Donald Ray Atkinson (born February 10, 1940, in Union City, Indiana) is best known for his pioneering work in the area of multicultural counseling psychology and his leadership in mentoring doctoral students of color into prominent professional positions in counseling psychology across a career spanning more than 30 years. The story of his life exemplifies the values that he promoted during his career. He grew up on the margins of poverty and served in the military before working his way through school, rearing a family on his own, and becoming one of the most frequently cited scholars in the area of multicultural or cross-cultural counseling.
Atkinson spent his childhood in poverty in the Midwestern United States, first in Indiana and then in Wisconsin. His family lived in an assortment of apartments, trailer parks, and unfinished garages while his parents worked a variety of different jobs trying to make ends meet. Atkinson was diagnosed with rheumatic fever when he was 15 years old. His only sibling died at an early age from cerebral palsy. After graduating from high school and serving in the U.S. Navy for 2 years, Atkinson moved on to college at Wisconsin State College in La Crosse where he received a B.S. in teacher education in 1964. He was able to attend college only because of a meager life insurance policy paid to his family after his brother died. For a short period of time, he worked as a teacher at a small high school in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, while he continued his education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to earn a degree in guidance and counseling in 1966. He later became a guidance counselor at his old high school in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Eventually, Atkinson moved on to pursue his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1968, where he studied under the tutelage of Marsh Sanborn.
It was during his doctoral studies that Atkinson met his first wife and started a family with the birth of two sons, Jimmy and Robert. Soon, however, Atkinson found himself raising his sons on his own as a single parent after his wife left under the stress of Jimmy Atkinson’s severe developmental disability. Following a brief stint at a college counseling center at Moorhead State College, Minnesota, Atkinson moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), in 1972 to become an assistant professor in the counseling psychology program.
Atkinson joined Jules Zimmer and Ray E. Hosford to become only the third faculty member in the counseling psychology program at UCSB. Over the course of Atkinson’s career, the counseling psychology program at UCSB became one of the most prominent training grounds for multicultural counseling psychology. Although Atkinson was joined by numerous colleagues of considerable prominence, including such psychologists as J. Manuel Casas, Gail Hackett, Tania Israel, Chalmer Thompson, Nolan Zane, Glenn Good, Louise Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Holloway, Patricia Wolleat, Gayla Margolin, Steven Brown, Michael Mahoney, and Larry Beutler, the reputation and achievements of the program in the area of cross-cultural counseling can be substantially attributed to Atkinson’s efforts and accomplishments.
During Atkinson’s early years at UCSB, the counseling psychology program was not ranked among the top contributors in the field’s flagship research outlet, the Journal of Counseling Psychology (JCP). Later, however, UCSB began to appear among the highest-ranked institutions in JCP publications, placing 10th in 1983, 6th in 1994, and 9th in 2000, largely as a consequence of Atkinson’s scholarly works. Yet again, he was recently ranked 4th among scholars contributing to the literature on multicultural counseling competencies empirical research over the course of 20 years. Furthermore, Atkinson was ranked 10th in a study of contributions to the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development from 1985 to 1999, and he was identified as the top-ranked contributor of racial-ethnic minority research in JCP from 1988 to 1997.
Over the course of his career, Atkinson published 109 peer-reviewed journal articles, along with three books and 15 book chapters. Nevertheless, he has won only a few awards over the course of his career for his outstanding achievements, in part because he actively avoided the limelight. He achieved fellow status in the Society of Counseling Psychology (Division 17 of the American Psychological Association [APA]), the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues (Division 45 of the APA), and the American Psychological Society. In 2000, he was recognized in a Division 17 symposium at the annual APA convention as one of the “Multicultural Scholars of the Millennium.” He was recognized in 2001 for his Distinguished Career Contributions to Research by Division 45, and in 2005 he was given a Presidential Citation and Elder Recognition Medal at the National Multicultural Conference and Summit. In 2006, Atkinson was honored with the Leona Tyler Award by the Society of Counseling Psychology, the society’s highest form of recognition.
Although Atkinson is best known for his contributions in the area of multicultural counseling, his career did not begin on that path. In fact, Atkinson credits his doctoral students for propelling him into the field of study that became his life’s commitment. Despite his active efforts to recruit women and students of color into the doctoral training program at UCSB, it was not until his sixth year as a professor there that his first publication in the area of multicultural counseling appeared (his 17th publication overall). Until that time, Atkinson’s publications included a combination of topics such as behavior modification, student personnel services, and counselor training. After 1983, however, the vast majority of his scholarship began to focus on multicultural issues and many of his works became seminal to the field.
In 1983, Atkinson published one of his most frequently cited articles in The Counseling Psychologist, “Ethnic Similarity in Counseling.” In 1993, Atkinson published (with Chalmer Thompson and Sheila Grant) “A Three-Dimensional Model for Counseling Racial/Ethnic Minorities,” one of only a few major theories of multicultural counseling. Across time, Atkinson’s focus within multicultural counseling began to broaden to diversity issues beyond race and ethnicity. This trend was most noticeable in the publication of his two early books: Counseling American Minorities (now in its sixth edition), which focused on race and ethnicity, and Counseling Diverse Populations, which focused on gender, sexual orientation, aging, and disability. In this way, Atkinson became one of very few scholars in the field to produce such a broad array of works that exemplify the true meaning of multiculturalism.
During one of the more difficult periods in his career, Atkinson often discloses that he contemplated changing the focus of his scholarship in the face of criticism that as a European American, he should not be conducting research about people of color. To this day, he credits Teresa LaFromboise with convincing him to stay the course and continue his line of research. His many graduate students, colleagues, and consumers of his scholarship are grateful that she held sway on that dilemma.
Among his numerous accomplishments during his career as an educator, Atkinson recounts tremendous fulfillment in the number of doctoral advisees he mentored who went on to pursue academic careers in counseling psychology, including but not limited to Bruce Wampold, Michael Furlong, Ruth Gim Chung, Cindy Juntunen, Jose Abreu, Linda Mathews, Susanna Lowe, Bryan Kim, Sheila Grant, and Roger Worthington, many of whom are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. There also were many others, too numerous to mention, who studied under Atkinson’s mentorship and went on to make important contributions in careers outside of academic psychology. Beyond his own professional triumphs, Atkinson has been known to express his greatest pride in the accomplishments of his students. He died on January 11, 2008, from pancreatic cancer.
- Atkinson, D. R. (1983). Ethnic similarity in counseling. The Counseling Psychologist, 11, 79-92.
- Atkinson, D. R. (2004). Counseling American minorities (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Atkinson, D. R., & Hackett, G. (2004). Counseling diverse populations (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Atkinson, D. R., Maruyama, M., & Matsui, S. (1978). The effects of counselor race and counseling approach on Asian Americans’ perceptions of counselor credibility and utility. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 25, 76-83.
- Atkinson, D. R., Thompson, C. E., & Grant, S. K. (1993). A three-dimensional model for counseling racial/ethnic minorities. The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 257-277.
- Atkinson, D. R., Wampold, B. E., & Worthington, R. L. (2007). Our identity: How multiculturalism saved counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 35, 476-486.