NEWS

Bradley professor champions the benefits of cultural diversity

Clare Howard

Bradley University graduate student Rachel Bridgewater grew up firmly rooted in central Illinois, but she works at maintaining diverse cultural contacts. Cultural diversity, she believes, is an antidote to war.

Some of what she learned came from life and observation. Some came from Bradley University class ELH 586: Counseling Diverse Populations, taught by Christopher Rybak.

"We have pockets of diversity here from all over the world ... Africa, Poland, Malaysia, India. There is joy in being able to learn from each other and realize we have more in common than our diverse backgrounds might suggest," Bridgewater said.

"What started out for me as a fascination has become a call to help further multicultural competence. Learning about cultural diversity is not just a specialty. It has become a necessity."

Rybak has been at Bradley University since 1993. He earned his bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology at Illinois State University and his master's and doctoral degrees in counseling from Southern Illinois University.

He grew up in East St. Louis near the Cahokia Indian mounds. As a cross-country runner in high school, his practice took him up over the top of the mounds. Today, he is adamant about running around the mounds rather than over them.

Opening Students' Minds

Learning to see the world through another cultural perspective changes behaviors, he said.

"I encourage my students to explore other cultures as much as possible and be open to other points of view," Rybak said.

Over the years, he has seen some students come to Bradley University and not interact with students from other countries.

"Some students are taken aback when I urge them to go out and talk with students from other cultural backgrounds. They equate that with being intrusive," Rybak said. "Some international students come here and never have a significant interaction with others. They go home feeling disappointed."

Rybak went to India in 2002 on a four-month sabbatical, studying indigenous healing practices.

"What really struck me among all the different healing practices was the commitment to people and relationships. They all talked about the importance of relationships with others," he said.

"There is great wisdom in traditions. Some of these beliefs lay out ideas about what it means to embrace an ethical way of living."

Dharitri Ramaprasad, an associate professor at the Richmond Fellowship Post Graduate College in Bangalore, India, was a Fulbright professor at Bradley University this past semester, and she worked with Rybak. In Indian society, she said, mental health issues are dealt with primarily by family. In America, she has observed, school counselors are more involved than in Indian society.

Storytelling and the role of rituals are important tools Indians use for healing, she said.

"Strength comes from stories. Strength comes from understanding and diversity," Ramaprasad said. "In India, we don't feel that rituals are a waste of time. Rituals take a certain amount of time, and they help the mind get into a rhythmic mental activity. That helps reduce stress and helps look at problems from a different perspective."

Since Rybak joined the Bradley faculty, ELH 586 has become a required rather than an elective class for students in counseling. The goal of the class is to develop awareness, knowledge and skills for working with diverse populations.

Awareness of Self

Rybak has developed a concept called the “resiliency wheel” to help students visualize the integration of culture, person, family, community and spirit in our lives.

"It involves awareness of self," Rybak said. "If a person is unwilling to look at who they are, they are more easily confused by someone who is different. So many people are afraid of difference. We want students to learn to build relationships with others who are different."

Students in the class are required to volunteer at least five hours between January and May at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen or an agency working with impoverished populations.

Bridgewater said she finds it frustrating that so many in America object to bilingualism in this country when people from many other countries speak three or four languages.

"If we don't push multi-cultural awareness, we are pushing war," she said. "I think every field of study needs classes on multiculturalism."

Rybak said, "There are a lot of things to get discouraged about. My hope is, things are slowly changing for this country. We have to change. Younger people are growing up and learning to examine issues and become critical thinkers rather than listening and accepting fearful perspectives about diverse cultures."

Ramaprasad spoke at Seven Circles Heritage Center last month. Attending her presentation was Melinda Cote, a graduate student who took Rybak's diversity class.

"The bottom line is, we are more alike than different," Cote said. "We all want a better future for our children. Multiculturalism is not just a way to survive in America. It's a way to prepare our children for their future."

Clare Howard can be reached at choward@pjstar.com.