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Why Cultural Competence is Important

Why Cultural Competence is Important

What is Cultural Competency?

Cultural Competency is a term we speak a great deal about in our Human Services program here at Ottawa University. When you are considering a career in Human Services, it is important to understand that different cultures have unique histories and experiences. Cultural competence in social work deals with understanding the cultural differences of people in need of social services. Displaying empathy and compassion by fostering mutual respect between the worker and the client is the foundation of any Human Services practice. As such, cultural competence is an integral component in this process.

Why is Cultural Competence Important?

Cultural competence encourages the acknowledgement and acceptance of differences in appearance, behavior and culture. In this field, you will encounter diverse clients from a wide range of backgrounds. Even students who come from diverse neighborhoods will likely come in contact with new cultures as they enter the Human Services field. As we develop our levels of cultural competence, we begin to have a greater appreciation for our clients’ journeys.

How to Increase Cultural Competence

Those who who have a career in Human Services should make an ongoing effort to increase their cultural competence. Many who enter the field may feel they have a good grasp on these concepts. However, it is a skill that requires continuous development.

  • Cultural Humility

Some believe that cultural competence is practiced by merely showing respect to everyone we encounter without considering our own bias. However, it is impossible to be an expert of knowledge in every culture. Therefore, it is important to admit you are NOT an expert. Always be willing to ask questions with the understanding that you do not nor cannot fully understand the cultures of all the clients you will meet. It is through your willingness to ask questions and listen to your client’s story that you demonstrate respect.

When you pursue a career in Human Services you will repeatedly hear the importance of listening. Cultural humility is achieved through listening rather than making assumptions about cultural identities and backgrounds. It is through admitting what we don’t know and a willingness to listen that we move beyond cultural competence to what is known as cultural humility.

  • Self-Awareness

Social workers demonstrate an appreciation of their own cultural identities and those of others. Self-awareness includes “a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique” (Tervalon and Murray-Garcia, 1998). The part about self-critique is where most of us stumble. Some of us find it challenging to recognize the privilege and power we hold. The Human Services classes at Ottawa University teach our students how to deepen their understanding of themselves in order to remain objective with clients. These skills are an essential component of working with the various ethnic populations within the United States.

It is crucial to be aware of our own biases. When interacting with others, it is important for those in the Human Services field to remember that we are looking through the lens of our own gender, race, economic background, religion, and sexual orientation and other lenses that color our perception of others. We must remember that our clients also have their own lenses from which they are looking through as well. If we remember this and are willing to acknowledge these lenses, we will be more empathetic and compassionate as we work with others. 

  • Education

One of the core standards of the National Association of Social Work (NASW) for developing cultural competence is making a commitment to ongoing professional education. Our students examine the framework, skills, analysis of issues, and current intervention strategies for working with individual clients and groups in diverse social services settings within the Human Services courses taken at Ottawa University.

Why is Cultural Competence Important in Social Work?

We encourage our students to further their education in order to uphold this code of ethic, set in place by the NASW. After you earn your Bachelor of Arts degree in our Human and Social Services program, you can prepare for a lifelong career of  making a positive impact in the lives of others by earning your counseling graduate degree online at Ottawa University.

The good news today is that there are many additional resources for Human Services students to utilize in the search for information on diversity as well as the pursuit of cultural humility. For example, there are podcasts with personalities who offer different perspectives on the topic of race and encourage us to have uncomfortable conversations.

As a student in the Human Services Program at Ottawa University, you will receive ongoing faculty support in your Human Services classes to prepare you for succeeding in your journey toward cultural humility. This field is surrounded by a world of diversity and the education you receive at Ottawa University will prepare you for the joys and challenges that come with that diversity.

When you have a greater understanding of other cultures you will be able to interact with people from a wide range of backgrounds and you will increase your abilities to help your clients receive the highest level of support. Contact us for further information about how we can help you begin your journey as a social worker.


Tervalon, M. & Murray-Garcia.J. (1998) Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9, 117-125

See Also:

Huge Employment Opportunities for OU Counseling Grads

Careers in Human Services

What Can I Do with a Bachelors Degree in Human Services

Posted: 08/05/2020 by Mary Alice Grosser, MSW
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