When Students Need Help: Understanding Cultural Differences

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Rachael Pocklington
Communications Officer, Parents Program

Georgia Tech strives to deliver meaningful and supportive services to help our students not only succeed but to truly thrive during their career at Tech. Within the Division of Student Affairs, the Counseling Center and the Office of the Dean of Students offer a variety of programs and services tailored to address the needs of Tech’s diverse student body.

As one would expect given the cultural differences of our students, student service providers are increasingly sensitive to cultural differences and perceptions and, consequently, are implementing new approaches to effectively reach and help those students in need. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this topic with Dr. Ruperto “Toti” Perez, director of the Georgia Tech Counseling Center, and Associate Dean Stephanie Ray, director of Student Diversity Programs, Office of the Dean of Students.

Can you describe the differences that your respective departments observe among Tech’s diverse student community and how does this influence the way these students seek help?

Dr. Perez: Western and acculturated students - and this is a generalization - typically are willing to seek help because they see it as giving them a competitive edge. While there is still a mild stigma associated with seeking help, westernized students understand the benefits. Among non-westernized students - again, this is a generalization - there is a hesitancy to seek help from a faculty member, counselor or a dean because they don’t want to be seen as needing help. There is a tendency for them to want to be seen “as good as” students from the U.S. They feel the need to prove themselves and to do it on their own without help from the outside.

Dean Ray: Quite often, the parents of our students are successful and students don’t want to be perceived as not being successful for fear of disappointing the family. This is true for western and non-western students. However, students of non-western cultures are often taught to never divulge their personal matters to people outside of the family. And this is exactly what we are asking them to do - to come see a dean or a counselor, someone outside the family, for help. Consequently, students with these beliefs do not readily seek help the same way a westernized student would.

I think it is fair to say that at Tech there is an expectation for students to succeed. How does the family influence and contribute to a student’s success?

Dean Ray: Yes, there is tremendous pressure for students, both western and non-western, to succeed but, as we all know, there is no blanket formula for success. In non-western cultures especially, the family greatly influences how the student defines and achieves success - even to the point of selecting a major. It is critical to remember that not all students excel in their chosen major which can be a disappointment for the student and the family. When this happens, I think it is important to engage in a conversation which involves all involved parties, the student and the parents, to understand how best to really help the student. The family can positively contribute to the student’s success - to help redefine what success can look like for a student who is challenged on his or her current path.

Dr. Perez: These students are under tough tension. They come from cultures that teach them to avoid failure and shame. Their culture promotes success yet does not encourage seeking help from an outsider. Which makes it that much more important for students to not see you as the outsider. I also feel that the perceived language barrier also contributes to this reluctance to seek help.

What techniques have proven useful in reaching out to students who may need help but are unlikely to engage your services on their own?

Dr. Perez: I think that overall Tech is doing a better job of addressing student needs and helping to minimize the stigma associated with seeking help. The Counseling Center sees an equal or greater percentage of underrepresented students compared to the overall percentage enrolled at Tech. One effective tactic that we have used in the Counseling Center is to go where the students are. We have found it helpful to collaborate with the different groups on campus such as the Department of Housing, Office of International Education, and Office of Student Involvement to have a sincere and genuine presence and to help students make that connection with our department. There is also the issue of credibility. In order to be credible, you often have to be literally invited into their group. Once they see that you are “OK,” they are more likely to ask for help.

Dean Ray: In the past year, the Office of the Dean of Students implemented an online referral system that significantly helps direct students to us who are in need of help. We have found that once students make that connection with our office, developed a sense of trust, and benefit from the interaction, they are likely to refer their fellow students, especially those of a similar culture or background. A referral to our office via word of mouth helps reduce the perceived stigma of seeking help. It is critical for us as service providers to develop personalized relationships with students and to build trust so that they feel comfortable coming to us and/or referring a friend when help is needed. While this proves true for all students, it is especially true among non-western students.

What lasting advice would you like to leave with parents?

Dr. Perez: Seeking help is not a sign of weakness - it is actually a sign of maturity and strength. Plus, students can really stand to benefit from talking to someone who can lend an objective ear and are knowledgeable of the resources available to help them succeed. Yes, seeking help does give students an advantage. Parents are welcome at the Counseling Center too! This often helps to demystify the counseling process and helps the staff and parents get to know one another and better understand how we can help their student. At the end of the day, it is all about helping the student.

Dean Ray: Yes, it is ALL about helping the student and addressing their individual needs. And we are well-versed in thinking “out of the box” in order to do so. We, too, welcome the opportunity to work with parents since we understand and value the influence that they have on the student. We also cannot do it on our own. We sometimes need to know the parent’s perspective and the cultural perspective in order to best help a student.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Rachael Pocklington
  • Created:02/02/2011
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016