Dean of students, Dr. Pascal Losambe. (Photo/Carolyn Vaziri’22 and Andrew Barren’22)
The 2019-2020 school year has already welcomed many changes–from the construction of a new field house, the addition of a girls’ golf team, to the arrival of a new Director of Athletics in Mr. Jason Singleton. For our Upper School’s Dean of Students, change came in the form of a doctorate degree.
Dr. Pascal Losambe, who has served the high school for the past two school years, recently completed his dissertation this summer, when he received a Ph.D. from Purdue University in Educational Leadership. At Purdue, Dean Losambe studied cultural competency in Indiana schools. I sat down with Losambe to ask him about his journey and how he believes this research can greater impact our Columbus Academy community.
Losambe exemplifies a model of inclusiveness every day, whether through morning handshakes, a greeting by name with a smile, or by his most acclaimed moments of kindness during assembly.
What made you interested in this work?
I moved to this country when I was sixteen. My family and I moved to Burlington, Vermont, and when I got there, people were welcoming, very intrigued and curious. However, I had not been in this environment before, so I felt out of place. There were not many minority students in the school that I enrolled in, and that was tough. I went through a period of a little bit of pain, pain from the loss of coming to a new culture I didn’t understand. I was a rugby player, so I even had to lay down the boots! But I was struggling, because I had my people, and that was the culture I knew. In South Africa, you look forward to the pinnacle of high school: senior year. I had gone through so much with so many of my friends, and then I had to leave that behind when I moved to a new culture and place where I had to find my footing. There were times where I was like, “I don’t belong here…what am I doing here?” That intrigued me.
One example of something that really stuck with me was, I was in math class, and in South Africa, instead of periods, we use commas, and my teacher said, “No, we don’t do that here. We use periods.” I then thought to myself, I feel so out of place. I then started to gain a passion for cultural competence. I am sure I am not the only one that thinks this, even if you are from this country, but there are a lot of things that people don’t understand about you, whether assumptions or stereotypes, so I got passionate about this work because it was personal to me.
I also wanted to find out what schools are really doing fundamentally to get to know the kids they serve, especially in the area of cultural competence. That is what drove me to this area of work and why I was very passionate about pursuing a project in that regard.
How would you define your cultural background?
I hail from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s where my parents grew up, and that’s where my family is. Right now if you took a snapshot, I have many aunts and uncles in England, in France and other parts of Europe. I have some in other parts of the continent of Africa. We are all over now, but our real cultural foundation is from the Congo. I never grew up in the Congo, as I, along with my siblings, were actually born in Nigeria, where my dad was studying for his Ph.D.
From Nigeria, we moved to Swaziland, and from there, we moved to South Africa. Despite all the moving around, we really defined the family as our fundamental unit of support. So, my ethnic and cultural background is very Congolese, because that’s where my parents’ roots are.
It is a privilege to attend Columbus Academy, but at times, we become acclimated to the limitations of our “bubble.” How will your thesis influence your direction for our community?
We have to look around at the bigger context of the world and also independent schools in general.
Independent schools are becoming more diverse.
We have to recognize, as well, by the year 2030, some people estimate earlier, most of the students aged 0 to 17 are going to be from ethnic minority populations. We are going to become more diverse, more multicultural. Even if this is the bubble, we also have to be thinking about our students going out into the world and those new students coming in. Columbus Academy has a tremendous commitment to offering financial aid to give underrepresented students an opportunity to attend a school like this, because we know what it can do for their lives.
A lot of the work around cultural competence is theoretical. When I started this project, I was like, “Okay, we have a theory. But what are schools actually doing on the ground? What are they doing on a day-to-day basis in order to get to know their kids?” There was a cultural proficiency framework I was working with, where it said there were five essential elements of a school that is striving to implement cultural competence: 1) Assess your culture, 2) Value diversity, 3) Manage the dynamics of differences, 4) Adapt to diversity, and 5) Institutionalize cultural knowledge. I wanted to find out what all of this meant for a school.
When you assess a culture, you have parents, students, and faculty who are impacting the community culture. I need to understand how people from different backgrounds are interacting with one another, and how we are getting to know the people in our community who may not fit the dominant demographic. How are we incorporating their voices into policies or practices, and what are the barriers to the goal of educating a student so that they can reach their full potential?
What are the barriers we have that don’t allow a student to flourish on this campus?
Under these different perimeters, what does it mean to value diversity?
As a result, this framework has been essential, and the practicality of it was what my dissertation was after, exploring what can serve this community well.
Can you explain why and how an understanding of cultural competency is critical to one’s physical and mental health?
Right at the center of cultural competence are human beings and their need to belong, to flourish.
About 70 years ago, Abraham Maslow said human beings have a hierarchy of needs that need to be satisfied in order for them to become their full selves. Maslow said you have physiological needs: air, water, food, shelter, etc. At the next level, you have a need for safety, to be free from danger, to feel like you are secure.
Then you have a need for love and belonging, meaning you are accepted and supported by a community or group.
The next need is to meet the esteem of the group, to maintain some kind of respected, positive individuality within the group.
At the very top of this period is self-actualization: you maximizing your potential in order to maximize your creativity, motivation, and be everything that you can be. Maslow also says that if a lower level need has not been met, then you will work hard at fulfilling that need, and the next level up cannot be met. So what does that mean? If you walk into this environment, and you feel like you don’t belong, you are going to spend your time trying to figure out who you are in this environment and where you fit in. You are also going to become hypersensitive to signs of non-belonging. So if someone looks at you the wrong way, you are automatically going to think, “What was that look?”
Our brains are primed for negativity, so we are going to go to the negative first.
I’m learning that, for every negative thought, it takes three positive interactions or thoughts to counteract that negative. Without being intentional about this work, students are going to walk in here and feel like they don’t belong. On top of that pyramid is self-actualization, so if you’re not fulfilling that need to belong, it is very hard, almost impossible, for someone to reach their full potential, because they are attempting to fulfill that need to feel accepted, supported, etc. That is at the heart of well-being.
So what can a school do? What can a school do to allow barriers to belonging to be eliminated? That’s where the framework comes in, and we have to assess ourselves-to ask whether we are getting to know our students or our faculty.
On the first day of class, are we just handing out a syllabus, or are we taking time to form relationships, to figure out, “What’s going on in your life?” or “What makes you tick, or what excites you?” This way we are learning about an individual student, and as you learn about them, you are better equipped to remove the barrier. It doesn’t mean you are everything for everyone–that is a misconception. “Oh, this person doesn’t show up on time, so they can just come in late. Maybe in their culture, their concept of time is more fluid than our Euro-centric culture, so come in late.” That’s not what they’re talking about. They’re asking, are you investing in that child enough to first, figure out why that child is coming in late, and second, can you implement systematically some things to remove barriers to that lateness?
Cultural competence is a two-way street, where the system has to bend. You have to create practices and policies to support the diverse needs, but the person, the individual, has to bend, as well. It is a two-way street, but the goal has not moved. The goal to be on time hasn’t moved. The goal to hand in your work on time hasn’t moved. It’s just removing barriers to that. But if your interactions are mostly negative, for example, if immediately you get a detention, that is a negative interaction, and remembering, it takes three positives to counteract a negative. So if that child is not experiencing positive interactions at school, they are not going to feel like they belong here, and that is going to negatively affect their well-being. They are going to go through battle fatigue, where they are trying and trying to fit in, but eventually, they’ll give up.
Without belonging, you have lower motivation, lower engagement, and a lower sense of health. It is so key to one’s physical and mental well-being, because cultural competence is a vehicle to allow a student to feel as though they belong. You have to keep the standards high but eliminate the barriers to that standard, because otherwise, the students will internalize that they cannot meet that standard.
What can students and faculty at the Academy do to become more sensitive to implicit biases? Do you believe they are entrenched in our community?
Yes—myself included—everyone has them. In my studies, a lot of principles were saying, some families from ethnic minority groups have an inherent distrust of their administration. That could have been due to past experiences, etc. If a parent does not feel welcome, they might not show up at the school and be as involved as other parents. The standard at Academy is parents are involved. What if a parent is not that involved? An implicit bias would be that these parents are disengaged. However, we have to be cautious about that, and understanding the bigger context of that behavior is so important. \
What has happened in the history of this country, or this world, or their culture to breed that inherent distrust? This allows us to place ourselves in the context of that implicit bias, and ask, “What have we been doing to perpetuate this bias? Once we reflect, we are able to remove those barriers.
Self-reflection is key.
It swings back and forth. Our brains are primed to protect us. We have agents of socialization, whether through media, religion, peers, family, etc. What we see, we internalize. If you’re walking down the street, and you see a group of minority people, you might become a little bit apprehensive. You are feeling this way because of what these agents of socialization are feeding you. But now that you recognize that bias, you have to be present enough to interrupt that behavior, and you have to be intentional.
A big portion of my dissertation was talking about how we have to become a culture of intentionality. We can’t assume. When teachers assign group work, they teach their expectations for group work. I’ve seen some teachers assign different roles within each group, so no one is assuming that people know how to implement inclusive practices in their classrooms. You extract them, and you guide them on how to do that. You are not assuming that people know how to have tough conversations–you are intentional about teaching and instructing people on how to do that. A big part is modeling that behavior.
I could get up at assembly and say, “We need to be kinder. We need to be more compassionate as a community.” Instead, if we highlight people who are doing it, and what it looks like, that is powerful for people. They will catch on, because they will recognize that this is the behavior that we hold dear. This is kindness. This is compassion. It is better than me getting up.
Let’s model it. Have the courage to model it. Moments of kindness are everything.
At the end of the day, we have to be serious about this work, because if we as adults and faculty don’t know how to do it, how are we going to teach it to our students? In our community, it is entrenched, because individuals make up our community. Whatever color you are, whatever ethnic background you’re from, whatever learning style you have, whatever neighborhood you live in, we have implicit biases, so we have to go through a reflective period to make sure we are aware of what they are and how to interrupt them when they occur.