An Innovative Approach to Understanding Diverse Cultures

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Widener clock with Old Main dome in the background

Lori Simons’ multicultural psychology course asks students to take a deep look at questions of identity, belief, and assumptions – both their own and those of others.

The goal is for students to gain the cultural competency to live and work alongside people of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

“We want students to gain perspective, learn how to connect with others, and engage in diversity dialogue,” said Simons.

Lori Simons
Professor Lori Simons

Simons, a psychology professor, has been teaching this class for a decade. And while the topics addressed – including racism, gender identity, inequity, white privilege, and stereotypes – have always been present and relevant, her students say that taking the class in fall 2020 offered a wealth of real-world examples ripped straight from the headlines.

The police killings of unarmed Black people, the proliferation of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the polarization surrounding the presidential election, and a greater awareness and dialogue around systemic racism and injustice, have all permeated classroom discussion.

"With everything going on in the world – BLM, the election – it’s helping me be more aware of what other people are going through," said Ashley Zweier ’21, a biology / pre-physical therapy major.

Nursing major Andre Maxwell ’23 said one of the reasons he took the class was because of the current state of affairs. “I want to understand more,” said Maxwell.

The classroom conversations are difficult. But over the course of the semester, the students have grown more comfortable and open to sharing. And having the course virtual, in some respects, has made it easier for students to contribute their thoughts.

Simons’ class isn’t just relevant; it’s innovative. It employs a flipped learning model using multimedia. Students do readings, watch documentaries, and review materials in advance so that class meetings can be dedicated to reflection, discussion, and engagement. Small breakout groups facilitate even greater and more frank discussions. 

And it’s a service-learning course. Students go into the community (virtually this semester) to gain hands-on experience working and forming relationships with people who are culturally different than themselves. It moves instruction beyond theory to practice. 

A number of students are virtually tutoring and mentoring Chester area schoolchildren. 

Aspiring pediatric psychologist Erin Ferns ’22 assists fifth- and sixth-graders with their homework through Chester Eastside

We’re applying what we’ve been learning in class. This shows us different backgrounds and it challenges assumptions and stereotypes. — Erin Ferns '22

For her service-learning component, Julia Klinger is continuing an internship at Sadar Psychological and Sports Center, a neurofeedback facility in Phoenixville. The work at Sadar directly aligns with her research interests and career goal of becoming a pediatric neuropsychologist.

“It’s opened my eyes to inequality because a majority of these services are not covered by insurance,” said Klinger. “I want to extend research to low-income communities where these services would be beneficial.”

Simons’ multicultural psychology course is designed to help students see through the lens of others, but also to better understand themselves, their own identities and biases. Several students said they never thought or realized they had white privilege until taking this class.

“This class has definitely helped me get perspective about my own upbringing,” said Ferns. “I’m from a predominately white area and I realize how unintentional it was, but how sheltered I was.”

An early optional assignment asked students to create a video introducing themselves and talking about their ethnic backgrounds, families, and cultures. The simple act of giving voice to these categories led some to question who they are and why they identify the way they do. 

In filming his video, Maxwell realized his choice of words to describe himself – and the order in which he gave them – was indicative of how he viewed himself. 
 
“Dr. Simons told us the first things you list are what you connect with the most. And I really saw that as true,” said Maxwell. “For me it was ‘nursing major, from Drexel Hill, Black man, gay.’ Saying these thoughts out loud, I got more out of it.”

The exercises and experiences tied to this course are helping prepare students for their careers. Many in Simons’ class are entering health and human service professions where they will likely work with a diverse clientele.

“Not one person has had the same background, whether that’s health, income, or education. We need to treat others with respect and dignity,” said aspiring physical therapist Bryan Deery ’21. “Multicultural knowledge really develops character and really molds a better community.”

Simons says this is one of her favorite classes to teach and the learning doesn’t end when the semester does. 

“Taking diversity classes is paramount. It makes you think critically,” she said. “This is the beginning of the transformational process, not the end.”

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