The research described in this article was a study of 22 first year occupational therapy students at the beginning of their educational programme, ie. Bachelor of Health Science (Occupational Therapy) at the Auckland Institute of Technology. The research design was qualitative with a phenomenological orientation and utilised a semi‐structured interview format. This ‘snapshot’ of occupational therapy students at the beginning of their education constitutes part of a larger, longitudinal study done in conjunction with the school of occupational therapy at the University of British Columbia, Canada. The findings from this phase of the research indicated that students' perceptions of themselves as people influenced their perceptions of cultural difference. Perhaps not surprisingly, prior learning in the shape of work experiences, friendships and travel appeared to be significant influences on the students' perceptions of individuals from differing cultural backgrounds to themselves. There is a need for occupational therapy educators to acknowledge and value the life experiences and skills of their students at entry to the programme. Similarly, issues of culture, cultural difference, race and ethnicity need to be dealt with in the context of a coherent curriculum model with context specific features. Recommendations arising from this research relate to greater articulation of the issues outlined above to students, as well as clear statements regarding the value orientation of the school/department in relation to cultural difference. This is necessary as, in the absence of this information, students are only able to work from a largely assumptive basis. The most important recommendation is that this longitudinal study continue so that more detailed data can be gathered over time that will assist in the development of a deeper understanding of how students develop knowledge and skills in working with individuals who are culturally different over he duration of their educational programme. Copyright © 1995 Whurr Publishers Ltd.