Who Are You? Integrating Popular Culture into Career Development

By Deborah Bransford and Joni Hays


Who are you?

Who, who, who, who?

The Who

 Introduction: The Scenario


A class of about 20 first-year orientation students slowly comes filing into the room: iPods and cell phones in tow, unsure of their surroundings, all, or most, have never been to the Career Resource Center (CRC) before now. We look out at a sea of dulled, expressionless faces, most directed our way. We introduce ourselves and explain what we have to offer these college students and express our desire to help with their major or career exploration processes. We detect that many are about to fall asleep…so we begin.

We ask the class to listen to a musical “clue” that we are about to play for them and ask them to tell us what first comes to mind when they hear it. We play a snippet of the beginning of “Who Are You?” by The Who—the volume up. We observe quizzical looks and glances exchanged between classmates; within a few seconds, one or more volunteer an answer—CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Yes, we say, CSI—CSI: Las Vegas, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY. We go on to say that since these popular television shows have aired, we have seen increasing numbers of students expressing interest in becoming a crime scene investigator. Now we have their attention, they appear awake and more engaged…so we continue. We play one or more musical clues before we segue into the rest of our presentation.


We offer this scenario to illustrate successful integration of popular culture into career exploration presentations. Students do actually come to our center expressing interest in becoming a crime scene investigator, or forensic detective. Thus, we decided to capitalize on this phenomenon when delivering presentations on career development. As career development professionals working in a midsized university counseling services setting, we had three objectives. First, we wanted to “hook” our audience, to get them to hear us, especially because we found many high school/college students uninterested in presentations on career development. Second, we wanted students to learn and participate actively in the presentation by connecting existing knowledge with new information and resources. Third, we wanted students to take the process of major and career exploration outside of the CRC (i.e., to continue exploring on their own, with family, or with others beyond the 50-minute visit to the CRC) and to use critical thinking in the process.


Hook the Audience


Our first objective, to get students to listen to us, was vital; introducing music during presentations piqued their interest and introduced an element of playfulness into the process. The above scenario has recurred many times during the last five years—in a variety of settings—and was usually successful. The unexpected introduction of popular music at the outset of a career exploration presentation instantly captured their attention and facilitated movement toward accessing sources of reliable, accurate, and timely career information via Web-based career guidance systems, e.g., Discover and Oklahoma Career Information System (OKCIS), on the CRC’s computers. Thus, a student could investigate on his/her own and discover whether the crew on an episode of CSI: Las Vegas reflected what happens in the real world of work or if it just made for good TV.


Active Learning and Participation


The second objective of active student participation was equally important to the success of our presentations. We felt by involving students in our presentations that we were allowing them to practice the involvement and responsibility that they need to assume in their personal career/major decision-making process. We encouraged students to include the element of self-exploration and -awareness into their major/career investigation by taking inventories of their work-related interests, abilities, and values offered on Web-based career guidance systems (for example, comparing their interests with those of Grissom, the crew supervisor and lead role on CSI: Las Vegas).


Continue Career Exploration and Critical Thinking


Lastly, success with objective three, to extend career exploration beyond the 50-minute presentation and use critical thinking, was achieved through “24-7” access to Web-based resources. Students can investigate their major/career choices whenever it fits into their schedules, accessing the technology most use daily. Among other capabilities, with these systems students can either confirm or dispel feelings, beliefs, or other information about particular careers, including challenging popular culture representations. Online career guidance systems nurture development of autonomy and self-reliance, which, again, can empower students to take active responsibility for making independent and well-researched career and life decisions.


Popular Culture as Learning Tool


A review of the literature supports the value of popular culture across a variety of disciplines including criminal justice instruction (Nickoli, Hendricks, Hendricks & Osgood, 2003), business management courses (Benek-Rivera & Mathews, 2004), and leadership development (Callahan, Whitener, & Sandlin, 2007). Nickoli, Hendricks, Hendricks, and Osgood (2003) advocate using popular culture in the classroom and state that “opening the doors to this type of pedagogy can not only make learning in the classroom enjoyable, but also expand critical thinking skills in a new and different way” (p. 152).




Student reluctance to participate actively in career exploration activities diminished as we introduced popular culture in presentations. Our willingness not to be the sole authority on career choice and information allowed the students to take on that role for themselves. Our closing message to colleagues would be to urge you to trust your “trained” instincts and risk reaching out to students in ways that may at first feel uncomfortable. We ask our students to do that all the time.




ACT, Inc. (2007). DISCOVER, Internet Version [Web-based computer guidance system]. Available from ACT Website, www.act.org/discover.


Benek-Rivera, J. & Mathews, V. E. (2004). Active learning with Jeopardy: Students ask the questions. Journal of Management Education, 28, 104-118.


Callahan, J. L., Whitener, J. K., & Sandlin, J. A. (2007). The art of creating leaders: Popular culture artifacts as pathways for development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9, 146-165.


Nickoli, A. M., Hendricks, C., Hendricks, J. E., & Osgood, E. (2003). Pop culture, crime and pedagogy. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 14(1), 152.


Oklahoma Career Information System (2008). Into Careers, university of Oregon. Eugene, OR.



Deborah Bransford, M.S., is the licensed mental health counselor for Pierce College Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood, WA. She holds a master's degree in Counseling and Student Personnel from Oklahoma State University (OSU). Deborah has been with Pierce College since fall 2008; prior to that she was with University Counseling Services at OSU. Deborah can be reached at dbransford@pierce.ctc.edu.


Joni R. Hays, Ph.D., is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Coordinator of the Academic and Career Development Center at Oklahoma State University, where she has worked for more than 20 years. She holds a doctorate in Student Counseling and Personnel Services from Kansas State University and an M.S. in Psychology from Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Joni can be reached at joni.hays@okstate.edu

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