Supporting Immigrant College Students towards Career Success

By Michael J. Stebleton and Kate K. Diamond

Immigrant students continue to increase their presence in U.S. higher education; 23% of all students are immigrants, and almost half of those are foreign-born immigrants. Foreign-born immigrants include undergraduates who were born in another country and then emigrated to the United States (Staklis & Horn, 2012). Immigrant college students, especially those who are foreign-born, experience unique motivations, challenges, and assets with regard to their career development and goals. Surprisingly, there is a lack of literature on how career development professionals can best support immigrant college students. This article seeks to fill that gap by (a) providing an overview of career-related findings from studies conducted on foreign-born immigrant college students; and (b) highlighting implications for counselor educators and practitioners. We offer several student vignettes from our own empirical studies.

What We Know about Immigrant Students
Research on immigrant students in the student and career development fields continues to emerge (Kim & Diaz, 2013; Stebleton & Eggerth, 2012). Findings suggest that foreign-born immigrant college students experience career exploration and decision-making processes differently than non-immigrants. For example, immigrant students tend to describe how contextual factors impact their lives. Contextual factors include individual characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender, first-generation, family support, and documentation status. More broadly, contextual factors can include socio-structural interactions that directly or indirectly shape students’ experiences. From a systems perspective, these interactions between “person” and “environment” include experiencing instances of discrimination and racism based on physical appearance, religious observance, and language differences (Stebleton & Aleixo, 2015).

Immigrant students often cite circumstances that influence family and their transition to life in the US, such as loss, lack of support, and isolation (Stebleton, 2012). In our recent study, many students told harrowing stories of learning English and how these negative experiences impacted their sense of belonging, academic trajectories, and even career exploration. One Latina student, Maria, told the story about how she selected math as her major. Maria viewed mathematics as a universal language that came easily to her; she focused on math because other disciplines required higher English writing and reading expectations.

Read Lupe’s story about selecting a college major.

Another common theme in the literature is that immigrant students--especially undocumented students—encounter living in uncertainty and fear. Most students experience anxiety about post-college debt and employment prospects. Yet, undocumented foreign-born immigrants encounter added challenges due to a lack of citizenship. For instance, counselor educators should know that many undocumented students will be unable to engage in paid internships or secure full-time employment pending immigration policy.

Read Pedro’s Story about lack of documentation.

Perhaps not surprising, meeting family expectations and giving back to family are common themes. The majority of students are seeking career choices that will allow them to financially support their family and also give back to society. Additionally, definitions of success as it relates to life-career decision making tends to differ between immigrant and non-immigrant students, with the former group placing more of an emphasis on collective successes.

Read Thao’s Story about success.

Integration of Existing Theoretical Approaches
Using existing career development theories as guides, counselor educators can intentionally integrate scholarly theory with practice to gain new insights. We provide three examples:

  • Social cognitive career theory (SCCT): The SCCT model by Lent, Brown, & Hackett (1994) continues to garner interest, including new applications related to STEM and underrepresented populations (Falk, Rottinghaus, & Gilland, 2016). The key components of SCCT— including the importance of contextual influences and person inputs— tie directly to many of the influences experienced by immigrant students.
  • Narrative and post-modern approaches: The shift in career development from an emphasis on scores to stories persists (Savickas, 2015). Narrative approaches hold great potential, especially with immigrant populations (Busacca & Rehfuss, 2016). The use of games in career planning engages clients in innovative ways (Franklin, Yanar, & Feller, 2015).
  • Developmental ecology and person-environment models: Person-environment approaches maintain a solid foundation in career development. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model (1977) serves as a tool to better understand dimensions that impact immigrant students. For example, a factor at the macrosystem level is the U.S. and international political climate (Stebleton, 2011). Given the rancorous debate around immigration issues in the 2016 election, future policy decisions will inevitably shape immigrants.

Implications for Counselor Educators
Several implications apply directly to counselor educators and practitioners:

  • Support immigrant students to recognize and articulate their assets. Often, we view underserved populations from a deficit model. This is a mistake! Immigrants hold a wealth of cultural knowledge and contributions that go unacknowledged and celebrated, such as dealing with ambiguity.
  • Acknowledge that immigrant students may view their career decision as a family one. Students may require support verbalizing their reasons to pursue certain occupations to their families. Participants were drawn to careers in medicine and the sciences because of the opportunity to give to their families and society. Encourage students to explore other options that would meet this need (Carlone & Johnson, 2007).
  • Counselor educators and practitioners would be wise to learn more about resources to support immigrants. Many immigrants experience feelings of isolation and marginalization. Several Muslim women students talked about their negative experiences wearing hijabs; these regular micro-aggressions impacted their sense of belonging and safety. Become educated about the policies (including DREAM Act legislation) and get involved with initiatives that matter (Miranda, 2010).

Issues surrounding immigration and immigration rights will continue to dominate discourse in the media—and in higher education and other career development contexts. Counselor educators possess the potential to be change agents in the lives of immigrant college students. Progress includes learning more about immigrant students and how to best support them in their personal and professional aspirations.


References and Additional Resources
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32(7), 513-531. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.32.7.513

Busacca, L.A., & Rehfuss, M. C. (Eds.). (2016). Postmodern career counseling: A handbook of culture, content, and cases. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Carlone, H., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187–1218. doi:10.1002/tea.20237.

Falk, N., Rottinghaus, P. J., & Gilland, B. (2016). Using social cognitive career theory to increase persistence in STEM for underrepresented students. Paper presented at the National Career Development Association Global Conference, Chicago, IL.

Franklin, M., Yanar, B., & Feller, R. (2015). Narrative method of practice increases curiosity and exploration, psychological capital, and personal growth leading to career clarity: A retrospective outcome study. The Canadian Journal of Career Development, 14(2), 12-23.

Kim, E., & Diaz, J. (2013). Immigrant students and higher education. ASHE Higher Education Report, 38(6). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45(1), 79-122.

Miranda, L. (2010, Dec. 1.). Getting the facts on the DREAM Act. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/12/01/get-facts-dream-act

Savickas, M. L. (2015). Career counseling paradigms: Guiding, developing, and designing. In P. Hartung, M. Savickas, & W. Walsh (Eds.) The APA handbook of career intervention (Vol. 1, pp. 129-143). Washington, DC: APA Books.

Staklis, S., & Horn, L. (2012). New Americans in postsecondary education: A profile of immigrant and second-generation American undergraduates (National Center for Education Statistics Stats in Brief). Jessup, M.D.: U.S. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED533605.pdf

Stebleton, M. J. (2011). Understanding immigrant college students: Applying a developmental ecology framework to the practice of academic advising. NACADA Journal, 31(1), 42-54.

Stebleton, M. J. (2012). The meaning of work for Black African immigrant adult college students. Journal of Career Development, 39(1), 50-75. doi: 10.1177/0894845309358888

Stebleton, M. J., & Aleixo, M.B. (2015). Examining undocumented Latino/a student interactions with faculty and institutional agents. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 14(3), 256-273.

Stebleton, M. J., & Eggerth, D. (2012). Returning to our roots: Immigrant populations at work. Journal of Career Development, 39(1), 3-12.



Michael StebletonMichael J. Stebleton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Higher Education, located in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. His teaching and research interests focus on: career development, multicultural student development, college student success, and retention issues of historically underserved student populations. Current studies focus on understanding the experiences of first-generation and immigrant college students, including factors that influence career decision-making. Recent publications appear in the Career Development Quarterly, Journal of Employment Counseling, and the Journal of Career Development. He can be reached at: steb0004@umn.edu.



Kate DiamondKate K. Diamond, Ed.M., is a Ph.D. student studying higher education in the Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  With a background in university teaching and learning and international education, Kate is currently interested in using mixed methods research and evaluation to improve equity and student success and persistence in postsecondary contexts, both in the United States and abroad. Kate has a B.A. in sociology and international relations from Tufts University and an Ed.M. in international education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be reached at: koehl220@umn.edu




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