UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology


Cultural Consultation Service website launches

8 May 2012

The website for the Cultural Consultation Service (CCS), which provides support to students and staff experiencing challenges to their learning and/or teaching due to intercultural conflict, has now launched.

The CCS is run jointly by Dr Caroline Selai, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Neuroscience, Head of the Institute of Neurology Education Unit and Sub-Dean for Postgraduate Medical Education, and Dr Sushrut Jadhav, Senior Lecturer in Cross-cultural Psychiatry, Research Department of Mental Health Sciences.

“It is very positive that UCL is a vibrant, multicultural institution,” says Dr Selai. “Our goal in the CCS is to enhance teaching and learning opportunities, but also to help individuals – both students and staff – who are experiencing conflict which might have a cultural component.”

If somebody is in a situation that they feel is being clouded by potentially culturally based misunderstanding, they can contact the CCS and arrange to meet one of its representatives for an interview. There are several options after that: Dr Selai or Dr Jadhav will offer advice and the person may decide to attempt to resolve the situation on their own. However, if they want further support, the CCS is also able to act as a mediator between the parties.

“It’s more about empowering others than wading in and taking over,” says Dr Selai. “However, if it isn’t possible for the person in question to solve the situation even with our advice, we might offer to make a phone call on their behalf or help facilitate a meeting. It really depends on the circumstances.”

Part of the problem in the first place, argues Dr Selai, is that work and study in the university are often based on a surprising number of unspoken assumptions and expectations. There may be additional layers of expectation when people have different cultural backgrounds. Take for example a PhD scenario in which the student waits patiently for their supervisor to propose a series of meetings, while the supervisor is surprised that their student hasn’t requested an appointment and consequently thinks they don’t want help. This is a typical case of unspoken assumptions being made on each side.

Dr Selai believes that it’s vital that students and teachers are aware of each other’s backgrounds. “We had a case recently with somebody who had come from another country to work in the UK. Part of understanding that person’s current experience was recognising where they came from, how they’d arrived here, their experiences of other people and British culture. Where they were in the here-and-now, at the point of the interview, had been shaped by all of that,” she says.

UCL is exceedingly proud of its multicultural student and staff population – after all, it is ‘London’s Global University’ and internationalisation of the curriculum and education for global citizenship are hot topics on the institutional agenda. However, there is still scope for misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Says Dr Selai, “People are sometimes anxious about talking about race or culture. There’s been a lot of worry about political correctness, even the language that we use – is it ok to talk about being ‘black’? Can we even acknowledge someone’s ethnicity? I think that it’s important to not only be aware of differences but to embrace them and recognise that they very much enrich the university.”

While anonymity is key to the CCS’s work and so illustrative case studies are necessarily amalgams of various scenarios, Selai is able to give one real-life example from a student who gave permission for her story to be told. “I supervised a student from Taiwan who did her MSc and then her PhD here and she has since told me about the tremendous difficulties she had when she first arrived in the UK,” says Selai.

“On the first day of the MSc course, in my tutorial, I asked the class to spend a few minutes talking to the person sitting next to them and to introduce their neighbour to the whole group. This student later told me she didn’t understand a word I said. She didn’t understand the task, and she didn’t understand her neighbour, a student from Nigeria, either. She would agree that her English was quite challenged at the beginning.”

Add to that the striking differences between western education and the system in Taiwan, where students never talk directly to their professors let alone challenge their assertions, and it’s easy to see how this student became isolated and even considered leaving UCL.

“I took her under my wing as she was rapidly losing confidence," says Selai. "The problem was cultural – she herself used that word – not just because of the language but also trying to adapt to the British way of life, studying here, understanding the subtleties of social interactions in groups plus myriad puzzling individual idiosyncrasies. If we hadn’t paid attention to her she probably would have dropped out."

Instead, though, the student completed both her MSc and a PhD at UCL. Now back in Taiwan, she is still in touch with her UCL supervisor, gives regular bulletins on her career progress and was recently quietly thrilled to announce she had been promoted to Head of Department.

“Being aware of different teaching and learning backgrounds and being prepared to discuss them can make the difference between students disengaging and becoming isolated versus becoming integrated,” says Dr Selai. With the help of the CCS, students and staff from different backgrounds should feel more able than ever to engage with those from other cultures and, ultimately, benefit from an enhanced UCL experience.