The importance of developing culturally competent counselors has never been greater. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected because of technology, economic and business initiatives, pop culture and professional opportunities, cultures are less and less segregated. The likelihood of daily encounters with individuals from other countries or with different ethnic backgrounds is high, meaning counselors no longer can depend on having shared cultural experiences with their clients.

A joint Masters of Arts degree program in transcultural counseling between the University of Malta and the University of Maryland is aiming to prepare the next generation of counselors by teaching students how to work successfully in a variety of contexts, free from cultural biases.

The joint transcultural counseling program is the brainchild of Dione Mifsud, head of the psychology department at the University of Malta, a member of the American Counseling Association and current president of the International Association for Counselling (IAC), and Courtland Lee, a professor of counselor education and school counseling at the University of Maryland and a past president of both ACA and the IAC.

“I had … in mind for sometime that we would have a program with an international flavor,” Mifsud says. His idea took further shape after meeting Lee at an international counseling conference in Malta in 2008. Mifsud then proposed the idea to Lee at the ACA Annual Conference in Charlotte, N.C., in 2009.

The University of Malta had other international joint degree programs in place, Mifsud says, but nothing in the counseling field. Mifsud and Lee began working on a proposal for a joint master’s degree in transcultural counseling between the University of Maryland and the University of Malta, and the program was officially formalized in July 2011.

The first cohort of 14 students — hailing from Malta, Finland, Germany, China and the United States — began in the fall of 2011. When they graduate, they will receive degrees in counseling from both universities.

“What we told them we expect,” Lee says, “is that they will have the transcultural competencies to be world counselors, that they’ll be able to go to any country and adapt their worldview to the cultural context of that country and be good counselors.”

Generally speaking, Mifsud says, transcultural counseling focuses on the bridging of different ethnic cultures. That is not the only thing the program is trying to accomplish, however. “We’d like our counselors to be able to deal with not just ethnic realities, but daily [differences between cultures],” he says. “Each client brings a different culture with him.”

The 18-month joint master’s program is based out of the University of Malta in Valletta and is taught by professors from the United States, Malta and the United Kingdom. Mifsud believes the variety in the teachers’ cultural backgrounds enhances the transcultural element of the program.

The course provides students with training in counseling while also allowing them to “assimilate a broader view of the sociocultural context surrounding counseling,” according to the University of Maryland’s website describing the program.

Students must complete course work, a practicum (done in the country of the student’s choosing) and a final paper. The aim of the program, as described by the University of Maryland website, is to provide the students with “a wider exchange of cultural viewpoints and experiences surrounding contemporary counseling theory and practice.”

There is also something of a political aspect to the program, Mifsud acknowledges. Upon completing the program, he hopes graduates will be able to think transculturally and potentially influence political organizations such as the United Nations and organizations with social justice missions to operate in ways that will positively enhance all cultures.

Mifsud has an idea why more students are choosing to focus on transcultural counseling. “It has to do with counseling becoming a global phenomenon, and also an increased focus on international issues [in society in general], not just in counseling,” he says.

Lee agrees, adding that social justice and transculturalism have become hot topics in modern society and are increasingly relevant for counseling students.

The program dovetails the prevalence of internationalism in the world and in counseling by having the students complete their internships in unique, transcultural settings, from schools to organizations that house immigrants to jails.

Anabel Mifsud (no relation to Dione), research officer and administrator for counseling programs at the University of Malta, explains that it is important for counseling students to intern in settings such as jails because “[prisoners] are marginalized and quite different from the general population, and there are many foreigners there as well.”

Anabel believes transcultural counseling will continue to become more relevant over time. “I think increasingly we are living in a transcultural environment,” she says. “People are moving from one place to another, and we’re seeing a large influx of immigrants, especially in Malta.”

The diverse student cohort in the program in Malta further enhances the ideals being taught in the classroom, Anabel says. “The transcultural element is manifested through these students coming from different countries,” she says.

Student Anders Granberg, a member of ACA, is but one example of the culturally diverse backgrounds found within the program. He is from Finland but has also lived extensively in Hong Kong.

He says studying with students from other countries has helped him learn in ways he would not have otherwise. “They bring their own flavor from wherever they’re from,” Granberg says, “[which affects] how they react to counseling and different aspects of counseling.”

Granberg’s own transcultural background, as well as the growing multiculturalism he has witnessed throughout the world, inspired him to study transcultural counseling. “It interests me a lot and was one of the reasons I got into counseling in general,” Granberg says. “People cross into different cultures all the time and don’t always understand what’s going on. That’s something I understand [in relation to] my own life, and I want to help others with that as a counselor.”

So far, his favorite course has been “Multicultural Counseling,” which was taught by Lee. “It allowed us to reflect on our own cultural elements, and not just our ethnicities, but our genders and other abstract things,” Granberg says.

As Lee explains, “It is basically a modified course that I’ve been teaching in the U.S. for the last 30 years. When you teach a multicultural course in the United States, there is always a focus on race and ethnicity, but that is not the case when teaching the course internationally. [For example], there is a focus on religion [in the class here] because that is a big issue here in Malta. We talked about culture in a much broader, more global sense.”

Student Suelle Micallef Marmara, who is from Malta, says Lee’s class and the other courses she has taken have already altered her worldview. “I’m becoming more transculturally aware, and I’m noticing more conflicts between other cultures and when people don’t integrate with other cultures,” she says.

Marmara believes the transcultural counseling program will prepare her to stay much more open-minded with her clients as she becomes a licensed professional counselor. “It will help me be more aware, be less prejudiced and put less space between [myself] and a [client], which ultimately helps [me] become a better counselor,” she says.

Wenjiao Zhang, a student from China, agrees. “This program changed my views in many ways, [including] how I see perspectives in general,” she says. “For example, I didn’t see how local healing practices could be used as part of counseling practices … but now my eyes are open.”

Victoria Garcia, a student from the United States, says one of the most effective aspects of the program for her is that she is studying abroad for it. “I don’t think it would be as beneficial if it was in the United States,” she says. “And now I’ve made friends from all over the world that I’ll keep in touch with as I continue on this journey to become a counselor.”

Garcia says the program has encouraged her to further develop her views, both transculturally and introspectively. For example, she has come to understand that she struggles to identify with her own ethnic culture, but her courses are helping her to reconcile this aspect of her life. Getting to know one’s self better will only serve to enhance one’s competencies as a counselor, Garcia says.

Garcia is grateful to be experiencing the program, not only because she will graduate with two degrees, but because the program is offering knowledge that she believes will be key to the evolution of the counseling profession.

“I think it’s important to be culturally competent and globally literate,” Garcia says. “I’m not saying you have to be an expert in every culture, but if you don’t understand a little bit where somebody’s coming from, it’s hard to connect.”

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at

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