Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

The Lived Experience of Cultural Immersion

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

The Lived Experience of Cultural Immersion

Article excerpt

This article presents the findings of a grounded theory study of 3 graduate students' lived experience of cultural immersion. Results indicated that participants experienced 3 phases (goal setting, interaction, and evaluation) and 4 themes (bias, gender, barriers, and self-awareness) during immersion. Recommendations for the implementation of immersion experiences are discussed.

Keywords: cultural immersion experience, multicultural action project, counselor preparation


A belief in the life-altering power of interpersonal contact is essential to the practice of counseling (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005). Meaningful interpersonal contact aids counselors in understanding the worldview of, developing empathy for, and caring for their clients--core conditions of the humanistic counseling tradition (Hazler, 2001). Prolonged interpersonal cross-cultural interactions are an essential element in this process because they reduce bias and increase cultural understanding (Tomlinson-Clarke & Clarke, 2010), aiding counselors in recognizing their clients' humanity. Therefore, cultural immersion experiences that promote sustained and meaningful cross-cultural interactions can be an effective training tool for counselors (Pope-Davis, Breaux, & Liu, 1997).

Cultural immersion experiences require participants to have interactions with a cultural community that is different from their own (Pope-Davis et al., 1997). The limited research that exists on cultural immersion indicates that participation in these experiences results in increased understanding of diverse communities, promotion of self-awareness, and reduced biases (Alexander, Kruczek, & Ponterotto, 2005; Canfield, Low, & Hovestadt, 2009; DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005). However, Canfield et al. (2009) called for research to identify the elements of the cultural immersion experience that promote growth and understanding in counselors-in-training.

To understand the lived experience of cultural immersion and identify the elements of this experience that promote counselor growth, a qualitative study was conducted. This study used grounded theory to analyze the narratives of three graduate-level counseling students who participated in a cultural immersion experience called the Multicultural Action Project. The researchers (the first author and graduate students) found that these students passed through three distinct phases (goal setting, interaction, and evaluation) and dealt with issues related to biases, gender, barriers, and self-awareness as part of their immersion experience, which resulted in self-reported growth in the students. On the basis of these findings, we discuss how counselor educators can structure and support students engaged in cultural immersion experiences.


Cultural immersion experiences were designed to provide students with in vivo training while serving culturally diverse communities (Pope-Davis et al., 1997). Cultural immersion experiences require participants to engage in activities with, or provide services to, a cultural community different from their own over an extended period of time (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005; Ishii, Gilbride, & Stensrud, 2009; Pope-Davis et al., 1997). It is believed that the interpersonal contact that occurs during the immersion experience promotes affective and behavioral growth in counseling students and simultaneously provides students with insight into the lives of diverse communities (Canfield et al., 2009; Tomlinson-Clarke & Clarke, 2010). Cultural immersion projects typically require some form of self-reflection, which is believed to increase self-awareness (Canfield et al., 2009; Pope-Davis et al., 1997).

The existent research on cultural immersion experiences provides an indication of the efficacy of these projects in increasing cross-cultural understanding and self-awareness in counseling students (Alexander et al. …

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