James Madison University

Grad Student Seeks to Serve Diverse Populations in Schools

By Sydney Palese
Posted April 8, 2014

PHOTO: Joe Hill

For Joe Sims, diversity is all about the differences that set individuals apart.

“Diversity is lots of different ideas, ways of living and cultures; everyone can learn from it,” Sims, a graduate student in the School Psychology Program, said.

For the School Psychology Program, the study of diversity and development of cultural competency are important skills for well-prepared professionals. Through the Cultural Competency Practitioner Initiative (CCPI), now in its eighth year, the school psychology program equips students with the necessary skills to be advocates for children and families from a variety of ethnicities and cultures.

The CCPI was designed to “train school psychologists to have the awareness, skills and knowledge to work with children from various backgrounds and cultures who speak different languages and come from different socioeconomic experiences.  Graduate students need to be able to work effectively with lots of different kids and families.”

 “The CCPI has been eye opening for me. It has exposed me to so many different cultures. It’s woven into each class so it resonates,” Sims said.

Students like Sims are making strides to adopt cultural competency as a practice inside and outside of the classroom.

Recently, Sims received the Wayne Gressett Memorial Minority Scholarship Award through the National Association of School Psychologists. The award reduces some financial stress and allows him to work with a mentor for the duration of his scholarship. Later, Sims will then become a mentor to the next scholarship recipient. Sims is the third student from the program to receive this award. Other scholarship winners include Alexis Carson, a third year student, and alumni Marlana Ashe.

Sims says “I see myself as a role model.”  He would like other minority students to look at him and think “If he can make it, I can make it.”  He hopes that over time this will be “a trend that catches on.”

Though he always saw his career in psychology headed towards clinical practice, Sims eventually found that he was passionate about combining his ability to connect with kids with his drive to help people with mental health issues. The CCPI was a huge draw for Sims when he was considering graduate school.

“I’ve always been about going against stereotypes,” Sims said.  Faculty in the program, like Tammy Gilligan, School Psychology Program Director, make it a common practice to challenge students to constantly reflect on their own beliefs and stereotypes in order to gain awareness of how those opinions influence their work with diverse populations of children.

Gilligan described the initiative simply as, “A blending of awareness, knowledge and skills,” which, “when combined lead to a practitioner who is an advocate for all kids and families.”

Knowledge and skills are woven into all classes, practice cases, internships and off-campus field trips. Students are taught skills such as understanding how to work with an interpreter during consultations with families. Another skill learned is determining which people are to be included during consultations.  For example, in some families it is important to include a religious advisor when helping with familial situations.

According to the Initiative, “It is often the school psychologist who leads the effort to disentangle language, culture, and disability issues through assessment; engages the participation of parents; and assists the school and larger system to meet the needs of the individual student.”

Sims said students don’t see the impact of the initiative until they leave campus to work with students and families.  Only when you leave the classroom do  “you see how much JMU has taught you.”

This is the second semester Sims has participated in a practicum experience with Rockingham County Schools, and already he’s been exposed to different socioeconomic statuses and cultures. During the summer he partnered with another student from the program and assessed a child of Hispanic heritage, and found that he was able to consider the language piece of the relationship.

“Because we are taking the initiative to understand other cultures, it made me feel better equipped to handle cultural differences in school. You’re not overlooking other people’s lives because you don’t understand them,” Sims said. “[The CCPI] helps people in my cohort better serve the children and families we work with.”