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How I learned to become a culturally sensitive therapist

Adler University student

Nisan Ilkmen, M.A.

Nisan Ilkmen is a Ph.D. student in the Couple and Family Therapy program at Adler University. She graduated from the Master of Arts in Couple and Family Therapy program in 2017 and returned to start the Ph.D. program in 2018. Ilkmen grew up in Turkey, has lived in Canada, and now resides in the U.S. She shares how her immigration experience and multi-cultural background led her to want to become a social-justice-focused family therapist and how Adler University is helping her achieve that goal.

I grew up in Istanbul which is a city bridging Asia and Europe. I think it may best be described as a great mix of eastern, western and endemic Anatolian cultures. My personal immigration experience played a major role during making the decision of becoming a therapist. I spent 18 years of my life in Istanbul, until I decided to study abroad in Canada to complete my undergraduate degree at University of Ottawa. During my first years in Canada, I realized how much of a cultural gap existed between the immigrant population and the dominant culture. This cultural gap encouraged me to work in a field where I can play the role of a mediator between the two populations.

Finding space for cultural diversity

I moved to the United States in 2015 to study at Adler University in Chicago. At Adler, I was able to learn about different cultures and their interactions, which solidified my passion to become a therapist.

Blending in to a new culture while reserving one’s own cultural characteristics can be difficult. My experience at Adler facilitated this process of adaptation for me by making space for cultural diversity in every aspect of the graduate program. Adler University also encourages an environment of community and collaboration over competition. This unique trait makes many students, including myself, feel more encouraged.

When I first enrolled into my graduate program, I was wanting and willing to develop a deep understanding of the world and the systems surrounding it. Adler allowed me sharpen my critical and social skills. Learning from different professors—who all have very different perspectives and backgrounds—I learned to combine different theories and themes in order to make larger connections.

Social Justice Practicum: An eye-opening experience

My Social Justice Practicum at the Immigrant Employment Services gave me the opportunity to practice and develop my observational skills that I had learned in school. Immigrant Employment Services helps provide practical support to help clients adapt to North American culture. My internship included helping our clients with English as a second language classes, editing documents, and practicing interpersonal skills to better adapt to social life in the U.S. I also helped a group of teenagers with job applications and resume writing. Working with immigrants from different backgrounds helped me realize my ability to point out multiple complexities in human relations.

During my practicum, I worked on strengthening the ability to communicate cross-cultural empathy, which can effectively address the trauma and loss associated with migration.

Cultural differences become more crucial with the immigration process. I witnessed many situations where immigrants were struggling with adapting to the individualist mindset in the U.S. Many immigrants come to the U.S. from collectivist societies, where the focus is on the larger community over specific individuals. The concepts of self-enhancement and self-determination, which are highly valued in the U.S., are not the norm in most collectivist countries.

While the interpersonal reliance is considered to be a healthy variable in collectivist cultures, therapists in the U.S. who are not knowledgeable about these cultural dynamics may diagnose or even pathologize the emphasis on interdependence—an example of cultural insensitivity.

Maintaining a strong cultural identity to help others

I think that starting a multi-cultural counseling career requires a unique set of talents and characteristics. I consider myself as an individual who is open to other cultures while I preserve the unique values of my own. Growing up in Istanbul gave me the opportunity of interacting with both collectivist and individualist mindsets. Taking into consideration the increasing immigrant population with a collectivist background in North America, the ability to understand and relate to people’s beliefs could be increasingly beneficial to my career as a therapist.