Nov 092011

Here is a very kind article written by Eric Jome that was written for “Identity,” which is Illinois State University’s online newsletter for diversity issues. The original article can be found here.

Dean of Students staff members receive cultural competence training

You can claim you have no pre-conceived notions about others, but that is simply not true. Somewhere, on some level, everyone has biases and prejudices. You may not always be conscious of them, but they certainly influence how you interact and communicate with others. It can be a sobering experience to realize this about yourself. It can also be a daunting, but ultimately liberating, experience to face those biases and move beyond them.

Facing up to personal bias and prejudice has been a cornerstone of cultural competence training programs for staff members in the Dean of Students Office. The ongoing training, organized by the unit’s 10-member Cultural Competence Committee, has helped A/P and Civil Service staff members and graduate assistants to confront and identify biases and find ways to move beyond them in order to better communicate with students and other campus constituencies. Associate Dean of Students Rick Olshak chairs the Cultural Competence Committee and feels that the overall mission of the Dean of Students Office has been greatly enhanced, and that staff members have benefitted from the training, both personally and professionally.

“A lot of us will say ‘I’m not prejudiced, I treat everyone equally,'” said Olshak. “The truth is we do have biases, and they cause us to treat some people differently. The ultimate purpose of the training is to move us beyond simply acknowledging and appreciating diversity and help us achieve a true level of understanding about others that allows us to be more open in our communications. The training sessions have been very empowering for staff members.”

Empowering and daunting. Olshak and other committee members began the training sessions in May 2010 by bringing in professional trainers to cover social justice issues. A staff retreat then took on the difficult topic of dealing with personal prejudices. That exercise was an eye-opening experience even for staff members who are used to dealing with issues of diversity in their daily work. “The issues became very real for people during those sessions, sometimes hitting a nerve,” said Olshak. “Staff members had to really examine questions like ‘what sets me off?’ and ‘how do I handle it?.’”

That self-examination process was not limited to staff members. All operations of the Dean of Students Office were examined using the cultural competency lens. Interactions with students and other campus constituencies were evaluated; the text, photos and overall message of the office’s printed communications and web content were examined; and the physical layout of offices was scrutinized. “We examined our whole environment with one question in mind, ‘Do people feel comfortable?'” said Olshak. He notes that the initial study and ongoing evaluation of communications and operations on all levels have greatly enhanced the already open and inclusive atmosphere in the Dean of Students Office.

Staff members continue their cultural competency training throughout the year with sessions that look at issues on both a personal and intellectual level. In addition to examining individual attitudes and ideas, sessions have focused on broader issues such as stereotypes and situations of dominance or submissiveness within a cultural setting.

Olshak credits Associate Dean of Students Rick Lewis for being an office role model and personal mentor throughout the cultural competency training process. “Rick has had a big influence throughout this whole process and has given me a lot of help coordinating these programs,” Olshak said. “His mentoring has helped me to think about my background a lot more, and how it influences my words and actions. With my professional background in mediation, I look for commonalities and ways to bridge differences. You can’t base your interactions with others on stereotypes. That’s just lacking in wits, and it’s dangerous.”

During the training sessions and discussions about cultural issues, Olshak has had time to reflect again on the deep prejudices held by members of his own family during his youth, and how growth experiences such as military service and college helped him to move beyond them. That personal experience helps him to put the whole process of cultural competency training into context.

“When you have a greater awareness of attitudes and prejudices. you start to examine your own thoughts, actions and words more carefully,” Olshak said. “That’s a learning process that never ends. Listening is the real key to that learning. You need to listen instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next.”