Career Counseling and Decision-making for Latinx Transfer Students

By Paolo Varquez

Research Background

Latinx students make up nearly half (46%) of California community colleges’ student population who eventually transition to the workforce; however, only 40% complete their academic programs within six years (California Community College Chancellor’s Office, 2018; Campaign for College Opportunity [COC], 2018). Community college (CC) students may struggle to complete their education within six years due to a lack of career guidance (COC, 2015). In a national survey of over 350,000 community college students, 48.6% of Latinx CC students had never used career counseling; yet, 63% said career counseling was very important (Community College Survey of Student Engagement, 2019).

Career practitioners can better understand this gap by examining the results of a qualitative study aimed to understand how Latinx transfer students at a public university described their career and major decision-making process during their time in CC, how institutional agents played a role in their career and major-decision process, and their experiences with career counseling.

The research design for this qualitative study was hermeneutic phenomenology where authors acknowledge that their backgrounds could influence their interpretation of a phenomenon (Heidegger, 1962). Purposive sampling was employed to recruit Latinx students at a public regional university in Southern California who transferred from a community college. Audio-recorded face-to-face interviews were employed to collect data. Colaizzi’s (1978) seven steps of phenomenological data analysis were utilized.

Thematic Results

Participants shared several recommendations that career practitioners can use to guide their practices, such as the following:

Interactions: Participants described positive interactions in and out of the classroom with institutional agents (IA) such as faculty, staff, or peer mentors. These individuals discussed topics beyond academics and played multiple roles for students such as being a knowledge agent, bridging agent, advisor, advocate, resource agent, and a recruiter for their on-campus organization.

Participants found it helpful when faculty shared their own career and academic journeys with students or invited guest speakers to describe their experiences. Participants also found that informational interviews helped them choose an occupation aligned with their majors or change majors entirely.

Involvement: Involvement such as work-based learning, internships, job shadowing, or volunteering also influenced career/major decisions. Two out of three participants said involvement would have better prepared them for their field and a third reinforced or changed their major because of these experiences. Although involvement was helpful for career-decision making, many of the participants mentioned that they did not know about these opportunities and only a few of their instructors knew about them.

Community Repayment: Participants also described a desire to give back to their communities. One wanted to become a lawyer who advocated for Spanish-speaking families; another aspired to become an elementary teacher to advocate for undocumented children. Participants also wanted to acquire a college degree to honor their families’ sacrifices.

Changing Majors: Out of the 13 participants, nine were decided on a major in the beginning of their college career and four were undecided. Seven of these individuals changed their majors. Only two participants completed community college with their initially intended major. Participants found career exploration courses and career assessments helpful for choosing their major.

Institutional Navigation: Several participants described that they lacked an awareness about ways to navigate their institutions. While they had family who supported them, they could not help them navigate the campus, so they relied on institutional agents to guide them. Participants often felt lost, experienced poor service, and felt a lack of community during college. They mentioned that resources centers and discipline-specific student organizations would be helpful during enrollment in college.

Unawareness of Career Counseling: Participants identified career counseling as an important and beneficial service. Five participants said they would have transferred or graduated earlier if they received career counseling, particularly in the beginning of their community college journey. Most participants could not recall receiving career counseling; instead, they recalled appointments with counselors as focusing too much on selecting their courses. All participants were unaware that counselors provided career counseling.

Mixed Counseling Experiences: While all participants highlighted the importance of the counselor-to-student relationship, some experienced frustration having to explain their scenarios to different counselors and preferred one consistent point of contact. Participants used several positive traits to describe counselors, such as supportive, encouraging, and flexibility.

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While participants articulated the benefits of experiential learning and described institutional agents as influential to their development or learning, they often were unaware of career counseling resources or ways to navigate the institution. Practitioners can apply the following recommendations to resolve this gap.

Offer early engagement in career exploration. Participants’ ongoing uncertainty about their majors or careers demonstrate the need for exploration before they enroll in their courses. For example, students may take a career assessment as a part of the matriculation process. Career practitioners can also recommend career exploration courses and early work-based learning; this empowers students to explore, discuss, and plan for relevant experiences such as campus organizations, internships, volunteering, and/or work in their field of study. Students who gain experiences in their field can better determine whether their career path and major are suitable.

Create a Personalized Institutional Agent (IA) network. During enrollment, community colleges can invite students to complete a questionnaire that gathers information about their academic and career goals or personal identities. Then, institutions may match students with appropriate institutional agents based on the information they shared. These networks can include discipline-specific counselors, faculty advisors, peer mentors, and club advisors. Students can also be matched with institutional agents who share salient identities (e.g., undocumented, first generation, Spanish speaking, parent, veteran).

Leverage faculty. Some instructors in this study provided extra credit as incentives for students to visit campus services, join student organizations, and attend campus events. Participants also recommended instructors invite guest speakers from their field of study to their classes to talk students about their educational, career, and personal journeys. Instructors could also integrate work-based learning opportunities as assignments so students could apply what they are learning in the classroom in the real-world setting.

Responding to the Needs of Latinx Students

Latinx students describe a desire for early career exploration, experiential learning, and personal relationships with institutional agents. Career practitioners are poised to respond to these needs and empower Latinx students to clarify their goals and be competitive upon graduation. If implemented, these recommendations could improve practices to better serve Latinx students in community colleges and lead to upward mobility.



California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (2018). California community colleges key facts. http://californiacommunitycolleges.cccco.edu/PolicyInAction/KeyFacts.aspx

Campaign for College Opportunity. (2015). The state of Latinos in higher education in California. http://collegecampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-State-of-Higher-Education_Latinos.pdf

Campaign for College Opportunity. (2018). 2018 report card. https://collegecampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2018-Report-Card-WEB.pdf

Colaizzi, P. F. (1978). Psychological research as the phenomenologist views it. In R.S.Valle & M. King (Eds.), Existential phenomenological alternatives for psychology (pp. 48–71). Plenum.

Community College Survey of Student Engagement. (2019). Community college survey of student engagement – 2019 cohort – 2019 benchmark frequency distributions – main survey. https://www.ccsse.org/survey/reports/2019/standard_reports/ccsse_2019_coh_freqs_byRace.pdf

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. Harper & Row.




Paolo VarquezPaolo Varquez, Ed.D. is a career services specialist and an adjunct counselor at Coastline College in Orange County, California. His research interest include career counseling, exploration, and development for community college students. Dr. Varquez may be contacted through email at paolovarquez@gmail.com or Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paolovarquez/

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