Establishing Common Ground: Cultural and Family Values in Career Decision-Making

by Yas Djadali

It’s the end of the academic year. A student comes into the Career Center, visibly distressed and somewhat anxious. The student sits down, takes a deep breath, and says, “My parents want me to be a doctor, but I’m failing Biology. I want to major in the Arts, but am afraid about how they would react. I don’t know what to do.”

This scenario is not uncommon. As a Career Counselor at the University of California, Irvine, I am fortunate to work with a very diverse population of students: Asian American, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, to name a few. Throughout my experiences, I have noticed time and time again how cultural and family values can impact career decision-making. Being a Persian-American myself, my family’s values were largely shaped by the Persian culture, which places high value on education, prestige, and financial security. Consequently, careers in medicine, law, and engineering, are encouraged and in many families expected.

What happens then when a student wants to pursue a different path, like the Arts or the Social Sciences? In some cases, the student is both encouraged and supported by his or her family. However, for many students I have counseled, this is not the case. Often times, the student is forbidden to pursue such an “unstable” career, which can be highly discouraging for the student and very strenuous on family relationships.

So as a Career Counseling professional, how do I approach this situation? Tell the student to think independently from his or her parents? Suggest pursuing his or her passion, regardless of the family’s reaction? Absolutely not! In some families and in many collectivistic cultures, like the Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern cultures, family and group decision-making is highly valued. So who is to say that an independent mindset is the “right” way to be? As helping professionals, it is imperative that we consider the “whole” person, and in doing so, tailor our counseling approach accordingly.

I first begin by recognizing the common ground between the student and his or her family. I often state, “It is obvious that both you and your parents have your best interest in mind. You each just have a different idea of what that means.” It is not a question of right or wrong, but rather one of conflicting values.

Second, I encourage students to identify their own values and those of their parents, so that they can begin to see where the discrepancy lies. Once they have identified this discrepancy, we can begin to discuss how to reach a compromise. This process involves:

Tailored research
Thoughtful planning

Let’s take an example: A female college sophomore states that she is interested in Studio Art, but her parents want her to major in the Physical Sciences. Once I have listened and gained a good understanding of the situation, I can proceed with the following steps:

    1.I first have the student complete a values assessment, comparing her values to those of her parents. In doing so, she identifies a conflict between her value for working in her interest field and her parents’ value for high income.

    2.The next step is research. I refer the student to online and Career Library resources, where she researches occupations that allow her to express her creativity. Her search may include finding out about sample job titles, typical career paths, opportunities for advancement, salary ranges, etc. This information can help address some of the concerns or questions raised by her parents.

    3.Third, the student develops a timeline, which identifies specific action steps she plans to take each year for the next five years and specific deadlines for completing them. These steps may include applying for an internship, identifying and pursuing research opportunities, and so on.

Once the student has completed this process, she then approaches her parents with all the information she has collected regarding her interest field and her specified action plan. By following this approach, students often come out of the process feeling more motivated, better organized, and more confident about communicating their desired goals. I find that parents are often more receptive to this because the student has provided them with the necessary “facts” to envision a successful future.

Although this process might alleviate some of the student’s distress and reduce communication problems in the family, it still does not guarantee support or encouragement of his or her desired career path. Whether the family has been influenced by different cultural work values, or has just been exposed to a different world-of-work, there is not always a comfortable resolution.

As Career Counselors, it is important that we maintain our professional boundaries and are clear about our limitations. We can promote self-awareness and provide career exploration and job search resources. After that, however, it often comes down to our ability to listen, empathize, and provide a supportive relationship, to which students know they can return if and when they are ready.

Yas Djadali received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Kentucky and her Education Specialist and Master of Science degrees from The Florida State University. She is also a National Certified Counselor and a Distance Career Counselor. During her graduate study, Yas was a Career Advisor at FSU’s Career Center and a Co-Instructor for an undergraduate Career Development course. Currently, Yas is a Career Counselor at the University of California, Irvine Career Center. She is the liaison to the School of the Arts, the School of Humanities, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and Transfer Students. Yas also co-instructs an undergraduate Career & Life Planning course. For more information, contact ydjadali@uci.edu or visit the UC Irvine Career Center web site at www.career.uci.edu.

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