Counseling Arab-American Students: Are Your Campus Mental Health Professionals Prepared to Support Students from a Variety of Backgrounds?

The global pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody have rocked the nation and exposed its deep-seated inequalities and racism. The rebellion in the streets is a justified response to health disparities, racism, white supremacy, and police violence. Across the country, students—especially Black students, Indigenous students, and other students of color—are outraged and are demanding that universities and colleges make changes to address systemic racial injustice.

Arab American college students, like their Black peers, have faced a history of othering, discrimination, and profiling that can lead to psychological distress and exacerbate existing psychological disorders. Anti-Arab and Islamophobic foreign and domestic policies like the global war on terrorism, the Muslim travel ban, mass surveillance, and federally funded racial profiling negatively affect Arab Americans and can impede students’ ability to succeed socially, academically, and personally.

Administrators, faculty members, counselors, and other campus leaders must rise to the occasion to offer Arab American and Black, Indigenous, and other students of color a safe and affirming community. To do this, they must ensure that campus mental health specialists can effectively serve all student populations—and that means understanding how the political and social climate, among other issues, affects each of them.

Since 2015, as a counselor who identifies as Arab American, I have been examining the paucity of Arab American cultural competency training available for college counseling professionals. College counselors are responsible for assessing the mental health of students, providing support, and advocating for students’ rights. To capture the experiences of Arab American students, as well as those of counselors, I led focus groups and conducted surveys at my institution, Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC), which is located about twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago. Counselors emphasized their need to have more sensitivity to the political climate Arab American students are facing, to develop a deeper understanding of how racism and discrimination affect these students, and to gain more knowledge about how interventions rooted in European and North American values can be limiting when serving this population. Students in the focus groups shared the expectations they have when meeting with a counselor, the contemporary challenges they face, and factors that would increase the likelihood that they would engage in counseling services. These students also offered a rich critique of how the political landscape is shaping their experiences and identities.

A counselor’s comprehensive understanding of the challenges Arab American students face can be the impetus for an engaging therapeutic relationship. Making students feel welcome and understood creates a safe social and political space for students who otherwise may not feel secure. Therefore, when we talk about Arab students today, we must keep in mind that they are diverse and have complex needs based on country of origin, levels of acculturation, religious affiliation, and political experiences. The Arab American Institute Foundation (AAI) puts the number of Arab Americans at nearly 3.7 million, and Arab students are just as diverse as the twenty-two countries they emigrated from or have ancestral ties to: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Arab American students may be first-, second-, or third-generation Americans. For some, Arabic may be their first language, while others may not speak Arabic at all. The majority of Arab Americans, 82 percent, are US citizens, according to the Pew Research Center, and although members of this community can be found in almost every part of the United States, the largest concentrations live in Los Angeles, Detroit/Dearborn, New York/New Jersey, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

Other assumptions, including those about the religious background of Arab American students, may interfere with the therapeutic process. It is not uncommon, for example, for individuals to assume that the majority of Arab Americans are Muslim when, in fact, only 24 percent of Arabs living in the United States practice Islam, according to the AAI. Estimates range that anywhere from 63 to 77 percent of Arab Americans identify as Christian.

Counselors must be careful not to assume that Arab American students have a fixed or uniform character. Such an assumption would be counterproductive to the therapeutic encounter. These students are distinct from one another, and all students should be regarded as individuals with unique experiences based on their backgrounds and life circumstances.

It’s also crucial that counselors, faculty, and administrators understand the political and cultural challenges Arab American students face. A focus on politics is warranted because Arab American students are telling us it is, because it is their lived experience, and because when they turn on the television, read articles online, or listen to the radio, they inevitably see or hear some story that involves them.

Arab American students, for instance, are living in a post-9/11 era in which they are under surveillance and are scrutinized in their neighborhoods and communities, at school, and in other public places. In addition, in 2016, the number of hate groups in the United States rose for the second year in a row, according to a 2017 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The biggest increase was in the near tripling of anti-Muslim hate groups from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. And the FBI reported that hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67 percent in 2015.

According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, “Such racial profiling and hate crimes not only harm individual students, causing problems ranging from academic difficulties to physical and psychological trauma, but also affect everyone in the targeted group.”

The Arab American students who participated in my research indicated that the hostile political climate has magnified their insecurity and left them questioning their place in the United States. Students said they feared repressive policies being shaped by the Trump administration. They also pointed to the Muslim travel ban executive order, which, in its most recent iteration, affects people from several countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, North Korea, and Venezuela), most, but not all, of them Muslim-majority. Students said they feared deportation and worried they might not see their families again, acknowledging that the stress was affecting them academically and socially. “The Muslim ban was very traumatizing,” said one student in a focus group, “not just to me, but to people who could not come back to the States when they left for vacation.”

To cultivate dialogue and an understanding of the issues that directly affect Arab American students, MVCC invites organizations like the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) to facilitate on-campus teach-ins. The AAAN, a grassroots community organizing and social services institution (of which I am a board member) located in southwest Chicago, is investigating the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force, a controversial racial profiling initiative that aims to identify “radicalized” people by connecting community and religious leaders with local law enforcement, health professionals, teachers, and social service employees. “These programs unfairly target Muslim and minority communities as inherently susceptible to terrorism,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. “They conflate community services and intelligence gathering, often under false pretenses, undermining trust between law enforcement and communities.”

“The people of Chicago,” AAAN lead organizer Muhammad Sankari said in a press release, “need to know how and why the federal government funds police departments and community organizations to spy on our neighborhoods, using the very people we should trust: teachers, therapists, and religious leaders.”

Arab and Muslim students—who may already hesitate to engage with counselors because they feel misunderstood and judged—will almost certainly not seek help from professionals if the students know about initiatives like CVE. Yet many Arab and Muslim students are in desperate need of counselors who understand students’ issues within the context of culture, politics, and religion and who will not use Arab American identities against the students.

“It would be helpful to meet with a counselor who understands us if we feel like we are being singled out because of who we are,” explained another student participating in a focus group.

Arab American students’ lived experiences today are jeopardizing their academic success and emotional well-being. Some are living in a state of hyperarousal—trying to manage racing and unsettling thoughts in anticipation of danger, their minds and bodies on permanent alert. Others are despondent or in a state of hypoarousal, feeling numb and empty. Students who have had their experiences dismissed, misheard, or judged will feel discouraged about returning to see a counselor.

Focus group participants also discussed how media misrepresentations may affect a counselor’s views regarding Arab or Muslim students. Distorted images that stigmatize members of their community are readily available in televised news stories, radio segments, newspapers, and social media, which feed into the dehumanization of this group, creating a climate of fear and hostility.

In his book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, the late professor and author Jack Shaheen analyzes, reviews, and documents more than a thousand Hollywood films, television shows, and commercials that depict Arabs as cruel and barbaric. He explains that demeaning depictions in films like Aladdin—with such song lyrics as those describing Arabia as the land “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”—are especially harmful to children who are being made to feel ashamed about their background. These skewed images, Shaheen says, impair viewers’ perceptions of Arab Americans.

Portrayals of Arab Americans as terrorists, barbarians, and oppressors of women can also negatively influence a counselor’s worldview of students and may hinder the therapeutic alliance. Sixty-nine percent of the counselors I surveyed expressed awareness of these dangerous stereotypes, noting that they believe many people do hold negative attitudes, preconceived notions, and biases toward Arab Americans. In the student focus group, participants said they were concerned about where counselors get their information about Arab American students. “Are they getting [it] from media outlets?” asked one student. If so, “how does this impact the way counselors work with us?”

“Every counselor should have a basic understanding of Arab culture and information on Islam,” another student said. “If they do not understand us, then they are going to believe what they see in the media.”

As campus counselors, perhaps we are not as prepared as we would like to be to effectively engage with our Arab American students. Considering today’s political climate, it is imperative that we have an awareness of both the historical and current oppressions encountered by this population so that we can help them and advocate on their behalf. For example, in the aftermath of the travel ban, MVCC, like many institutions across the nation, hosted “Know Your Rights” and “No Ban, No Wall” workshops, which gave affected students the opportunity to receive advice from immigration lawyers, community organizers, and activists about their rights and what they could and could not do in the wake of the policy.

Additionally, although they have been immigrating to the United States since the late 1800s, Arab Americans commonly have been left out of the academic discourse, remaining a woefully understudied population for aspiring undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in counseling, psychology, and social work. Sixty-one percent of the counselors I surveyed indicated that their graduate program did not provide adequate multicultural coursework integrating information on Arabs. The counselors reported, however, that information on culturally responsive care for the four major racial/ethnic minority groups in the United States—African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans—was readily available and integrated in their graduate academic coursework.

To address this challenge, institutions of higher education should create more inclusive curricula and provide courses on the sociopolitical experiences that affect Arab American students. Colleges and universities should also consider adding an ethnic category on their enrollment/application forms for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) students. For instance, MVCC sits in a congressional district that has one of the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the United States. Although a sizable number of Arab American students attend the college, currently no way exists to definitively capture their numbers because US Census and most college forms lack a category for “Arab”—meaning Arabs are often categorized as White. If we truly are committed to fostering a sense of belonging by letting these students know representation matters and that we understand that their experiences in this country are not the same as those of their White peers, then a simple but meaningful remedy would be the addition of a MENA category to our enrollment and application forms.

Moreover, colleges and universities should recognize the benefits of diversifying their faculty and staff to complement the demographics of their student populations. In being more proactive in our recruitment and hiring practices of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, we are providing underrepresented groups with faculty and staff who can be their allies and mentors, signaling to these students that they matter.

It is also our collective duty as counselors to gain an understanding of the innumerable ways in which racism and oppression cause psychological harm to Arab Americans, as we would with any other students of color. Culturally competent counseling skills can be acquired through supervision, consultation, and participation in professional development programs, including one I created, “The Effect of Culturally Competent Counseling Practices with Arab American College Students.” (For more information, email me at nasers2@morainevalley.edu.)

When counseling or teaching Arab American students, I frequently hear how relieved they are to have an Arab American counselor to help them navigate their sociopolitical experiences. “Having someone who understands your background when you go talk to them is so important to me,” explained a student in a focus group. “I don’t want to be judged or misunderstood.”

“I had a counselor that would advise me or come up with solutions that [were] more appropriate for a non-Arab,” another student shared.

Several scholars have raised concerns about the limitation of interventions rooted in European or North American counseling therapies when applied to Arab students. For example, an Arab student at MVCC was facing a potential suspension due to a persistent decline in GPA, which could have resulted in the student being sent back to his home country. The counselor working with the student was unaware of the political upheaval in that country and did not assess for acculturative stress or the impact of the political climate on the student’s academic and personal well-being. Had the counselor operated with a multicultural perspective—learning more about the student’s challenges—then she might have more readily considered alternatives to suspension and subsequent deportation. Fortunately, the assigned counselor consulted with me, and exceptions were made so that the student could stay enrolled. This situation is just one example of how important it is for counselors to develop culturally appropriate skills. Indeed, we must create a safe and nonjudgmental space that allows students to navigate their complex issues and connect to counselors who can help them thrive.

Resources for Support

Arab American Action Network: aaan.org

Arab American Cultural Center: arabamcc.uic.edu

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: icirr.org

Zakat Foundation of America: zakat.org


Souzan Naser is an associate professor and counselor at Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois, where she has won awards for her work on increasing diversity on campus.

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