Becoming the Culturally Prepared Professional You Need to be: Preparing to Better Serve Your Students

Becoming a professional that is highly effective in the profession and specific role on campus is an ongoing challenge.  As many of us find responsibilities and tasks expanding in our professional roles, it is increasingly difficult to meet these needs while engaging in professional development activities.  An area often overlooked amongst the multitude of our professional responsibilities is developing one’s cultural preparedness or competency.  In an ever-evolving higher education environment that continues to see increased accountability measures, we as practitioners need to be sure we are prepared to engage the cultural challenges presenting on campus and in the surrounding communities.  This is ever apparent in the United States as the past year has seen headlines related to racial tension and sexual assault issues facing both campuses and the larger society.

While attending several professional conferences this past spring the issue of competence, preparedness, and how student affairs/services professionals best serve students from a cultural perspective was a consistent topic.  Developing a degree of cultural preparedness is not a universal or straightforward skill set, but is rather a collection of awareness, experiences, knowledge, open-mindedness, and adaptation.  I am reminded of this each year as I work with undergraduate and graduate interns in an overseas setting.  Becoming culturally competent is a never-ending lifelong process, and one that begins with having a realistic self-view, understanding of your personality, and an ability to interact with others within a social context.  Culture is understood, applied, and interpreted in a multitude of ways and can apply to a vast number of human attributes.  Culture is “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another” as defined by Dutch social psychologistGeert Hofstede, who did a pioneering study of cultures across modern nations.  The “category” mentioned can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or genders.

To illustrate the value of culture in higher education the Association of American Colleges & Universities, in an extensive project from 2007-2009, developed common core expectations to undergraduate learning within a basic framework of expectations.  This established a core set of values and means of assessment on campuses at various levels.  As a result, 16 value rubrics were created, including one on Intercultural Knowledge and Competence.  This rubric suggests a systematic way to measure how one identifies with their cultural influences, analyzes them with others, and adapts to new encounters.   It emphasizes the need of campus communities to meaningfully engage with others, consider historical and political contexts, and focus the impact of culture on learning.

As one academic year closes and you prepare for the next I challenge you to become a more culturally prepared professional.   The following sections offer some insights and items for consideration on how each of us, no matter our personal make-up and campus community, can work to become more culturally prepared professionals, allowing us to better serve our students and campuses.

As a note, the list below is a general list of key focus areas and potential opportunities.  Each person must develop an individual strategy based on ones personal make-up (self-awareness, knowledge, history, etc.), current campus and personal environment, perceived needs, and engagement opportunities.

Cultural Self-Awareness

Cultural experiences develop an individual’s preparedness and growth. Higher education is increasingly global, with an increase in the exchange of students and student affairs professionals domestically and internationally. Cultural experiences and exposure provide for both personal and professional growth, however, being aware and competent is increasingly becoming a necessary twenty-first century skill.  The key to cultural understanding and awareness begins first with an understanding and awareness of self.    We each have a keen sense of self-awareness, however this awareness may often not be fully explored.  Essential to this is the ability to accurately evaluate and see yourself as others see you.

Such self-exploration is not one size fits all and we each are unique persons, based on our knowledge and experiences.  Further, having a language fluency or knowledge is not enough.  To expand self-awareness engaging in interactions needs to take place in order to further allow for self-evaluation.

Possible Suggestions

  • Identify your heritage, personal attributes or identifiers, likes, dislikes, tastes, hobbies, etc.
  • Explore your cultural framework and determine experiences that you can undertake to expand your cross-cultural horizons.  Understand your present limits.
  • Change a pattern or routine and try something different or unfamiliar to expand beyond your current comfort zone (could be food, language, socialization, travel, etc.).
  • Practice exploring new topics related to diversity and culture by engaging in tactful and productive dialogues.
  • Converse with close friends and family on how others perceive you.
  • Consider completing an inventory or assessment on personality or self-perception to better understand how you see and interact with the world around you.

Understanding Local & Campus Culture

As with anything we must know where we are or where we came from in order to know where to go.  This is especially important in our professional roles on campus.  Every country of the world, state, in the union, city or town has a unique make-up comprised of numerous historical, social, economic and other influences.  Further, institutions of higher learning (as any company or corporation) have an institutional culture as well built on traditions, civic, and campus climates.   Each of these impact factors creates a context under which we work and our students learn, with our work still about serving students first and foremost. In order to embrace the cultural atmosphere seek to identify the major cultural features, the impacts on the campus and local communities, and how this information can support your efforts in better serving these communities.

Possible Suggestions

  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend major activities or festivals in the local community.
  • Identify the local heritage and key cultural groups and activities that define your community.
  • Identify the international and domestic diversity populations on your campus and locally.
  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend activities facilitated by the Office of International Student Services.
  • Identify the goals and objectives of your campus, and your division or department, towards internationalization, globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity.

Seeking Cultural Exchanges

The American Council on Education (ACE) in 2011 stated:

It is the obligation of colleges and universities to prepare people for a globalized world, including developing the ability to compete economically, to operate effectively in other cultures and settings, to use knowledge to improve their own lives and their communities, and to better comprehend the realities of the contemporary world so that they can better meet their responsibilities as citizens.

In preparing students for a globalized world ACE specifies the task of higher education institutions, and indirectly the professionals serving them, to promote personal and professional interests linked to knowledge and cultural preparedness.   Although study and work abroad opportunities are very rewarding, other opportunities exist that are less invasive.  Cultural exchanges exist in many forms and do not always require one to uproot and spend months or years in another part of the country or overseas.  These can be found on campus, in your local community, through entertainment, books, online, and many other mediums.

Once you are intentionally self-aware and have identified the cultural influences that impact your local environment, it is important to seek out opportunities for cultural exchange. Such exchanges can be formal and informal, part of your professional role or personal hobbies, and can be significant in time/commitment or single exchanges.  From campus international week activities, lecture series, and language dialogue programs, to off-campus cultural meals, foreign films, and ethnic festivals, a multitude of exchanges exist.  The important key is to intentionally and actively seek a meaningful exchange opportunity for you.

Possible Suggestions

  • Be sure to respect all the ways in which people differ, including personalities and preferences, for effective interactions and exchanges.
  • Get involved with the international community on your campus or locally, volunteer to help with the Office of International Student Services.
  • Network with colleagues who have studied or worked overseas.  Engage meaningful conversations with students or in student programs promoting culture or diversity.
  • Look into taking courses about different cultures, religions, international issues, or higher education courses that have a focus on international education or students.
  • Consider participating in service trips or personal travel to international locations or regions of interest.
  • Work, Intern or Study Abroad – requires serving/interacting with a unique local & institutional sub culture.

Gain Exposure to New Things

Understanding one’s self, the local/campus communities, and seeking cultural exchanges are each important steps in expanding cultural awareness and preparedness.  Another important aspect, inherent throughout, is the willingness to gain exposure to new things.  Be willing to go outside of your comfort zone; try different foods & customs, be immersed in an unfamiliar context, and challenge yourself to grow.  Don’t let your inhibitions and fears limit you. Exploring culture is a lifelong process, and one that no one individual can be masterful in all situations.  Embrace diversity, culture, and push yourself to grow through new experiences.

Several suggestions and ideas of how to gain exposure have already been stated in this piece. Below are further ideas for consideration.

Possible Suggestions

  • Enhance your awareness of diversity and culture. Each includes a wide spectrum of differences that may include innate characteristics, such as age, race, gender, ethnicity, mental and physical abilities, or other orientations.  Additionally, acquired characteristics such as education, income, religion, work experience, language skills, geographic location, or family status present some additional differences.
  • Seek culinary experiences at a restaurant that maintains the culture and cuisine of the nation it represents. Look for a restaurant with direct links to the represented country, or is using authentic recipes.
  • View films and listen to music from other countries or regions.
  • Join online communities, professional organizations, or other web-based resources to connect with people from different nations or cultures.
  • Consider a mentoring or exchange program with someone from a different background.
  • Visit a history or cultural museum nearby or when traveling elsewhere to understand the ethnicities of the people who settled in the locale.
  • Travel to a community outside your own to learn about their culture and history,

backgrounds, religious and cultural practices, languages, cuisine, etc.


Students represent even more diverse populations and are influenced by multinational and multi-cultural factors.  As student affairs/services professionals we need to prepare ourselves to embrace students at both an interpersonal and intercultural level.  Self-awareness is paramount to embracing cultural understanding and must begin with reflection, knowledge, and open-mindedness. Student bodies are expanding and more representative of the global population, bringing multiculturalism and diversity issues in unique ways to our classrooms, residence halls, and campus engagement efforts.  Exploring culture allows each of us to develop as competent professionals and individuals.  The process enables each of us to review our attitude, skills, and knowledge leading to more effective and appropriate behaviors and communications.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does your division, department, or office do to develop in team members’ cultural awareness and exposure?  What efforts do you do?
  2. What are key cultural factors and influences that impact your campus?
  3. Are you aware of resources and activities to expand ones cultural knowledge and exposure on campus?  In the local community?
  4. How do you actively expand your cultural awareness, exposure, and competency both professionally and personally?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs.

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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