Clemmont Eyvind Vontress, American counselor educator and psychologist, is recognized generally as a pioneer in cross-cultural counseling. He first used the concept of cross-cultural counseling in a speech at the University of Virginia in 1968. He has contributed to the literature on the impact of culture on counseling, existential psychotherapy, and traditional healing in Africa for nearly 5 decades. Early in his career, he focused his attention on problems that Anglo-Americans encountered in counseling Black Americans. After researching the national culture and its subsystems in the United States, Vontress examined how cultural differences affect the entire counseling process, regardless of the client’s background. Today, he is considered one of the leading writers on culture and counseling. During the past 2 decades, Vontress has contributed significantly to the literature on traditional healing in Africa and its implications for counseling culturally different clients in the West. Living and learning in a primarily racially segregated society in the first half of the 20th century, he was influenced significantly by the ethos of the civil rights movement in the United States. His strong feelings about human rights and the equality of people were evident in his writings during the latter half of the 20th century. His concerns about counseling Blacks in segregated and integrated school systems culminated in Counseling Negroes, the first book to explore the topic. By the 1970s, race and culture were dominant themes in the counseling field. Vontress was in the forefront of the increasing number of counselor educators who wrote and spoke often at national, state, and local professional conventions about cultural, ethnic, and racial differences as barriers in the counseling enterprise. It was in the late 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s that Vontress began to explicate existentialism, the philosophy underpinning his personal approach to counseling. In 1979 he outlined his philosophical approach to counseling in the article “Cross-Cultural Counseling: An Existential Approach.” In writing and speaking about how existential philosophy can be used as a therapeutic modality, Vontress established himself in the counseling field as a leading advocate of existential philosophy in counseling in general and cross-cultural counseling in particular. After several research and study trips to West Africa where he met with traditional healers and some of their clients, he began to explain in his writings and discourses how spirituality is necessarily a part of the counseling process. He came to respect the efficacy of traditional healing and viewed African healers as partners in the helping profession and in helping people, especially those in developing countries. Starting in the 1990s, his keen interest in and respect for traditional healing have been reflected in his writings.
Vontress was born in Alvaton, Kentucky, in 1929, the year the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. After graduating from high school in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he attended and graduated in 1952 from Kentucky State University with a B.A. in French and English. Shortly after enrolling in graduate school at the University of Iowa, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent a tour of duty in Hammelburg, Germany. While there, he made several trips to Paris. On one of these occasions, he saw and heard Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir holding forth in a brasserie. This was his first exposure to existentialism. Later, he would read Existentialism: With or Without God, by Catholic priest Francis J. Lescoe. He indicated that one of his graduate students, Morris L. Jackson, steered him in the direction of existentialism by recommending Lescoe’s book.
Having grown up in legally segregated Kentucky, in Europe he was astonished to see the racial harmony there and wondered why it could not exist in the United States. His experiences abroad would change his outlook on the human condition. He became increasingly focused and filled with new meaning in life and was more optimistic about his future. He was determined to achieve in spite of the social conditions that hindered his development and that of his fellows. He completed the M.S. degree in 1956 and the Ph.D. in 1965 in counseling at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. As a graduate student, he studied the counseling theories of Carl Rogers and E. G. Williamson, well-known counseling theorists at the time. It was while working on his Ph.D. that Vontress had the opportunity to engage Carl Rogers in a question-and-answer dialogue. The study of counseling and human behavior was, in part, due to the influence of his mother from whom he learned by example empathy, striving for perfection, perseverance, quietude, stoic endurance, and unselfishness. The experiences in Europe changed his outlook on life from pessimism to progressive optimism, which manifested itself as an inner driving force that spurred him to achieve. People who entered into his life space recognized that life seemed to have a mission for him. Upon listening to one of his Ph.D. professors’ lectures about people being culturally deprived, culturally disadvantaged, or disadvantaged, he decided to focus aspects of his writing on culture and its impact on counseling. Throughout his professional career, Vontress has been an English teacher, high school counselor, counselor educator, and psychologist.
Culture as an important factor in the counseling relationship always has been a centerpiece of Vontress’s writings. He considered culture to be the sum total of a people’s belief and procedures for negotiating environments sustaining and affecting their existence. He maintains that it is simultaneously visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious, cognitive and affective. A major shift in his understanding of culture took place when he espoused existential philosophy. Within this philosophical framework, he viewed culture as encompassing five concentric and intersecting cultures: (1) universal, (2) ecological, (3) national, (4) regional, and (5) racio-ethnic. He posited that the universal culture was the most foundational because it influenced all others.
People are more alike than they are different and are similar and dissimilar at the same time. Vontress views cross-cultural counseling as a human-to-human encounter. Therefore, culture, per se, is not necessarily an impediment in a counseling relationship. The key factor contributing to an effective counseling relationship is the ability of the counselor to accept the client as a co-equal human being. The essential therapeutic ingredient is the humanness of the counselor and his or her ability to connect with others in need of help. Vontress recommends that counselors resist the temptation to focus on cultural differences and focus instead on human similarities. In the human-to-human encounter, counselors need to understand their own humanness and that of their clients who have come to them for understanding and resolution of concerns.
Cross-cultural counseling has been the primary focus of Vontress’s life work. It was in the late 1960s at an American Personnel and Guidance (now the American Counseling Association) meeting that he presented a paper titled “Cultural Barriers in the Counseling Relationship.” It was later published under the same title. In it, Vontress introduced the concept “cross-cultural counseling.” Counseling becomes cross-cultural whenever the counselor is unable to understand the humanness of the client and tries to engage from a culturally different perspective. Cultural, racial, ethnic, and other visible differences become impediments to effective intervention. Because differences are perceived as well as real, a cross-cultural dyad may consist of almost any two individuals who fail to recognize their common humanity.
Existential Cross-Cultural Counseling
Existentialism is a philosophy that advocates that people recognize the reality of human existence. Basic to this reality is the continuous movement toward death. Frequent national and international travel caused Vontress to develop a global perspective of humankind. It also contributed to his development of an existential approach to cross-cultural counseling. According to him, existentialism develops and enhances our relationships with ourselves, others, nature, and spirituality. He recommends that counselors use the Socratic dialogue as the basic technique in cross-cultural counseling. Vontress’s existential cross-cultural counseling approach was influenced and inspired by Ludwig Binswanger. Central to existential cross-cultural counseling is an understanding of the existential concepts Umwelt (physical world), Mitwelt (public world), Eigenwelt (private world), and Uberwelt (spiritual world). It is also important to understand that ideally the worlds interact harmoniously to ensure a balanced existence for human beings. Vontress’s existential cross-cultural counseling approach requires the individual to fully grasp the concepts of existentialism and his or her significance at different stages in the counseling relationship.
Vontress’s study of traditional healing in Africa was simultaneously a study of his historical roots. The visits to Africa provided a deeper understanding of himself and his own humanity. The paradigm shift in his worldview was made evident by his interest to document in writing his newly found understanding of humanity. It was in 1991 that he wrote his first article on Africa. Vontress continues to write about existential cross-cultural counseling and traditional healing in Africa, and he nurtures his understanding of humanity by interacting authentically with colleagues and by mentoring countless students, many of whom come from Africa.
- Binswanger, L. (1962). Existential analysis and psychotherapy. New York: Dutton.
- Binswanger, L. (1975). Being-in-the-world: Selected papers of Ludwig Binswanger (J. Needleman, Trans.). London: Souvenir Press.
- Binswanger, L. (1991). Existential analysis and psychotherapy. In J. Ehrenwals (Ed.), The history of psychotherapy (pp. 374-379). Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
- Lescoe, F. J. (1974). Existentialism: With or without God. New York: Alba House.
- Vontress, C. E. (1969). Cultural barriers in the counseling relationship. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 48, 11-17.
- Vontress, C. E. (1971). Counseling Negroes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Vontress, C. E. (1973, August 27). Racial and ethnic barriers. Paper presented at the 81st annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Montreal, Canada.
- Vontress, C. E. (1979). Cross-cultural counseling: An existential approach. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 58, 117-122.
- Vontress, C. E. (2003). On becoming an existential cross-cultural counselor. In F. D. Harper & J. McFadden (Eds.), Culture and counseling (pp. 20-30). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Vontress, C. E. (2005). Animism: Foundation of traditional healing in sub-Saharan Africa. In R. Moodley & W. West (Eds.), Integrating traditional healing practices into counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 124-137). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Vontress, C. E., Epp, L. R., & Johnson, J. A. (1999). Cross-cultural counseling: A case book. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.