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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3


Proactive Learning for Cultural Competence

Melanie M. Domenech Rodríguez, PhD,
Psi Chi President

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

"Teach Me!” Presumably these are words that every educator would want to hear. Yet I heard them in the context of one of my diversity courses, and delivered as a desperate plea for aid from a very frustrated student. My heart broke for the White student who wanted to learn about effective multicultural exchanges and was missing the mark. My heart broke for the students of color who were exhausted from explaining their perspective and realizing time and time again that their experiences with prejudice and racism were out of reach to colleagues who had not experienced them. As an educator, I too left frustrated and wondered: What are the best ways to prepare students to learn about these difficult, personal topics? How can they best learn about one another?

The benefits of diversity are touted across contexts. But findings have also shown that greater diversity can lead to greater conflict. As an educator, I live in the space between those two realities with the sometimes exciting and sometimes unenviable responsibility of creating safe learning spaces. Thankfully, I have a learned a thing or two over two decades as an academic and can make your journey a little shorter than mine.

In my Fall Eye column, I encouraged you all to “Challenge Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone” (Domenech Rodríguez, 2018). In addition to increasing your exposure to groups, I encouraged you to examine your own identities, broadly speaking. To the degree that you are aware of your own multiple identities, you can more skillfully recognize those of others. The more complexly we understand others, the less likely we are to fall prey to social group categorization biases (Fiske, 2018). In this article, I focus more heavily on the activities you choose to attend. Exposure to diversity takes preparation in advance, participation in the moment, and reflection afterward.

Choose What to Do

Allport’s (1954) classic Contact Hypothesis called for four conditions to be met for optimal benefits from contact across diverse people: (a) equal status between the groups in the situation; (b) common goals; (c) intergroup cooperation; and (d) the support of authorities, law, or custom. However, later meta-analytic findings (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006) showed that contact alone is a critical ingredient to prejudice reduction. Although interventions that met Allport’s optimal conditions had stronger effects, contact alone had positive outcomes. Interestingly, more recent meta-analytic findings present evidence for the Extended Contact Hypothesis, which posits that prejudice is reduced by the mere knowledge of ingroup friends having friendships with out-group members (Zhou, Page-Gould, Aron, Moyer, & Hewstone, 2018). The good news about greater contact with people across diverse groups is that there is much more opportunity for gain. The bad news is that there is much more opportunity for loss. How can we possibly know how to respond in all novel situations? I recently witnessed a simple but poignant example as one able-bodied person opened a door for another person who was in a wheelchair. I watched as the person intending to do a good deed, stood in between the person seeking passage and the doorway itself. A distance that would have been appropriate for a person on foot was woefully narrow for another person in a wheelchair. The technique for opening the door needed to shift, but how do able bodied people learn that? I learned it vicariously, by watching my friend fumble. Later as I was looking further into the matter, I found this humorous and informative video: And while you can’t be ready to face every single situation, you can certainly prepare for those that you actively seek to experience.


As a teacher of diversity-focused courses, and based on Allport’s work, I require my students to engage in multiple intercultural exchanges over the course of the semester. One of my frequent observations is that students arrive at situations with vastly different preparation, and how they prepare significantly impacts the quality and depth of their experiences.

The most successful students get some information in advance about the group and/or event they are attending. Readings, of course, can be academic and complex. Psi Chi Journal has some excellent empirical articles including an examination of biculturalism and personality (Hussain, 2018) and how racism affects funding allocations (Bernard, McManus, & Saucier, 2016). Readings can also be simple and accessible. The Eye on Psi Chi has terrific articles on diversity topics (for a full list:

I want to highlight three resources here. In a recent New York Times opinion editorial, Georgina Kleege (2018) educates us that she is “not only an experienced traveler” but also “an experienced blind person.” Kleege provides some amazing insights into her experience of how others perceive her and her blindness, in less than 1,200 words! The web offers terrific interactive spaces that require as little as 1 minute of attention. For example, the Natives Lands map ( is a great resource. Perhaps before attending a cultural event related to American Indian peoples, you can find out who were the original caretakers of the land you are standing on and mindfully engage that event with a historical mindset. Perhaps you prefer podcasts or TED Talks. I’m a big fan of both. There’s a wonderful TED Talk by ShaoLan Hsueh (2016) that explains the Chinese zodiac. Students interested in learning about Chinese culture and customs, could gain some interesting knowledge in about 6 minutes ( We are also currently scheduling our first live webinar on Difficult Dialogues which would provide both a great presentation and an opportunity to ask the experts your questions.

Students who have successful intercultural exchanges also prepare by way of consultation. In some contexts, you may be invited to participate in a cultural event that is more private in nature. I have been impressed with students who have asked in advance of the event about the expectations of their behavior during the event. Invariably they receive excellent feedback about whether or not it is OK to participate (rather than observe), take pictures, write about the experience, etc. These consultations are helpful not only for successful intercultural exchanges, but for life in general. I am reminded of visiting a good friend at the hospital when she went unexpectedly into labor. It all went by so fast that there was no chance for me to leave and respect her and her family’s privacy. These skills came in handy then too! (e.g., Would you like me to take pictures? Where would you like me to stand? Is it OK to share with others that I am here?). Developing thoughtful habits about how we engage in intercultural exchanges improves our interpersonal interactions in general.


When you are making choices about what intercultural or multicultural exchanges to engage in, my advice is that you try to hit as many of Allport’s recommendations as possible. For example, you’ll have much more opportunity for a meaningful exchange at a potluck dinner hosted by an international student club than by attending a lecture series. You will have many more exchanges volunteering for Special Olympics than you will by collecting cans for a food drive. All of these activities present rich and wonderful opportunities for learning, but some have greater opportunities for meaningful interpersonal exchange to occur than others.

On my campus, the annual Luau invariably includes dancers from all around the world! My students are often surprised that they can engage in intercultural events at these very active levels. The more active the event, the more likely it is that the experience will be transformative. Regardless of your choice of events, consider their level of intensity and take a moment to understand what your choice says about you. For example, some students tell me they are very anxious about making a fool of themselves and prefer more passive events for their lesser likelihood of interaction. Others ward off their anxiety by attending an event with a friend. Although this may create comfort in a more passive setting, it may also lower the likelihood of meaningful interpersonal exchange with others at the event.

Here are some specific skills to practice while you are attending an event:

ASK QUESTIONS instead of making statements or declaring your conclusions. A key cultural competence skill is “scientific mindedness” (Sue, 1998). Scientific mindedness is a term that points to the skill of being able to ask questions rather than make statements that reflect incorrect or premature conclusions.

LISTEN rather than speak. In a recent talk, Jeanne Tsai reminded her audience that, in the United States, people are encouraged to speak as they are learning new material. Participation is often rewarded with points or positive attention. This is not so in other countries. Indeed, when people are speaking, they are focused on producing content rather than taking it in. When people are speaking, they are also taking the time and attention of others away from the event. Be considerate in your participation!

When in doubt, ASK FOR GUIDANCE OR PERMISSION. If it is not clear how you should behave or interact in a particular context, ask! I personally prefer to appear odd for asking the question than to be experienced as rude for taking inappropriate action.

ASSUME A LEARNER’S DOUBTING STANCE. Even if you think you understand or know what you are seeing and experiencing, consider the possibility that you are not. If you want to see an example of this just Google “culture and spitting” and watch the minutes disappear in a flash.

BE A FOLLOWER rather than a leader. Typically, leadership is given to someone with skills in motivating and mobilizing others and also with important knowledge about a topic or group. If you don’t have the experience or the knowledge, sit back and relax!

Practice your ability to SIT WITH DISCOMFORT. Unfamiliarity breed discomfort. None of us can be in a new environment for learning and assume that it will be completely comfortable. For many of us, discomfort is a hallmark of new experiences. Remember the first time you sat behind the wheel to learn to drive? It can be scary, exciting, and quite uncomfortable (especially for urbanites), but absolutely worth it.

Practice your ability to TOLERATE AMBIGUITY. Ambiguity is one source of discomfort that may be particularly hard to tolerate. It is OK to not rush to questions or clarifications when you are not clear on what is happening. Sometimes events take time to unfold, and like a good thriller, waiting for the unfolding to occur can be quite rewarding.


Reflection is an important tool in developing insight. There are literatures in education, medicine, and other fields that support the use of self-reflection as an important component of learning.

Once you have participated in your intercultural experience, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. What went well? And what did I do to contribute to the aspects that went well?
  2. What would I do differently next time?
  3. What did I learn about myself that I didn’t already know?
  4. What was my experience of assuming a learner stance?

I invite you think in a nuanced manner; even the most terrible experiences typically have some positive aspect and even the most glorious experiences have something in them that could be improved.

As part of reflection, new questions might come up. Or perhaps unanswered questions linger. Consider reading or consulting on these issues after an event. One of my students recently had this experience when she attended a Drag Show. While there, she was surprised to learn that Drag Queens were in the company of Drag Kings! She reflected on this new learning (i.e., Drag Kings exist) in her assignment and also shared an article she found afterward to learn more about Drag Kings. Some of you may be motivated to attend similar events to deepen your learning. In that case, written self-reflections may be helpful in tracking your experiences, insights, and learning over time.

Go ahead and embrace diversity! Experiencing others’ diversity will also help you see and appreciate your own. I encourage each of you to pursue with vigor experiences that will place you in contexts where people have different beliefs, values, and practices than your own. Whether the differences are large or small, you are bound to learn something important about yourself, about others, and about human behavior.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bernard, D. L., McManus, J. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2014). Blacks in the red: Racial discrimination in funding allocations. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 19, 28–36.

Domenech Rodríguez, M. M. (2018, Fall). Challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. Eye on Psi Chi, 23(4), 4–5.

Fiske, S. T. (2018). Prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds.), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from

Hsueh, S. (2016). The Chinese zodiac, explained. Retrieved from

Hussain, S. F. (2018). Examining relations between bicultural efficacy, the big five personality traits, and psychological well-being in bicultural college students. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 23, 16–27.

Kleege, G. (2018, December 19). Flying while blind. New York Times. Retrieved from

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.

Sue, S. (1998). In search of cultural competence in psychotherapy and counseling actions. American Psychologist, 53, 440–448.

Zhou, S., Page-Gould, E., Aron, A., Moyer, A., & Hewstone, M. (2018). The extended contact hypothesis: A metaanalysis on 20 years of research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 108886831876264.

Melanie M. Domenech Rodríguez, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Utah State University. She has an active program of research on evidence-based parenting interventions with particular focus on cultural adaptation and implementation of Parent Management Training–Oregon model with Latinx families. She is a researcher and a licensed clinician. Dr. Domenech Rodríguez is also a passionate mentor. She has chaired 9 honors theses, 12 master’s theses, and 15 dissertations since 2005. She has supported 15 undergraduate students in obtaining $17,679 in grants including Psi Chi’s Undergraduate Research and Thelma Hunt Research Grants.

Dr. Domenech Rodríguez has a long-term commitment to advancing the mission of Psi Chi. She served as advisor to the USU chapter of Psi Chi (2002–15). During that time the USU chapter invariable achieved Model Chapter status and received the 2012 Regional Chapter award. Dr. Domenech Rodríguez served Psi Chi as Rocky Mountain Regional Vice-President (2005–09), Diversity Director (2011–2012), and Editor of the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research (2011–16). During her editorship, the journal experienced important growth including: consistent on-time publication, increases in articles received and published, tracking impact of articles, and moving to open access format. The journal editorship has been one of the most treasured professional activities of her career.

Dr. Domenech Rodríguez was born and raised in Puerto Rico; she is bilingual and bicultural. These personal characteristics that have profoundly shaped her scholarship, her collaborative style of mentorship, her servant leader approach, and her passion for culture and context in psychology.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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