Populations Students Early Career Families Educators View My Account
Skip Navigation LinksNASP Home Publications Communiqué Volume 42, Issue 3 Student Connections

Student Connections

Becoming Culturally Competent at a Historically Black University

By Therese Clarke

Diversity is America's greatest strength, and this strength is increasingly represented in our nation's schools. Out of the 54 million students currently enrolled in America's schools, 44% may be classified as racial/ethnic minorities, 20% are linguistic minorities, and 16% are considered economically disadvantaged (Planty et al., 2009). This level of diversity necessitates a greater awareness and cultural responsiveness in order to effectively promote the academic, social, and emotional success of all children. Therefore, school psychologists must be equipped with a practical understanding of multiculturalism. More often than not, however, graduate trainees and practitioners are taught about cultural diversity in an isolated course (or two) or in supplemental workshops. However, the complex collection of knowledge and skills encompassing cultural competence is likely best transmitted in the same manner in which it is to be practiced—across every aspect of training. Accordingly, cultural competence cannot be achieved solely academically; a practical component is necessary for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of ethnic diversity and culturally responsive service. Such training is the hallmark of Howard University and many other historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) around the country.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

As a doctoral student at Howard University, one of the nation's most distinguished HBCUs, I frequently marvel at the display of cultural awareness on campus grounds. This consciousness was cultivated long before my enrollment. In 1867, Howard's founders set out to educate freed slaves in a post-Civil war era. Howard University has educated scholars such as Dr. Kenneth Clark, psychologist and lead researcher on the famous Clark doll studies; the Honorable Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice; Toni Morrison, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novelist; and award winning actress Phylicia Rashad. Today, HBCUs continue to a carry a big responsibility. In total, there are 105 HBCUs (3% of the nation's higher learning institutions), but HBCUs still award one third of all bachelor degrees and a significant number of advanced degrees to the Black community (Burgess, 2013). Moreover, Howard University graduates more Black doctoral candidates than any other university in the world. Beyond the accomplished alumni, HBCUs like Howard pride themselves on providing a perspective on their students' chosen fields that includes the historical contributions of, and implications for, diverse populations.

Howard University's Cultivation of Culturally Competent Practitioners

While researching Howard University's school psychology program, I was intrigued by its program initiative to produce culturally competent school psychology scientist–practitioners who are able to respond to the needs of a diverse society. However, I would soon discover an added benefit of attending the only doctoral school psychology program at an HBCU. Led by professors and joined by peer colleagues who share similar life experiences, Howard creates a warm sense of community that bolsters my confidence and diminishes my fear of inadequacy—a fear of inadequacy that stems from my previous encounters with professors whose beliefs reflected “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Although we have made significant strides as a country, subtleties remain that can lead to uncomfortable environments. When a group of people are placed into a narrow, unforgiving box there is no room for growth; it's a sure way to stifle an otherwise promising student's motivation. As noted in an article by Goode (2011), and experienced personally, HBCUs provide culturally affirming, psychologically supportive environments. Similarly, school psychologists are responsible for contributing to positive school environments where all students succeed. School psychologists should be working to establish settings where all students feel welcomed, engaged in learning, and fully included in activities, curricula, and services (Klotz, 2006).

Howard's approach to diversity serves as an example of how the culture of a school can be constructed in order for students to experience the benefits of a culturally competent environment. Howard University has taught me to, first, provide a fair opportunity to all. Second, I learned to avoid making hasty assumptions. By training my mind to be more open, the practice of reserving judgment has become less difficult. Third, it is crucial to set high standards. We should not lower academic or social expectations simply because a student may have circumstances uncommon to the majority of the population. Last, practitioners should remain open and accessible to the needs of a diverse population. When a student feels that practitioners have their best interest at heart, many will experience a boost in motivation, self-esteem, and confidence. Creating oneness and a sense of community prevents multicultural students from feeling isolated and marginalized. Howard University has reinforced all of these ideals; therefore, I can truly say that I will carry my graduate experience with me, and I will be a better school psychologist because of it.

Understanding Cultural Responsiveness

Practitioners must accept the fundamental idea that cultural competence cannot be achieved by assessing situations according to one's own world view. A child's cultural experiences and knowledge are directly linked to the ways in which the child navigates his or her educational experiences. If a student has quality resources and his or her culture is valued and used to facilitate the learning experience, the student can succeed in academic endeavors (Sullivan & A'Vant, 2009). There are a few key ideas when it comes to this school of thought.

First, it is important to recognize and be open to understanding the differences (and commonalities) between and within races and ethnicities. I often come across textbooks that try to explain what is culturally acceptable in Asian, Black, and Latino homes. While these authors may have the best intentions, it can be counterproductive to assume that, for example, all Black families have the same (or similar) cultural backgrounds, experiences, and values. Without the proper cultural knowledge, and the understanding of how to apply this cultural knowledge, it becomes very easy to practice in culturally incompetent ways.

Learning Multiculturalism Through Practice

A sure and effective way to gain meaningful knowledge about other cultures is through immersion experiences. When we immerse ourselves in someone else's culture, we are forced to step outside of our comfort zone. One way to do this is through a study abroad program. Studying abroad will allow you to get a firsthand experience of another culture. Culture goes beyond language, customs, and food; culture is instrumental in developing intricate perceptions and values, which mold people into who they are and how they navigate the world. Additionally, I would encourage my colleagues to request a practicum experience in a diverse district. This affords the opportunity to learn about interpersonal skills and interactions with a diverse population. Finally, an uncommon, but interesting option would be to volunteer in an unlikely setting such as a Jewish temple or a Spanish festival (Vaughan, 2005). These types of experiences tend to dispel misconceptions while increasing the comfort level of the individual.


The need for diversity within the field is just as pertinent as the need for culturally competent practitioners. Howard University has always strived to provide an education to minorities in order to promote and serve the marginalized; this is still evident today in my program's mission to train a diverse population of culturally informed practitioners. However, there is a lot of room for improvement. Within the field of school psychology, 9 out of 10 practitioners identify as Caucasian, while in contrast more than 98% serve culturally and linguistically diverse students (Curtis, Castillo, & Gelley, 2010). This can cause a disconnect between practitioners and the population served. Children of color benefit from seeing people who look like them in professional settings, just as I have benefitted from seeing professors who look like me at Howard University. Having mentors who share similar life experiences reassures me that my goals are attainable.

The field must continue to move toward a true understanding of cultural competence in order to better serve our evolving population. Additionally, graduate programs must pledge to explore innovative ways to promote the field to a diverse set of candidates. Associations such as NASP have been pioneers in the effort to recruit and retain culturally and linguistically diverse students into the profession and to raise the bar on culturally competent practice. NASP's Practice Model explicitly advocates for knowledge of the individual differences in cultures, roles, and abilities. NASP also provides a significant body of valuable resources, policy documents, and research on their culturally competent webpage. The time is now to unite our knowledge and practice of cultural competence in order to create a successful learning climate for all.


Burgess, Z. B. (2013, February 10). Are HBCUs still relevant? The Philadephia Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.phillytrib.com/newsarticles/item/7730-are-hbcus-still-relevant.html

Castillo, J. M., Curtis, M. J., Gelley, C. (2012). School psychologists' professional practices and implications for the field. Communiqué, 40(8), 4–6.

Goode, R. W. (2011, February 15). The HBCU debate: Are black colleges and universities still needed? Black Enterprise. Retrieved from http://www.blackenterprise.com/lifestyle/are-hbcus-still-relevant

Klotz, M. B. (2006). Culturally competent schools: Guidelines for secondary school principals. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/Culturally%20Competent%20Schools%20NASSP.pdf

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., KewalRamani, A., Kemp, J., … Dinkes, R. (2009). The condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009- 081). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.

Sullivan, A., & A'Vant, E. (2009). On the need for cultural responsiveness. Communiqué, 38(3), 8–9.

Vaughan, W. (2005). Educating for diversity, social responsibility, and action: Preservice teachers engage in immersion experiences. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 12(1), 26–30.

Therese Clarke is a school psychology doctoral student attending Howard University who worked as a graduate assistant in the NASP office in the spring of 2013.