Counseling psychology department to offer Difficult Dialogues class

Professor Brandon Orr: “There is a need to move past empathy and towards competency.”

The counseling psychology department at MU already has a long history of diversity training, but doctoral student Oscar Rojas Perez and professor Sonia Dhaliwal intend to expand on this reputation.

Starting in the spring 2016, Perez and Dhaliwal will lead a class for graduate students titled Difficult Dialogues, offered by the counseling psychology department. The intention of the class is to create a “safe space for people to feel vulnerable” in talking about sensitive issues pertaining to minority groups, Dhaliwal said.

Counseling psychology professor Francisco Sánchez said the department is serving as a leader for other departments across campus on how to model these kinds of conversations.

“The biggest hopes and goals for the class are to develop empathy, understanding and awareness of the experiences of marginalized groups, not just on campus but in the U.S.,” Perez said. “The goal is deriving from the mission in the department of multicultural awareness and training.”

The class is the brainchild of both Perez and Dhaliwal, who both said they saw a need to create change on campus. The class was in the works before racial tensions escalated on campus earlier this semester. Students have already enrolled in the class for next semester, Dhaliwal said.

“The purpose of this class is to teach people how to dialogue in a way that can bring about productive conversations,” Dhaliwal said.

The class will have a maximum of 10 students, and only one section will be offered. They expect the class to be full, said Lisa Flores, professor in counseling psychology and the program training director.

“We want to create an atmosphere where people feel like they can open up and talk and have dialogue,” Dhaliwal said. “We also want to focus on real world application.”

The counseling psychology department has a long-standing history with the multicultural and cross-cultural initiatives, including their Coalition for Cultural Competency. This coalition creates an exchange program for students from Beijing and Taiwan.

“(This program) provides us with some context for how psychology can look from that international perspective, and how do we effectively manage some of the complexities that come up with these international relations and cross cultural relationships,” Dhaliwal said.

In 2006, MU created a Difficult Dialogues program funded through a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation that provided professional development, interactive theatre, forums for the MU community and a 14-week course. The purpose of the program was to discuss issues on campus in “the spirit of open-mindedness,” according to the Mizzou Diversity website. The program ended in 2011.

Perez said he took the original Difficult Dialogues program and put his own spin to it within the counseling psychology department. The original program was more of a national initiative, but this new course will be specific to the counseling psychology department.

“It’s not a replica,” Perez said. “But the idea was taken from that initiative.”

The counseling psychology department already offers an undergraduate discussion class called Experiencing Cultural Diversity in the United States that allows students to engage in conversations about diversity. This undergraduate course is being considered as part of the potential diversity requirement from the MU Faculty Council Diversity Enhancement Committee.

Perez said the graduate level class is the next step or “how-to piece” building off of the undergraduate class.

“This course will provide another opportunity for those students who want to continue to engage in those sorts of discussions,” Flores said.

The class will incorporate many different topics throughout the semester, including systems of oppression, white privilege and even conversations about how to become a white ally, Dhaliwal said. Another large part of the class is action and application.

“I think that there are a lot of white students out there who want to be a part of the cause and maybe just don’t know how to do that,” Dhaliwal said.

She said this class will give those students an idea of how to be involved.

“There is a need to move past empathy and toward competency,” said Brandon Orr, a professor in the counseling psychology department. “We understand the problem but don’t understand what actions to take.”

There is a big difference between understanding and talking about these issues in the academic realm versus the real world, Perez said.

“How do you (talk about these issues) in the Fergusons?" Perez said. "How do you do that in the Comptons? How do you do that in communities who are marginalized?”

Part of the grade for the class will be a proposal of how one would use the training from the class in a real life community setting, Perez said.

The department has tried to create a multicultural classroom environment with diverse students who provide new perspectives and ways to engage in the material learned in class, Flores said.

“For us, this (Difficult Dialogues) class is just the next step to what we already have ingrained in our background, in our goal, in our program in general,” Perez said. “It’s just kind of ingrained in who we are as training professionals and the field that we’re in as counseling psychologists.”

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