Meeting Cross-Cultural Needs

Recognizing “Hidden Diversity” among Students

Ruth E. Van Reken is a white American who spent the first 13 years of her life in Nigeria, and then moved to Chicago. In this article, excerpted from ProPointers, an e-publication of Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education, Ms. Van Reken uses her own cross-cultural experience to help teachers and counselors understand “hidden diversity.”

Exploring the Global Classroom

Increasing globalization means that to be effective in reaching all students, today’s teachers and counselors must think beyond traditional approaches regarding diversity.

Would you be able to readily identify, for example, a student of African American descent who has been educated in Malay-speaking Indonesian schools? How would your learning community have embraced a young Barack Obama? Take a moment to examine your ability to recognize students of cross-cultural backgrounds:

  • New student #1: She is a white student from a war-torn part of Europe who speaks perfect American English. Would you expect that she would easily pick up on coursework? Would you be as quick to recognize that she may not have access to academic support from relatives who speak fluent English?
  • New student #2: He is a teenager moving to New York City from rural Mississippi. Would you consider that he might experience culture shock and grieve the loss of the cultural environment he loved and lost as much as a new immigrant from China?

Education in an Interconnected World

These real-life students represent “hidden diversity.” That is, their life experiences have shaped a perspective and worldview not readily apparent on the outside. The likelihood of encountering students and families of such diversity is becoming commonplace.

So why is recognizing hidden diversity important? As is possible with any diversity, when it is not recognized, the result can be damaging. It’s easy to presume that students from other English-speaking countries know both the local language and culture, but a world of potential is lost when hidden diversity goes unrecognized.

Teachers and counselors have the opportunity to use every student’s experience to enrich their classroom. Consider the student who shares stories about fighting piranhas on the Amazon River with his dad—until he is accused of lying. Never again will he mention in school his experiences growing up in a village by the edge of the Amazon.

Knowing each student individually has always been important for teachers and counselors, but is more important now than ever. The world is, indeed, growing smaller, thanks to global partnerships, expanding technology, and careers requiring overseas living. Why not learn from students representing global citizenry while helping them belong to their present community? Once you look, you will find some of the greatest untapped resources.


This article was written by Ruth E. Van Reken and Karen Allen

Karen Allen is the editor for ProPointers, an e-publication produced quarterly by Kappa Delta Pi for its practitioners and administrators. Submit questions, comments, content suggestions, or articles to Ruth Van Reken has made a career of teaching counselors and educators to identify the unique benefits and challenges associated with cross-cultural kids. Her many published works include Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds (2001), which she co-authored with David C. Pollock.

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