Expressive Arts Intervention for a Career Counseling Course

By Marja Humphrey and Carolyn Thorpe

Career is Life

Career counseling is a required course at the master’s level based on CACREP standards (2016), reflecting the importance of career as a facet of life. Through a career, self-concept is developed and implemented as individuals learn about their interests, abilities, skills, and make career decisions. Career is multifaceted, as it includes social circles, environmental factors, family dynamics, and hobbies. Career is defined as a series of life experiences, which for most people now includes a primary job and a side gig or small business (Petriglieri et al., 2018). Also, these experiences go beyond simply financing life; they include a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

The multifaceted connection between work and life became even more salient for students in master’s-level counseling programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Creative interventions helped students overcome challenges to build community while learning virtually. For example, the counseling department at our small Mid-Atlantic university hosted a poetry slam. This was an optional student event designed to aid the expressive side of student development. The theme was centered on Afrocentric principles: spirituality, collectivism, time orientation, morality, sensitivity, verve and rhythm, and balance and harmony (Belgrave & Allison, 2019). Students were challenged to think more creatively about their identity as counselors-in-training and which values were most important for them to live by throughout their careers. Beyond COVID events, understanding the importance of creativity in counseling is an essential aspect of strengthening a therapeutic practice with clients (Gladding, 2008). With some effort, the required career course can serve as a means for students to develop their capacity via expressive arts.

Creating Imagery for Mastery of Career Theories

As the instructors of a master’s level career course, we, the authors, lean on creative ways to deliver course content. To facilitate students learning and remembering the major career theories, we spoke of them as grouped into four buckets. Whenever the primary instructor referred to the buckets, she gestured with her arms as if holding a bucket. Then she would take a step to the right as if on an imaginary timeline as she created each new imaginary bucket. The buckets were chronological and indicative of the primary theorists’ philosophy about career:

We reviewed the four buckets in each class, and then focused the students’ attention on the assigned theory. In class, after each lecture, students completed the student exercises (supplemental material from the textbook), which were designed to have students apply the content to their personal career journey (past, present and future). Throughout the course, students completed the O*NET Interest Profiler based on Holland’s typology (RIASEC) the VIA Character Strengths Survey, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). There are two graded assignments for the career counseling course:

  1. an individual paper using the student’s MBTI type to discuss how that has influenced their career preferences and decisions. Specifically, students write about the characteristics of their type, the recommended work environment and careers for their type, and the learning style associated with their type. They often identify new connections in their work history and personality profile. This spurs their creative thinking and approach to their current career goals.
  2. a group presentation in which students share career interventions for a specific client population of their choosing. They are encouraged to be creative both in how they present as well as with the interventions they choose.

Istock 1385530289 Credit Yaroslav Astakhov

The Creative Closure to the Class

Although students appreciated how career counseling theories have evolved, they gravitated most towards the Post-Modern bucket. As a historically Black institution of higher education (HBCU), we apply a social justice framework in our CACREP accredited program. We recognize that traditional career theories have not always considered the nuanced experiences of Black people. The Post-Modern perspective gives voice to those who may have experienced oppression, marginalization, and/or significant obstacles to entering certain professions. Students connected with this sense of autonomy and self-defining work in understanding their career journeys. Giving voice to the students led to a creative closure for the course.

The students in the career course proposed a potluck for the final class. The instructor agreed, on the condition that each student share something they created related to career counseling and their life journey. Some students were a bit hesitant, concerned that they were not “creative enough” or lacked enough “career experience” to participate. Gladding (2008) wrote about creativity in counseling as “crucial to the future of the profession” (p. 101) so counselors-in-training need to familiarize themselves with, and practice, creative interventions. To maximize their creativity, this experience was not evaluative. Rather, it was an extension of the rapport built over the course of the semester and a moment to celebrate.

The last class included a myriad of expressive arts: poems, paintings, crafts, songs, videos and even creative business endeavors. Original poems were shared in a spoken word format and expressed a moment that shaped the students, particularly as they reflected as counselors-in-training. Students shared verses about challenges with their mental health, pursuing emotional healing and a renewed sense of identity after a romantic relationship dissolved, and questioning and subsequently leaving one’s faith tradition in favor of a spiritual practice. One student presented paintings, of multiple sizes, each canvas a display of landscapes, clouds, or abstract swirls of monochromatic shades. Music was another expressive art students shared. One student sang acapella, while another student played a YouTube video of her song. Both songs were in the gospel/inspirational genre; students conveyed how they connected with the lyrics at this moment of their lives. Two students spoke about their creative business endeavors, one with personalized tote bags and robes, and the other with an event planning business.

During this activity, students affirmed their peers and encouraged them to continue their creative pursuits. While students may have initially felt that creativity was separate and distinct from the counseling profession, they were able to make connections between counseling and creative arts. A main aspect of career counseling is helping students understand that every experience they have had, personal or professional, is a pivotal component of their career path. We encouraged students to think more abstractly about their time in the workforce. This perspective helped students see their career journey as a cohesive, connected story, rather than a collection of isolated factors.

Utilizing Creative Interventions in Life

Counselor educators might consider how to incorporate an opportunity for creative sharing into their courses, so that students can engage their whole selves, share with their peers, and understand the power of expressive arts as a modality for working with clients. Counseling is expansive, inherently creative and goes beyond talk therapy (Gladding, 2008). Students benefit from courses that include hands-on learning and tangible demonstration of the value of creativity in pursuing their careers.



Belgrave, F. Z., & Allison, K. W. (2019). African American psychology: From Africa to America (4th ed.). Sage.

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. (2016). 2016 CACREP Standards. https://www.cacrep.org/for-programs/2016-cacrep-standards/

Gladding, S. T. (2008). The impact of creativity in counseling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3(2), 97-104. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401380802226679

Petriglieri, G., Ashford, S., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2018, March-April). Thriving in the gig economy. Harvard Business Review.  https://hbr.org/2018/03/thriving-in-the-gig-economy




Marja HumphreyMarja Humphrey, PhD, NCC, LGPC an assistant professor in the Bowie State University, Maryland, School Counseling program, prepares graduate students to work professionally with students, families, and individuals in urban communities. Her research interests include Counselor preparation, Leadership, Wellness, and Online Learning. She has taught, advised, and counseled K-12 students, college students with disabilities, and adults with depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. A coauthor of Elements of Culture in Counseling, a multicultural counseling text, and several published articles, Dr. Humphrey has also presented at state, regional and national conferences. She can be reached at Mhumphrey@bowiestate.edu

Carolyn ThorpeCarolyn Thorpe, M. Ed., a professional school counselor in the Howard County Public School System, advises and co-teaches counselors-in-training. She has taught, advised and counseled K-12 students (specifically Black middle school students) and college students. Her research interests include anxiety, trauma, emotional intelligence, attachment, and communication styles. Ms. Thorpe has published with the Maryland School Counselor Association, the Maryland Counseling Association, and has presented at state level conferences. Carolyn_thorpe@hcpss.org



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