Usable Knowledge

The Culture of Counseling

By Deborah Blagg 10/20/2010 1:30 PM EST | 6 Comments

“Many multicultural students experience intense culture shock when they come to college,” observes HGSE lecturer Josephine Kim, a National Certified Counselor whose and clinical experience with multicultural populations span residential facilities, community agencies, and public and private schools. “The adjustment challenges for young people who have been raised in the U.S. by immigrant parents can be complex and multifaceted.”

Since the spring 2007 slayings at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed by a troubled Korean-American student, Kim has been working to raise awareness of mental health issues that affect Korean-American students. As an emergency outreach counselor immediately following the tragic event — and in her subsequent role as founding executive director of , a nonprofit organization with a mission of encouraging Korean American youth to develop all aspects of a healthy identity — Kim has addressed an array of mental health issues in the Korean American community, including suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, body image issues, substance abuse, and identity confusion.

Many of these problems arise from intercultural and intergenerational conflicts among Korean Americans, says Kim, a Korean American who spent parts of her own childhood in both Korea and the United States. Her research examines inherent differences between western and Asian cultures and seeks to establish “scaffolding” for understanding the internal conflicts that can happen when disparate cultures merge. “Whether you are a parent or a child, when you are immersed in a culture, you don’t always understand the external factors that influence how you feel,” she explains. An example might be the parents who raise their children according to Korean traditions only to see them behave according to American mores as they mature. “In American schools, children are taught to think critically and to articulate their opinions. The parent may see that behavior as rebellious and disrespectful,” Kim notes, “but the fact is, their children have become Americanized.”

Some Korean Americans grow up denying their Korean heritage in order to fit in, only to become drawn into activities and organizations that emphasize that heritage when they arrive at college. “A lot of students are confused about themselves at that point,” Kim says. “They don’t understand why they hated their ethnic identity before and now find themselves completely immersed in it.” That confusion, coupled with parents’ high expectations for success in school and careers, the frustration of having white peers constantly question their “American-ness,” as well as body image and other concerns that are common to all teens are among the factors that put Korean American students at risk for a growing list of emotional and psychological issues.

Finding ways to address those problems is a tough challenge in a culture that traditionally has been reluctant to seek mental health care. “The stigma many Korean Americans attach to psychological and emotional problems prevents them from seeking help, namely ,” Kim notes. “Too often, the solution has been to put on a brave face and try to ignore the problems or to mask them in unhealthy ways.”

Since the majority of Korean Americans have a close affiliation with Christian churches, Kim’s faith-based Mustard Seed Generation organization (the name taken from a biblical reference, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”) works with churches to present counseling in a positive light. In conferences both in Korea and the United States – including one held this August in Gaithersburg, Md., aimed at Korean American youths, college students, youth leaders, and church leaders — Kim and her colleagues offer a changing slate of educational colloquiums, spiritual worship sessions, and group counseling sessions that zero in on the societal and familial realities that Korean Americans face and the role that counseling can play in fostering healthy social, emotional, and psychological development.

The group counseling sessions are mandatory. “Since counseling is embedded in the curriculum and everyone takes part in it, the stigma is removed,” Kim explains. In counseling, participants have a chance to deeply explore their own perceptions and cultural identities. Church leaders, who often are on the front lines when family crises hit, come away with concrete skills and tools for serving as liaisons between families and the mental health community. Students develop a better grasp of the professional resources that are available to them when problems arise and hopefully become less reluctant to take advantage of those resources.

“Students have told me they had no idea their internal conflicts or difficulties with their parents were part of a cultural experience,” Kim reports. “Discovering that the issues they’ve been grappling with are really part of a larger context of immigrant life can be transformational. It takes away the shame they associate with having personal problems and makes them something that can be talked about more openly.”

The courses Kim teaches at the Ed School, Preventive and Developmental Group Counseling and Issues of Diversity in Cross-Cultural Counseling and Advocacy, both draw on and enrich her community outreach work. More than 30 Korean and Korean American students at HGSE have participated as counselors or presenters at Mustard Seed conferences and conducted independent studies under her supervision in the past three years. Some of the topics they have examined include the identity development and mental health of Asian American college students; intergenerational conflicts between immigrant parents and their Americanized children; depression and suicide among Korean Americans, with a focus on help-seeking behaviors and the consequences of not seeking help.

Looking ahead, Kim, who has conducted numerous seminars on east-west for teachers and administrators and lectured widely on the topic in the U.S., Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia, and the Philippines, says the areas of multiculturalism and diversity acceptance are ripe for further research. While she will broaden the focus of her outreach to other ethnic cultures in the future, for now there is urgency for her work within the Korean American community.

“As horrible as it was, the tragedy at Virginia Tech was a catalyst for change,” she says. “It has given us a chance to openly talk about mental health issues in a community where that topic has been off-limits. It opened the door to changing perceptions among Korean Americans in a way that will benefit students and parents alike. We need to take full advantage of that opportunity now.”

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  • Fitsum G/michael

    I am really surprised with the findings and perspectives of cultural collisions happening on Asian-American citizens.She employed very relevant,timely and intensive research design and methodology through her in depth consuling experience.I hope it can be a future reference and guiding material for all those non-Us citizens going to US as immigrants workers or students at the US universities from multicultural homelands, if it accommodates certain cases from other immigrants in addition to Korean Americans
    Fitsum Gebremichael
    Lecturer at the department of Educational Planning and Management
    Hawassa College of Teacher Education, Ethiopia

  • Ainee Beland

    I hope and pray that I find the right words to express having found and read this article. To have said this; I am currently enrolled in a General Psychology course on-line with required peer-group participation, to do with responding to post by other students and to organize and complete group projects.
    I refuse to comment on the works of others and to their post. I insist on being traditional student, just posting assignments, questions with answers, taking quizzes, and writing essay paper and the occasional replies to the professor.
    The professor in turn gives me zero grades for not participating fully with peer interaction.
    The article I read here made me aware once again about conflicts in identity with children of immigrants and the high rate of suicide depicted in a group that I thought was astounding sound; that being Asian students; but Korean are not Asian, they are bread outside of China, not seen as whole to begin with; and with parents who migrated here doing the best they can and their children so wanting to fit in realize only much later in college that they can never be truly accepted as equal, as Americans (brash, bullish Americans) what a trait, a character to want to emulate, yet those from first generation do so much want to be that brash American with the same rights that others take for granted.
    What do I mean? What am I getting at? One must be exceptional to get out of that proverbial box, and then if able to still has the daily reminders that you are still secondary, third even always and forever inferior but allowed to reside amongst the WASP or whatever rising elitist group that is rising, leading America.
    I don’t mean to use condescending words; at time they fail me in that my meaning is lost. The author name J. Kim opens herself within the content of this article since it is her ethnicity that caused such a furor in Virginia Tech; but we fail to mentioned other factors that may have caused the student to act as they had; the shame, burden with angst, the system within the school that breeds and feed on seated emotions such as the likes of the student who in the end had only to react negatively, most horrible, no denying that. But others are responsible as well; it takes a community to cause violence as well as to raise a family. The student is gone but that which bread and acted as catalyst to ignite student still exist very much so. I truly believe this and this is most sad.
    I may not have made sense, the article needed something other than J. Kim to take on the responsibility for her Korean ethnicity; men, community, education system, economy, government all need to take responsibility.
    I frequented the Gutman Library for 3 years nearly as while a student at Cambridge College and tried not to notice the happenings at time.
    I don’t mean anything, I expressed perhaps wrongly what I felt upon reading and whilst taking this psychology class. At times empathy outweighs apathy or round the other way.
    Ainee Beland

  • Anita

    Very interesting and very important article

  • Kandi

    Joe Hale, NICS and a personal friend, recommended this article. I believe Miss. Kim has find a very important area to help people. This adjustment must be very difficult. I know the adjustment was difficult when I, an American, was in Korea. I could insult people while being totally innocent just because I didn’t know or understand their culture. Thank you, Miss. Kim, for caring to reach out and help young people in this adjustment.
    I have also found that during other travels, my words, in Australia, while typical slang to me, could be very insulting and very improper to my hosts. And, something as simple as my eating habits could come across as rude to my Dutch friends. There is much research to do before simply entering another culture.

  • Navam Pakianathan

    I teach Physics to High School Students in an International School in Suwon, South Korea. I have Josephine Kim speak at a Seminar 2 years ago. I agree with the statement of psychological conflict that Korean American Students go through due to their affiliation with two different cultures. The largely expat Korean student community in our school faces similar problems too I believe because whilst they are immersed in Korean society, they have to fulfill the expectations of the American based education they are going through. It has been my resolve to bridge the gaps in learning that come about because educators do not fully understand these difficulties our students go through.

  • Jennifer Ayoub

    Josephine Kim’s research, work experience and compassionate work ethos will be an asset and extremely beneficial to the children of Korean American families and be a transformational catalyst for guiding the Korean American communities.

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