Provides guidelines for success to students throughout their graduate degree program in professional counseling. Helps students get comfortable with technology and shows them how to navigate a digital textbook, alleviating any reservations they may have about the new environment they're in. Shows students how to manage work, family, and school, providing clear strategies on juggling the course in an already packed schedule. Acts as a guide for academic integrity from the onset, a huge concern for online faculty members. Prepares students for field experience and for employment in the real world. Creates a framework for interacting productively with faculty and peers to help reduce the number of student issues.

Respecting Diversity in an Online Environment

Respecting Diversity in an Online Environment

8 Respecting diversity in an online environment
Robyn Trippany Simmons Tiffany Rush-Wilson Breyan Haizlip

Chapter Overview

This chapter is designed to raise your awareness of diversity and the expectations related to respecting diversity during your graduate education. Understanding elements of diversity and how they may impact interaction in the online environment is critical to your success. This chapter will guide you in developing a sense of self-awareness around diversity issues and will assist you in becoming more aware of the role that diversity plays in human interactions.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, students will

  • Explore the appropriate ethical mandates for sensitivity to diversity
  • Increase awareness of their own use of language and potential microagressions when engaging with peers in the online environment
  • Become familiar with parameters for difficult discussions, as well as the purpose in developing a high degree of respect and sensitivity in the online environment and its potential impact on work with clients
  • Consider the influence of social media and current events as factors for the experiences and influences of communication within the online classroom


Counseling is a profession steeped in relationship nuances and communication. As such, much of your graduate education will focus on relationships and communication even when the content is not skill-based. Communication is more than just words—it includes the context of those words, body language, vocal tones, and eye contact. Respecting diversity and being culturally affirming are certainly based in communication and relationships, as well. The question is, then, how do you begin to develop your knowledge and skills related to diversity in an online learning environment? How do we both demonstrate sensitivity to differences in peers when we are unable to hear tone of voice, see facial expression, and be in the physical space of others? Essentially, words on a computer screen need to become a practice, a philosophy, an action that moves beyond content knowledge without having the opportunity to demonstrate the skills associated with these words in a face-to-face environment.

Challenges that exist with regard to respecting diversity in the online environment include the balancing act of respecting the individual, appropriate boundaries, and limit-setting when needed. Your professor will often set the tone for interaction and also demonstrate transparency and vulnerability to assist in your development of these skills. It is important for you to recognize the learning process and to allow yourself to recognize your knowledge limits, to allow for mistakes to be made, to take responsibility for those mistakes, to be open to feedback, and to ask yourself some tough questions like “Did you intentionally mean to cause conflict around a discussion because of unresolved issues?” “Do you exist in the space of privilege?” “Do you feel powerless?” These may not be the types of questions you will be able to ask yourself at the beginning of graduate school, but embracing vulnerability and being open to discussions regarding privilege and oppression will have a positive impact on your counseling practice. The focus of this chapter is to help you manage these challenges and provide some best practices for respecting diversity in the online classroom.

Ethics and Diversity

The pinnacle ethical standard for counselors, A.1.a of the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014) maintains that counselors “respect the dignity and promote the welfare of clients” (p. 4). As future members of the profession, you will need to embrace this as a guiding principle for work with clients and strive to be culturally sensitive counselors.

A particular challenge that we have seen in the online classroom is the perceived anonymity that exists when students are not face-to-face with each other. Additionally, without context and other communication cues (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice) messages may be misunderstood. Thus, it is important to consider the parameters for these types of conversations (see Table 8.1).

Table 8.1 Ground Rules for Online Conversations


Ground Rule


• Ask questions, but do so respectfully.


• Offer opinions, but do so flexibly.


• Share thoughts, but do so honorably.


• If there is a concern, set up a time with your professor to talk through those concerns.


• Consider editing or removing any discussion board or online post if you think that it has the potential to be offensive or hurtful.


• Be willing to engage in difficult conversations but do so in a healthy rather than destructive manner.

Goal Orientation

• Remember that the goal is to build upon your skills, so you can work with clients in a culturally affirming manner.

Although you are likely just beginning your counseling degree, we strongly encourage you to review the Code of Ethics (see, The review will allow you to identify both the standards for engaging with clients and the principles behind the standards that you will need to internalize. For example, standard A.4.b of the ACA Code of Ethics (2014) indicates that counselors do not impose “values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors” (p. 5) on clients. Further, this standard indicates that counselors should seek training in areas for which they may be at risk. One way for you to begin this process as you delve into your online training is to inventory your own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Doing so may help you to increase awareness of your beliefs and values; to recognize that others may have different values; and to avoid imposing your beliefs on your peers. Even when you do take these steps, your peers may struggle to provide discussions and responses in a respectful manner. We recommend taking a higher road in these instances and allowing your professor to address any concerns with a peer’s behavior. While having an open discussion about difficult issues is important, it is the professor’s responsibility to provide guidance regarding the balance of personal values and professional responsibility. The professor may also help facilitate an open forum discussion that assists in developing relationships and modeling elements of communication that facilitate understanding beyond what can be read on the computer screen.

Attending to modeling from your professor is important because you will be expected to emulate the principles and characteristics of what is being taught as noted in ethical code F.7.b (ACA, 2014). The online classroom introduces a healthy initial challenge for practicing within the constraints of asynchronous, non–face-to-face learning. Your professors have the responsibility to serve as gatekeepers for the profession and evaluate your ability as well as your peers’ abilities to emulate the principles required. Hopefully this will not be an issue for you. However, when a student does struggle with these (or any other) ethical principles, your professors are required to evaluate the potential for professional impairment that may harm clients. As a whole, your professors will likely work with students to remediate deficits but the end result may be that some students are not a good fit for a counseling graduate program. It is important for you to recognize that the online classroom discussions are a place where faculty members have the opportunity to monitor and evaluate your ability to interact effectively with others. What you post in an online environment can become part of the evaluation process that leads to remediation and/or dismissal.

No offense, but …”

When a phrase begins with “No offense, but …” there is often something unpleasant on the other side. To open this section of the chapter, let’s look at an anecdote told by one of this chapter’s authors.

While I was studying for my doctoral level clinical boards, a friend of mine took and passed the bar exam. To celebrate her accomplishment, and my accomplishments-in-progress, we went to have hot chocolate at a local coffee shop. While having our hot chocolate in the suburban neighborhood where I lived at the time, a man approached us and said he’d overheard our conversation. He congratulated us on our accomplishments and then went on to tell us that we “weren’t really black.” He went on to say “no offense, but, you may look like black women on the outside, but clearly you work out, and I heard you talking about your professional achievements. That’s not what you people do.” We were both insulted and disgusted by his comments and found them to be incredibly offensive despite the fact that he made an attempt to provide a neutralizer prior to making his subversive, racist, sexist, and classist comments. I was taught as a child to beware anything that follows the phrase “no offense, but …” and despite my preparation from my parents, and my friends preparation from her family, these comments were still angering and hurtful.

It can be very offensive and condescending to be on the receiving end of comments like the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph. To be identified as an exception to a group with which a person self-identifies, and therefore to be acceptable because the person believes you defy the group’s stereotypes can be hurtful and insulting. Statements like “you’re a good athlete, for a girl” or “you’re really polite for a Northerner” or “I’m surprised you’re so sensitive, since you are a man” are examples of these types of phrases.

In many cases, the issue is not as obvious as the examples above. Sometimes people speak or behave in a manner that is not blatantly offensive, but clearly is intended to be hurtful and dismissive. This type of behavior is called a microaggression, a term identified by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970. There are several specific examples of such backhanded engagements that fall in this category in which the perception of one’s group membership is thought to be an accurate predictor of another person’s character or behavior. Can you think of any that you have experienced or maybe taken part in? It is important that you have a familiarity with these concepts that can leave the recipient of such words and actions feeling as if they are aberrant and not part of the group (DeAngelis, 2009). Having an understanding of the impact these types of actions and words may foster an ability for you to build stronger therapeutic alliance with clients, increase empathy, and facilitate therapeutic value.

During your course of graduate study, you will spend a great deal of time learning about multicultural issues, terms, and competencies. We think it is important for you to have a good foundation from the start. As you engage in your online classrooms, it is important to recognize that there are several subtypes of microaggressions (see Table 8.2: “Behaviors of Concern”) related to race, culture, sexist behaviors, religious intolerance, and other discrimination (Sue et al., 2007). The first of these is microassaults. These are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying offensive symbols, or deliberately serving a person belonging to the dominant group before serving someone from another group. For example, Jane Doe, a practicum student in a class of six, made a post in the online classroom. She addressed four fellow students (all of whom had previously noted that they belong to the same religious group) in three different discussion board posts; excluding the single, “different” person. The instructor, in response, addressed all six students in the post and reiterated the importance of ethical, mature, counselor-like behavior in all postings in the classroom. Next are microinsults. Microinsults are verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity, sex, or religious affiliation. For example, in an ethics classroom a student we will call John Doe confronted another student about his ability to truly grasp a concept related to being a mandated reporter. John responded to his classmate, who had a question about when to contact authorities, “Well of course you don’t understand and that makes sense, given how you all ‘discipline.’” The instructor consulted with a colleague prior to responding and ultimately chose to not only directly address “John” but also to take another step. The instructor contacted John to discuss the comment and then addressed the entire class about appropriate responses, differences in opinions, and how to ethically engage in the classroom. Finally, there are microinvalidations. These are communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person from a marginalized group. For example, during a videoconference meeting of an online theories class one student struggled to grasp a concept. Another student, who had some previous experience with the intervention in question, said to the confused student, “I used to specialize in that treatment. Don’t worry about it. It’s a complicated procedure.” The instructor commended the student for sharing with the class a little about their level of expertise, commended the other student for inquiring about the concept, reiterated the value of both past experience and inquiry, and then proceeded to provide the requested information. In each example, note how the professor modeled the appropriate intervention. As a student, what would you do if you were on the receiving end of the microaggression?

Table 8.2 Behaviors of Concern


Speaking or behaving in a manner that is not blatantly offensive, but clearly is intended to be hurtful and dismissive


Communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person from a marginalized group


Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying offensive symbols or deliberately serving a person belonging to the dominant group before serving someone from another group

Of the aforementioned concepts, Sue et al. (2007) primarily focused on microinsults and microinvalidations. Due to their insidious nature, these microaggressions put disenfranchised people in a psychological bind. Sue noted that a person may feel insulted, but he or she may not really be able to voice exactly why. Their perpetrator will likely not acknowledge that anything has happened because they are oblivious to the notion that they have been offensive. Individuals may also be concerned about a concept called stereotype threat. This is a situation in which a person is afraid to behave in a given way because they believe that they may reinforce negative stereotypes already believed to be true about a group with which they self-identify. Originally introduced in 1995 by Steele and Aronson, stereotype threat can be a very powerful factor in how a person chooses to behave in social situations even when that behavior is different than what they would ideally choose. Stereotype threat often leads the recipient of social aggression to wonder if they are making a mountain out of a molehill. Internalizing stereotype threat can lead to internalized oppression. This occurs when oppressed or marginalized people internalize the prejudices of the oppressor, begin to believe them, and create introjections for their own children and their fellow oppressed. It differs from self-hatred in that it is derived from societal oppression. The student who self-identifies as a member of an oppressed group and refuses to give peers reasonable extensions on assignments because she is concerned about maintaining the stereotypes of women in her group as weak may be evidencing signs of stereotype threat.

Additional stressors can come by way of model minority status. It is often stressful when someone tries to live up to the seemingly positive stereotypes attributed to one’s group. Being a studious Asian person, a maternal female, an athletic man, a polite southerner, etc. may add undue stress to a person who wants to nullify the effects of subversive speech and negative stereotypes. Research shows that uncertainty is very distressing to people and can be damaging in a variety of settings including the workplace, educational settings, in daily life, and even in therapy (DeAngelis, 2009). As an example, the student “Tonya” is a member of a group that promotes the superiority of men over women and generally does not support women being formally educated. In the online classroom she demonstrates an exemplary work ethic, submits all assignments early, completes all extra credit assignments, and submits work beyond what is required to the instructor. She wants the instructor to believe she is worthy, especially since the instructor is male. The instructor notices signs of distress in the student, has seen her submit video-recorded assignments in which the student looks close to tears and is aware that the student has gone “beyond the call of duty.” The instructor chooses to support the student by contacting her and reiterating the requirements of the course identified in the syllabus and gently informed her that her extra submissions to the course are inconsistent with the rules of the course and create extra work for the instructor. While the instructor had some concerns about the mental well-being of this student, he remained in the role of instructor despite being a licensed counselor. He submitted his concerns about the student’s anxiety to the appropriate office based on the university’s student concern protocol.

Respecting Different Beliefs

The world is comprised of many different types of people who have varying viewpoints and beliefs. As counselors and counselors-in-training, we are ethically obligated with making an attempt to understand the worth of these differences and the importance to our clients and communities. Because counselors are human, there may be times, however, when we face dissonance and conflicts between our personal beliefs and professional dictates. This concept is illustrated by the experiences of a counseling doctoral candidate. “Nate” was a fellow counseling student who had a background in mental health research from a different university. In sharing information about his master’s degree thesis, he noted that his thesis was based on interviews of members and the guiding text of a religious group thought by many to be controversial and evil. He described his experiences of interacting with the group and shared that people from his religious group seemed to be unaccepting of his research efforts. He reported having some surprise about their reactions and the lack of tolerance for a group they did not truly understand. There were quite a few erroneous assumptions his group held about the other group. People, according to him, were unwilling to listen to his arguments or even accept the organization as a “real religion.” He said he learned quite a bit about respecting differences of other groups and learned a lot about acceptance from members of a group he had been taught to not accept.

Humans are very diverse. This is part of what makes us interesting. In instructional and supervision experiences, you will learn that there are many correct ways to engage in … and some to be avoided. There are many healthy, functional, and interesting ways in which people engage in daily life yet they may differ significantly from the choices other people may make. In counseling and coursework activities, it may be useful for you to consider your own problem-solving and thinking processes and how you critique the answers of others. While not a scientific exercise, this is a way for you to understand how differences may be received. Consider the following scenario: You are standing in New York City and are told that you have to be in San Francisco within a week. How would you get there? Some of you might say that you would fly across the United States. Some would drive. Some would take a train. If you are an outside-the-box thinker, you might try to circumnavigate the world through Europe and Asia back over to North America. The overall point of the example is to illustrate the idea that there are many different paths one can take to end up in the exact same destination that can be equally important, valuable, and respectable.

Unfortunately, not everyone believes that different paths are valuable. For example, a very well-known celebrity was being interviewed on a local morning radio station. During the interview, this particular artist identified several actors that she would never date if she were single again because these men weren’t spiritual. When probed more about this, the singer was able to confirm that she had not based her assumptions about these men’s spirituality on anything that they said. In fact, some of the aforementioned men described themselves as being very spiritual people. She based her assumptions of their spirituality on how she conceptualizes spirituality in her own life. She identified the types of work projects that they accepted as being indicative of those that a nonspiritual man would take. The interviewers found this to be interesting because the types of things this singer disliked about the roles these actors chose were very similar to the subject matter in her own songs. Further, she seemed to be unwilling to accept people who lived their lives differently than she lived her own. As an individual person, this may be something that we don’t find unusual. As a public figure who entertains everyone, her position seemed to be closed, exclusive, and a little disturbing. At times, in the online environment, instructors and students express positions that may be based largely on personal experience and anecdote. One writer (student or instructor) may consider his or her post to be a satirical commentary about the proposed mental health policy of a particular senator, while another may receive it as a political, and very personal, attack by another student. The mood and tone of the online classroom may be affected and possibly damaged by perceived attacks and negativity or dissention in the classroom.

As a counselor-in-training, you must be aware of how differences between lifestyles do not invalidate the worth of a person. Carl Rogers (1961) identified unconditional positive regard as something that counselors internalize about the being of the person sitting in the office with them. While it may be difficult to accept specific actions committed by a person, questioning the ultimate value of the overall person is inappropriate, and inconsistent with the dictates of our profession. Clients often present with challenging concerns; but do such concerns invalidate the being, and value, of the client? In the online classroom your professors can approach invalidation in three manners: preventative (primary), secondary, and tertiary. A preventative approach would be instructors posting the expectations and rules for the classroom at the beginning of the course with consequences for violations of the rules and policies explained. If there is a teleconference or videoconference option for the course these issues can be reiterated with students. Secondary and tertiary approaches require instructor intervention during, or after, the infraction of classroom netiquette. Incorporating department policy, guidelines, and classroom management strategies (such as gentle, yet timely redirection and confrontation) are necessary techniques for the online instructor.

As a student, you should consider what might be at the root of this type of behavior. Engaging in this process will improve your ability to understand the root of client issues. Fear of the unknown, prior negative experiences, shared erroneous information, and other factors contribute to intolerance (Takaki, 2008). Xenophobia contributes strongly to abhorrent reactions and a lack of understanding of people from other countries. Consider the following exercise to help you identify personal biases and perceptions. First, take some time to examine ways in which you may be viewed as an oppressor by people who do not self identify as being members of your same group. This may be hard to imagine, but try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might take that perspective. Next, consider how it feels to recognize the impact that this perception can have on someone with that perspective. It can be surprising to see yourself through another’s lens as someone whose existence may be disliked, feared, or unwanted by others based on their perception of you or the group to which you belong.

Raising Consciousness

Not long ago, my daughter, who is in the fifth grade, came home from school and shared that one of her classmates called her a “slave.” Immediately, my mind needed to know the cultural demographics of this classmate. I needed to know if the classmate was Black or White or Latino perhaps; I needed to know if her classmate was a male or female. For some reason, my mind was not able to reconcile any strong parental advice without these variables. So in my best counselor voice, I asked my daughter to share the race and/or ethnicity of the accused classmate.

“He’s White,” she shared pensively, “Why?”

Driven unconsciously by my own internalized racial discourse, I replied, “Well, tomorrow … you go to school and tell that White boy …”—my daughter swiftly interjected and confidently asserted, “Mom! I’m not racist.” Taken aback by her budding cultural intuitiveness, I asked, “… well what did you do?” Her response, “I told him that it makes sense that he’s not doing well in Social Studies; slavery was abolished in 1865.”

I am grateful to my daughter for this lesson. It has allowed me to become more aware of how my own culturally informed biases impact my perceptions of others every day. This awareness is the vehicle by which consciousness is raised. When our consciousness evolves, we begin to develop the tools to more critically examine other aspects of our cultural worldview.

Fortunately, this experience is commonplace for many people. We are all afforded opportunities in our daily lives to take note of how culture (i.e., race, gender, sexual expression, religion, varying abilities, etc.) influences our experiences with others. Consequently, counseling researchers have formed consensus around the proposition that awareness is the foundation upon which multicultural counseling competency (MCC) is built (Cates, Schaefle, Smaby, Maddux, & Beauf, 2007; Mollen, Ridley, & Hill, 2003; Ponterotto, Gretchen, Utsey, Rieger, & Austin, 2002; Spanierman et al., 2010). As empathy is the heart of the counseling relationship, awareness is the soul of empathy that allows our relationship with clients to deepen in meaningful ways.

Yet still, the question remains, “How can you make a focused effort toward cultivating cultural awareness in your graduate program? How can you translate these experiences into consciousness-raising for your counseling practice? Your professors are tasked with utilizing the virtual platform as a vehicle for eliciting the critical dialogue and internal vigilance that fuels MCC. The goal for online counseling instructors then is to leverage the distinct benefits of the virtual environment to engage counseling trainees in consciousness raising learning activities. While it may seem that traditional face-to-face classrooms are exclusively ideal for these experiences, virtual classrooms offer a sense of anonymity that can serve as a “safety net” for you. Similar to being able to say something in a text message that would be almost impossible to say in person, consider how you can use your online environment to develop meaningful expressions and explorations that might be difficult to initiate otherwise. While your online classroom will have your name and may even have a picture associated with your participation, there is still a sense of anonymity that offers an advantage unique to online instruction that can help challenge you to develop personally. You shouldn’t avoid joining the discourse—no matter how challenging to you. These strategies can support your development of culturally affirming virtual classrooms. Additionally, we as gatekeepers possess increased insight of student blind spots, stereotypes, and cultural biases which we can address in the online classroom.

Focus on awareness.

Training virtual counseling students toward MCC is an ongoing process that we embrace as counselor educators with a goal of initiating your cultural awareness. It is through awareness that raised consciousness emerges. Our efforts as professors toward raising consciousness help you to gradually integrate more multidimensional paradigms into all areas of your clinical practice. While setting your learning goals toward raising awareness and consciousness may seem rudimentary, taking the time to build a strong and resilient MCC foundation is the key to being a competent and caring counselor across differences—and over time.

Balance your approach.

As a student, you are encouraged to engage in academic debate and to engage online with your learning resources, peers, and the instructor. Because of the nature of our profession, we are constantly balancing our altruistic (i.e., “I do this to help people!”) and narcissistic natures (i.e., “I am the one who can help people!”). Both archetypes are necessary for counselors to possess, but any strength in excess becomes a weakness. When counselors find themselves overemphasizing one aspect of culture (i.e., racism, sexual expression, religion, etc.), it may be an indication of one-sidedness. Balance is the key. As you go through your graduate program, keep this idea of balance in mind.

Setting reasonable expectations.

With virtual courses occurring over a matter of weeks, you must set reasonable expectations for yourself for what can be achieved in this time. Counselors are often passionate about MCC and are fully vested in developing this vital aspect of counseling skill. Remember that you have to develop your multicultural competence over time and to use all of your learning experiences to develop your ability to become a change agent. You are capable of positively impacting the world one client at a time.

Begin with the basics.

Once you have completed a self-assessment and set reasonable expectations, we suggest that you seek out learning resources that will help develop your empathy for diverse populations. Many of us have experienced being “the other” or “one of them” in some form—just as many of us have experienced being “part of the group.” Taking a deep exploration of your learning resources that operationalize and examine the terms privilege and oppression will help you to normalize typical challenges of introspection regarding worldview. Keep it simple, but anticipate that with every resource (i.e., journal articles, textbooks, research, etc.), a new lens begins to develop. As you begin your journey toward becoming a professional counselor, we encourage you to explore how your personal identity is connected to a larger social context (i.e., marital/relational status, appearance, education level, learning disability, address, use of language, etc.) that may situate you from a different vantage point. This allows you to begin building a communal contextual consciousness in the virtual setting by which you become gradually more aware of: (a) your own power and privilege within varying social contexts; (b) the client’s experience within these contexts; and (c) the intersection that exists in the client/counselor dyad.

Cultivating internal vigilance.

Internal Vigilance is the willingness to interrogate one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an effort to dismantle faulty thinking patterns that perpetuate marginalization in real time. We are all guilty of deferring to the reality of a broader systemic social issue as opposed to looking within. We gravitate in excess toward our altruistic nature to avoid conflict, misunderstandings, and mischaracterizations. At times, adult learners who have learned how to navigate the politically correct terrain of the real world will also attempt this avoidance behavior in the online forum. We invite you to consider this as you engage in discussions throughout your graduate program. Remember that internal vigilance is how the goal of awareness is achieved. Some of my favorite redirecting questions include:

  • How do you see yourself as an individual impacted by and/or impacting this broader social issue?
  • What experiences have you had personally that shape your perspective on this topic?
  • How can you personally relate to the perspectives of your clients?
  • What are some reasons that members of your cultural group might prefer a less directive counseling approach?
  • Research suggests that racial/ethnic minorities may have a great level of mistrust regarding participation in research opportunities. What are some characteristics of your personality that might support developing a stronger sense of trust between you, the researcher, and your ethnic/racial minority participants?

As you begin employing these strategies and engaging in consciousness-raising discourse, you will also notice the emergence of more meaningful dialogue among your peers. As you and your peers become more engaged in your own personal and professional growth, you may find an interesting desire to engage others offline as well. Remember that the lens you are developing as a professional counselor will help you to see the world from a social learning framework. Keep in mind that consciousness raising is a natural progression and that you should start with achievable goals toward advocacy.

Social Justice and Counselors

As our consciousness evolves through awareness, so does the need to do something. At some point, engaging in critical dialogue plateaus and ideas of social justice advocacy begin to emerge. Arguably, advocacy is the natural evolution of MCC. As you begin to develop a deeper and broader sense of empathy for each client and the social contexts in which they live, you will begin to want to use your own privilege to empower others. Here are some insights that we believe will help to foster a social justice advocacy orientation among virtual counseling students.

#Social justice advocacy.

One of the many advantages to online learning is that both the students and the instructor have to embrace technology. We live in an era in which technology has made many in the world feel more connected. We are able to find and interact with more people virtually; those that share our views—and many who see the world differently. Technology also allows us to be more aware of the experiences and stories of others. As a generation Facebook educator, I am often informed of world-shifting events via social media. Current counseling students are at the nexus of this evolution and carry the responsibility of using technology (i.e., social media, Web pages, blogs, etc.) as a catalyst for positive social change. Consider how you can work with your peers to develop the technical acumen for advancing social change on behalf of your future clients.

Advocating for underrepresented students.

At the age of 62, my mother was laid off, and the company that she gave two decades of her life to closed its doors. I don’t know that I will ever be able to fully understand what that was like for her—yet I lend her my empathy. Also at the age of 62, my mother found a way back to school to pursue the dream she had deferred to be a mother. I don’t know that I will ever be able to fully understand what that was like for her—yet I am able to lend her my empathy. I became an online instructor for many reasons, but mostly because I know that without virtual learning environments, many exceptional individuals that have real-life responsibilities would not be able to pursue a counseling degree otherwise. Professors in the online environment are keenly aware of these student needs and take pride in advocating for the needs of adult learners by empathizing with the broader social context that is a part of their identity as online students. As professors, we hope this model will inspire you to do the same with your clients. Although we may never be able to fully understand another person’s journey, we can lend them our empathy. We hope that you see the importance of advocating for the needs of historically marginalized clients (i.e., people of color, women, individuals with few economic resources, people with disabilities). Part of your training will be focused on methods of broaching these conversations with colleagues, work administration, and other entities that are the key to the social change efforts we want to accomplish.


How does discussion about acceptance and tolerance relate to respecting diversity in the online counselor education environment? Intolerance for differences, the idea of a single individual having multiple differences, and moving “beyond toleration” are contemporary challenges that face our profession (Dobbernack & Modood, 2013). Information gathered from news outlets and social media support the current trend toward mistrust, exploitation of social ills, and sociopolitical relations. Counseling professionals (both future clinicians and counselors) are charged with supporting clients, counselors-in-training, and supervisees as they navigate a tense social environment, introspect about their roles, their impact on the community, their communication, and their engagement in relationships. Such a willingness for self-examination is necessary to further the development and maintenance of a healthy profession. And, ultimately, it is often your professor who will invite you into this place of examination—whether in a brick-and-mortar or virtual counselor training environment. When invited, take the opportunity to grow and begin development of your new lens.

About the Authors

Robyn Trippany Simmons received her EdD in Counselor Education in May 2001, as well as a BA in Psychology (1994) and MA in Community Counseling (1996) from the University of Alabama. She serves as Residency Director for the School of Counseling at Walden University. She has taught a variety of courses including diagnosis and assessment, internship, professional orientation, among others. Dr. Trippany Simmons’s research and clinical interests include sexual trauma, vicarious trauma, play therapy, and professional identity issues. She has presented locally, regionally, and nationally and has several publications related to these topics. Further, she is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Alabama and is a Registered Play Therapist. Dr. Trippany Simmons lives in Alabama with her husband and two children.

Tiffany Rush-Wilson received her PhD in Counseling at the University of Akron in 2003. She currently serves as the Skill Development Coordinator for Counseling Unit at Walden University with a focus on both the online classrooms and in-person residencies. She has taught a variety of courses in the Mental Health Counseling and Psychology programs. Professionally, Dr. Rush-Wilson is independently, and dually, licensed and certified as a counselor in the United States and Canada. She is interested in the impact of language and communication on mental health, body image, and has worked in community mental health, children’s services, and extensively in private practice. She is a member of both American and Canadian Counseling Associations and the Academy for Eating Disorders and has participated in community outreach and presented on Women’s Issues, scope of practice and eating disorders at local, national, and international venues.

Breyan Haizlip received her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2009. She currently serves as Core Faculty at Walden University. She has taught a variety of courses in the Mental Health Counseling and Psychology programs. Professionally, Dr. Haizlip is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Her research interests are focused broadly on multicultural counseling, with particular interests in sexual expression, identity development, and the intersections of gender and race/ethnicity. She is a member of the American Counseling Association. She maintains an international and national presentation profile, presenting on issues of culturally responsive education, women’s empowerment, and inclusionary education.


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