Helping Students of Color Develop their Authentic Professional Selves

By Amber Samuels

Bias of Professionalism Standards

Historically, professionalism, as it relates to career, has been used to describe the accepted behaviors, actions and self-presentations in the workplace (Gray, 2019). Such standards have required people of color to suppress key markers of identity (e.g., dialect, attire, style of hair) and adhere to White and Western standards to be deemed acceptable. Despite the bias of these standards toward preferring whiteness (Davis, 2016; Gray, 2019; Marom, 2019; Opie & Phillips, 2015), Eurocentric professionalism remains a key component of career education in post-secondary settings in the United States. This means that even well-intentioned post-secondary career practitioners can inadvertently engage in, uphold, and promote professionalism standards that are disproportionately biased toward students of color. For students of color with other marginalized identities, the bias of such professionalism standards can be even greater (Bowleg, 2012). Given the disproportionate, negative bias of professionalism standards toward students of color (Davis, 2016; Gray, 2019; Marom, 2019; Opie & Phillips, 2015) it is perhaps vital for post-secondary career practitioners to integrate tools into their work that help students of color develop their authentic professional selves.

Tools for Post-Secondary Career Practitioners

According to the National Career Development Association (NCDA Diversity Statement, 2017), career practitioners are called to attend to and affirm the diversity and uniqueness of clients and their identities. Post-secondary career practitioners are therefore charged with setting students of color up for success while attending to and affirming the multiplicity of their identity (Evans & Sejuit, 2021). Although career education aims to help students become successful, the promotion of biased professionalism standards in post-secondary settings counters this objective by inadvertently discouraging students of color from developing their authentic professional selves. Therefore, in congruence with the NCDA “Code of Ethics” (2015), post-secondary career practitioners must find ways to support students of color in curating a professional self that honors the uniqueness of their many identities. The following section presents tools post-secondary career practitioners can use to support students of color in developing their authentic professional selves.

Engage in Self-Interrogation of Biases

Helping students of color become their authentic professional selves starts with yourself. Vocational research suggests that critically reflecting on one’s biases about career-related issues is a critical preliminary step to engage in before working with clients (Niles et al., 2009). This process involves self-exploration and asking questions about one’s values, beliefs, and attitudes toward professionalism. By first engaging in self-reflection and self-interrogation, as well as exploring their identities and how these affect their values and beliefs about professionalism, career practitioners will be better prepared to support clients. Below are questions post-secondary career practitioners can use to support the self-interrogation process:

  • What are my values, beliefs, and attitudes about professionalism?
  • What do I consider professional, and how might that be discriminatory toward students of color?
  • What allows me to be my professional self? What hinders me from being my professional self?
  • Have I ever challenged/upheld professionalism standards in my workplace? Why or why not? If yes, how so?

Photo By Gabby K From Pexels2

Attend to the Intersectionality of Students of Color

The National Career Development Association (NCDA Code of Ethics, 2015) defines diversity as the “similarities and differences that occur within and across cultures, and the intersection of cultural and social identities'' (p. 26). In alignment with this definition, according to the NCDA’s Diversity Statement (2017), career practitioners are not only called to honor diversity, but to also view it from an intersectional perspective. By actively making attempts to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of students of color (Evans & Sejuit, 2021), post-secondary career practitioners can be better prepared to support the development of an authentic professional self. The following questions can be used by post-secondary career practitioners to attend to the intersectionality of students of color:

  • What identities are most important to you?
  • What would your “authentic professional self” look like?
  • What hinders you from being your authentic professional self?
  • What allows you to be your authentic professional self?

Promote a Fair and Equitable Workplace

To promote a fair and equitable workplace, post-secondary career practitioners must work together to lead by example (Evans & Sejuit, 2021). This can be accomplished in various ways that center around taking actions to honor the diversity of students of color and promoting the visibility of their identities (NCDA Code of Ethics, 2015). For example, post-secondary career practitioners can ask students of color for direct feedback by sending a confidential survey and create resources and policies to uplift the voices of students of color. Before taking these actionable steps, however, post-secondary career practitioners can first use the following questions to identify ways to further support students of color.

  • At our organization, what constitutes professionalism?
  • What message is our definition of professionalism sending to students of color?
  • What biased standards of professionalism does our programming (e.g., interviewing workshops, networking workshops) uphold?
  • Who is helped by these biases? Who is hindered by these biases?

The prompts offered in this article address engaging in self-interrogation of biases, attending to the intersectionality of students of color, and promoting a fair and equitable workplace. They help post-secondary career practitioners take an active role in supporting students of color to become their authentic professional selves.



Bowleg, L. (2012). The problem with the phrase women and minorities: intersectionality—an important theoretical framework for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 102(7), 1267-1273.

Davis, M. D. (2016). We were treated like machines: Professionalism and anti-blackness in social work agency culture. Master’s Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/1708

Evans, K. M. & Sejuit, A.L. (2021). Gaining cultural competence in career counseling. National Career Development Association.

Gray, A. (2019). The bias of ‘professionalism’ standards. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards

Marom, L. (2019). Under the cloak of professionalism: Covert racism in teacher education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(3), 319-337.

National Career Development Association. (2015). NCDA Code of Ethics. http://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738702

National Career Development Association. (2017). NCDA Diversity Statement. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sp/about

Niles, S. G., Engels, D., & Lenz, J. (2009). Training career practitioners. The Career Development Quarterly, 57(4), 358-365.

Opie, T. R., & Phillips, K. W. (2015). Hair penalties: The negative influence of Afrocentric hair on ratings of Black women’s dominance and professionalism. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1311.



Amber SamuelsAmber M. Samuels, MS, LGPC (DC), NCC, CCC, is committed to supporting, challenging, and empowering her clients. Amber is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University working toward a PhD in Counseling (Counselor Education and Supervision) and is a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor (LGPC) in the District of Columbia. She is also a National Certified Counselor (NCC), a Certified Career Counselor™ (CCC), and an MBTI® Certified Practitioner. She can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/itsambersamuels/ or www.ambersamuels.com


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