Facilitating Students' Capacity to Engage with the Cultural Context of Career Development

by Matthew A. Diemer

Instructors of graduate career counseling courses have a unique opportunity and challenge in facilitating counseling practitioners' capacity to understand and address the cultural context of career development. (I teach within a program that trains Master's level school and agency counseling practitioners.) Many students come to the course with little to no interest in career development, having an expressed interest in addressing the emotional pain and suffering of children, adolescents, and adults through the provision of "traditional" counseling and guidance.

With an interest in creating change agents who address some of the structural and contextual roots of this emotional pain and suffering, one of my goals in the career counseling course is for students to recognize the central role work and career play in psychological well-being and in access to resources within the opportunity structure (such as health care and/or quality housing) (Blustein, 2006). One technique to achieve these pedagogical goals is to increase students' affective and personal connection to these issues by reflecting upon their own work experiences. Students reflect upon "bad jobs" that they've had, the impact these jobs (usually for a short period of time) had upon their well-being, and use their own experiences to imagine how longer-term employment in "bad jobs" would affect them. One memorable example that students return to is the correlation between the income/prestige of a particular occupation and the autonomy to use a workplace restroom without asking for permission. This course material and reflection spurs students to recognize the false dichotomy that they perceive between "career" and "personal" counseling and increases their motivation to integrate "career counseling" conceptualization and clinical skills with their "personal counseling" repertoire.

A second pedagogical technique is the in-depth exploration of the cultural context of career development. My position is that there are few better arenas to explore the impact of culture, poverty, and marginalization than in the world of work. After learning the major career theories and paradigms, students explore the application of these theoretical frameworks to various forms of diversity. Students also explore the differing work experiences of men and women, rich and poor, Whites and non-Whites in the American labor market.

Students critically examine the asymmetrical distribution of resources experienced by the "haves" and "have nots" within the U.S. (Sirin, Diemer, Jackson, Gonsalves & Howell, 2004), as demonstrated by the role social class plays in access to quality schools and vocational guidance facilitative of career development among children and adolescents. Students also explore the impact of racism upon career development, which results in a lack of occupational role models and limited access to jobs/internships that disproportionately limit the career development of Adolescents of Color (Wilson, 1996). The interactive effects of social class and race are exemplified by their negative impact upon the vocational identity, vocational expectations, and (career-related) exploratory behavior of urban adolescents (Diemer & Blustein, 2006).

Students also explore the null environment, a milieu characterized by a lack of support, female role models, and mentorship often experienced by women in math/science careers (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987). Students learn the critical role of self-efficacy in navigating the null environment and achieving occupational goals among young women interested in math/science careers (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987). Additionally, students explore the impact of workplace sexual harassment (Sullivan & Mahalik, 2000), labor market racial discrimination (Diemer, 2002), and workplace heterosexism (Pope, Barret, Szymanski, Chung, et al., 2004) upon career development and psychological well-being.

In addition to the more general goal of facilitating students' consciousness of these forms of marginalization through examining them in the world of work, students learn skills to address these issues in counseling practice. For example, students learn advocacy skills and develop psychosocial and comprehensive guidance interventions that address sociopolitical limitations to career development. They also role play the effective provision of counseling and guidance to Persons of Color, women experiencing gender bias, and clients experiencing heterosexism in the workplace. Through a consciousness of these issues, students are provided a platform from which to generate empathy for and the capacity to conceptualize the multiple influences of culture upon human development and well-being.

In sum, teaching a career course provides several unique opportunities. We have the opportunity to facilitate students' capacity to holistically integrate "career" and "personal" concerns and thereby facilitate their clients' self-determination and well-being in both of these areas. We may use the world of work as an arena where students develop their consciousness of the influence of sociopolitical issues (such as social class, the null environment, and heterosexism), as well as an understanding of their own career paths and the ability to make effective career-related decisions. Finally, we may generate change agents who make positive impacts in clients' lives, within our profession, and within our social structure.

Betz, N.E. & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1987). The career psychology of women. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.

Blustein, D. L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Diemer, M.A. (2002). Constructions of provider role identity among African American men: An exploratory study. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8(1), 30-40.

Diemer, M.A. & Blustein, D.L. (2006). Critical consciousness and career development among urban youth. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68(2), 220-232.

Pope, M., Barret, B., Szymanski, D.M., Chung, Y.B. et al. (2004). Culturally appropriate career counseling with gay and lesbian clients. The Career Development Quarterly, 53(2), 158-177.

Sirin, S.R., Diemer, M.A., Jackson, L.R., Gonsalves, L. & Howell, A. (2004). Future aspirations of urban adolescents: A person-in-context model. Qualitative Studies in Education, 17(3), 437-460.

Sullivan, K.R. & Mahalik, J. (2000). Increasing career self-efficacy for women: Evaluating a group intervention. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(1), 54-62.

Wilson, W.J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Random House.

Matthew A. Diemer received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College and is an Assistant Professor in the M.A. Counseling program at Michigan State University. His interests include counselor training and supervision, the cultural context of career development, critical consciousness/sociopolitical development, and career development among poor Youth of Color.

Communication regarding this article should be directed to:

Matthew A. Diemer
Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education
441 Erickson Hall
College of Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1034
telephone: (517) 355-6684
email: diemerm@msu.edu

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