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves” (DuPraw & Axner, 1997). Lack of understanding about what constitutes cultural identity, and how people are affected by the various aspects of their worldview, can be a source of conflict and a hindrance in the development of productive relationships. To academic advisors specifically, Dreasher (2014) warns, “If we do not notice, learn about, and respond appropriately to the diversity in our institutions, misunderstandings are likely to occur. This, in turn, will greatly compromise the effectiveness of our relationships with the students we advise” (p. 27).

DuPraw and Axner (1997) contend that as advisors “oftentimes we aren't aware that culture is acting upon us. Sometimes we are not even aware that we have cultural values or assumptions that are different from others!” Paul Pedersen’s (2002) model of cultural competency development has found wide acceptance in the fields of counseling, medicine, and education and is a critical piece of foundational knowledge for academic advisors seeking to expand their skills in this area (Ali & Wilcox, 2016). Pedersen warns that since “all behaviors are learned and displayed in a particular cultural context,” educators of all types, no matter how skilled, may find that approaching a conversation with culturally incorrect assumptions can result in inaccurate assessment of the situation, which may then lead to inappropriate advice being given. Pedersen’s model offers a framework for development of the three competency areas of awareness, knowledge, and skills, to which some educators now add an attitude component (

Guiding Principles
There are two guiding principles that advisors must keep in mind during the process of developing cultural competency awareness, knowledge, and skills: (1) cultural identity is made up of a myriad of aspects, and (2) while there is much that can be learned from generalizations about cultures, care must be taken to avoid applying stereotypes or over-simplification of these ideas. It is crucial that advisors preface any discussion of diversity issues with firm declarations that all people have cultural identity and that all forms of diversity are valued, whether they be majority or minority.

Understanding Intersectionality
The term intersectionality was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) in a work that argued that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and being a woman independently, but rather, understanding must include the places where the two characteristics intersect. Additional contributions to the conversation have resulted in the expansion of intersectionality theory, which today explains that no person has only one identity category; all people exist at the intersection of multiple identities (Adewunmi, 2014; Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1993).

While understanding of intersectionality may have originated in a discussion regarding race and gender, educators now recognize that these are only two of the many identity elements that contribute to worldview development. Some others are ethnicity, socioeconomic status, level of acculturation to majority norms, geographic region of origin, level of mobility (both physical and geographic), sexual orientation, educational achievement, speech patterns, family structure, religious beliefs, age cohort, health status, varieties of challenges and ableness, and various types of life experience (Adewunmi, 2014; Emba, 2015; Kottak & Kozaitis, 2008). 

To be culturally competent, advisors must “be aware of the cultural complexity of their own cultural identities” (Pedersen, 2002) as well as the identities of their students. This skill development requires an honest assessment of one’s own current level of self-awareness.

Avoiding Stereotypes
Many examples can be found of presentations and publications in which presenters/authors discuss the “characteristics” which may be considered representative of umbrella-labeled groups. While no doubt the intention is to increase sensitivity and ability to communicate, in some cases the outcome is instead delineation of new sets of stereotypical expectations—or reinforcement of old ones—that inappropriately colors expectations and may decrease clarity in communication. As noted by Kottak and Kozaitis (2008), “labels can conceal considerable diversity” (p. 237).

In the area of race/ethnicity, for example, the most common umbrella-terms used in the United States are African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Native American, and Hispanic/Latino, with specific characteristics associated to the worldview of each group. However, recognized racial/ethnic groups are rarely—if ever—homogenous, and in-group distinctiveness may be as prominent as differences between groups. As noted by Brown and Rivas (1995), “all ethnic groups within [the United States] are an aggregation of many distinct subgroups.” Americans from every currently recognized racial/ethnic group “represent a majestic array of diversity” that should not “be described in generic terms” (Priest & McPhee, 2000, p. 106).

Other labels of this kind are also frequently used, such as in discussions of the common characteristics of members of American generational cohorts, known by terms such as the “Silent Generation,” the “Baby-Boomers,” the “Gen-Xers,” and the “Millennials” or “Generation Me” (Twenge, 2014). These sorts of categorical expectations can result in the viewing of behavior through these preconceived filters.

Focus on Meaning
Rather than focusing on characteristics of specific populations, a more effective approach is to look beyond specific behaviors in order to discover intent, because similar behaviors can serve dissimilar functions (and different behaviors serve similar ones) in different settings. In some contexts, for instance, respect is shown through the maintenance of eye contact, while in others direct eye contact is viewed as a signal of disrespect, challenge, or sexual invitation. In some cultural contexts, eating all of the food on one's plate is viewed as a compliment to the preparer (and, conversely, not doing so may be perceived as a great insult), while in others it is viewed as poor manners and an indication of a low-class status. Rather than focusing on the particular culture involved, or even on the level of eye contact or the amount of food eaten, it may be most effective to seek to understand what communication (if any) is intended by these behaviors. (Perhaps a guest has an upset stomach and is afraid of becoming ill if he or she eats any more; thus, how much the individual eats has nothing to do with either appreciation or manners!)

Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills
As noted by Dreasher (2014), “cultural competence development is a lifelong, gradual process of learning to be aware of, understanding, and acquiring the necessary skills to work across differences” (p. 27). Pedersen (2002) describes the development of multicultural competence as “a three-stage developmental sequence that begins with awareness of learned assumptions and moves through comprehension of culture toward the practice of active skills.” 

Educators on the journey to multicultural competence must understand that all cultural behavior is learned and that all people have the natural tendency to judge the behavior of others in accordance with their own experiences. While it may be natural to believe otherwise, all humans are ethnocentric, at least to some degree. This is not necessarily always a bad thing, since a certain amount of love for one's own culture is necessary to hold societies together; however, anything that is positive (functional) at a certain level can become negative (dysfunctional) when taken too far, as frequently happens. Professionally developing educators can, however, train themselves not to judge one culture by the standards of another, and with vigilance, learn to maintain (at least for the most part) a stance of cultural relativism.

Becoming a culturally competent advisor must involve understanding the many ways that cultural perspectives can differ. For example, advisors should be aware of continuums of time orientation (circular-'loose'/linear-'rigid'), space/tempo (synchronicity-harmony/independence-individuality), type of reasoning that is valued (intuitive-comprehensive/linear-analytical), type of verbal messages used (formal-verbal/informal-non-verbal), societal role expectations (flexible/non-flexible), and interpersonal relationships (collectivist/individualistic). A culturally competent advisor needs to be able to identify where personal experiences have placed him or her on each of these continuums and how that placement might influence reactions to people who are at different points

These are the skills and strategies that best serve all types of educators for working with students from any background. Advisors must begin by understanding that behaviors and verbalizations can have a variety of meanings and intentions, depending upon context, and must seek knowledge of what the possibilities may be. Becoming culturally competent involves the willingness for introspection and reflection on an advisor’s own cultural identity, seeking to understand his or her personal worldview. As noted by Cornett-DeVito and Reeves (1999), “advisors cannot merely increase awareness and knowledge about those from other cultures. They must also recognize themselves as cultural creatures and realize that they must first know themselves to appreciate the cultural lenses through which they interpret others” (p. 39).

Culturally competent advisors are willing to admit that they have biases and stereotypes, and they seek understanding of what these are and where they come from. They have the desire to be continually working to look beyond their worldview and the dedication to gaining the knowledge and developing the skills that will aid them in doing so. Culturally competent advisors recognize that while it will not ever be possible to completely erase the effects of enculturation and experiences—and that it is unlikely, and perhaps even undesirable, to ever come to equally value or appreciate every possible means of cultural expression—they can come to the place where, for the most part, they seek to comprehend before they judge, offer thoughtful, responsive understanding, and show respect more often than demonstrate reactive judgment.

NACADA offers a multitude of resources which can assist advisors on the journey to cultural competence. Among these are the 2014 Pocket Guide, Cultural Competence in Academic Advising: Skills for Working Effectively Across Cultures and the recording of the webinar that grew out of it, Developing Intercultural Communication Skills for Academic Advising.

Leigh Cunningham
Assistant Director for Strategic Initiatives
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising
Kansas State University


Brown, T., & Rivas, M. (1995). Pluralistic advising: Facilitating the development and achievement of first-year students of color. In M. L. Upcraft & G. L. Kramer (Eds.), First-year academic advising: Patterns in the present, pathways to the future (pp. 121-137). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Adewunmi, B. (2014, April 2). Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use.” NewStatesman. Retrieved from

Ali, M. & Wilcox, E. (2016, January 16). NACADA Professional Development Committee meeting [Digital recording]. NACADA Archives, Manhattan, KS.

Brown, T., & Rivas, M. (1995). Pluralistic advising: Facilitating the development and achievement of first-year students of color. In M. L. Upcraft & G. L. Kramer (Eds.), First-year academic advising: Patterns in the present, pathways to the future (pp. 121-137). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Cornett-DeVito, M. M. & Reeves, K. J. (1999, Spring). Preparing students for success in a multicultural world: Faculty advisement and intercultural communication. NACADA Journal, 19(1), (pp.35-44).

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. Retrieved from

Crenshaw, K. (1993). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(124).  Retrieved from

Collins, P. H. (2000, March). Gender, black feminism, and black political economy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science568(1), 41–53.

Cunningham, L. (2004, February). Multicultural awareness issues for academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 27(1). Retrieved from

Dreasher, L. M. (2014). Cultural competence in academic advising: Skills for working effectively across cultures. Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association. Retrieved from (2015, August). What is cultural competence and how is it measured? Diversity Officer Magazine Newsletter. Retrieved from

DuPraw, M. E. & Axner, M. (1997). Toward a more perfect union in an age of diversity: Working on common cross-cultural communication challenges. Retrieved from

Emba, C. (2015, September 21). Intersectionality. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Kottak, C. P., & Kozaitis, K. A. (2008). On being different: Diversity and multiculturalism in the North American mainstream. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

McKeiver, K., Dreasher, L., Halden, Y.  (2013). Developing intercultural communication skills for academic advising. NACADA Webinar recording.  Available at

Pedersen, P. B. (2002). The making of a culturally competent counselor. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 10, Chapter 2), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.  Retrieved from

Priest, R. & McPhee, S. A. (2000). Advising multicultural diversity: The reality of diversity. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley and Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 105-117 ). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Twenge, J. (2014). Generation me. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Upcraft, M. L. & Stephens, P. S. (2000). Academic advising and today's changing students. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley and Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 73-83). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Cunningham, L. (2016). Multicultural awareness issues for academic advisors, 2nd edition. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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