Implementing Sustainable Development Goals in Rural Colombia: An Experience Report

By Marcela Mesa

JP was a 17-year-old boy working with his uncle at a small enterprise lending and delivering washing machines in a little town in Colombia. He had finished high school with good grades but lacked the parental financial support to continue to higher education. He expressed some interest in civil engineering, mechatronics, or teaching foreign languages. Fast forward seven years and JP will soon graduate as an electronic engineer from a prestigious university. He recently signed his first working contract as a production supervisor at a big factory. All this has been viable with the strong commitment of a private enterprise to goals established by a public entity, specifically the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Mesa Figure 1 Sustainable Development Goals

In recent years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have entered the conversation around career development (Ho, 2022; Mathews, 2023; O’Shea, 2022). Seventeen interrelated objectives were created to be utilized as a plan for peace and prosperity around the globe (“Sustainable Development Goals”, 2023).  Two SDG goals appear related to the work of career development professionals, followed by three goals most likely impacted by that work:

  • Quality Education - SDG #4
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth – SDG #8
  • No Poverty - SDG #1
  • No Hunger – SDG #2
  • Good Health and Well-Being  - SDG #3

A career consulting team at Orientarte (2023) was invited to improve the quality of public education in an area of Colombia by delivering career services to underserved youth in grades 10 and 11, (the last two school years in Colombian' school system) specifically helping them find adequate paths to graduate from higher education institutions. This project focused on that list of five SDGs. In addition to an initial intake interview and a comprehensive assessment, the team met with parents to verify family support. The team designed the academic and psychosocial career coaching program, accompanying students through the pathway in college, to prevent them from dropping out and help them cope with possible obstacles to graduating. Later the project expanded to serving the students specifically by organizing teacher training sessions on how to integrate career issues in their classes, and offer a career fair called “Love what I do”, where students could interact with young professionals learn more about future career paths, and prepare for the state exams.

This intervention model is based on the perspective of Social-occupational Guidance, as proposed by the National Ministry of Education (n.d.). It is an approach that takes usual environments in Colombia into account and proposes to work on four main topics, namely self-awareness, knowledge about the world of work, knowledge about educational paths and financial awareness.

Challenges and Lessons

From the very beginning, implementing the project was a challenge for a variety of reasons. Basic resources like internet access was not always available, so the team had to become quite resourceful and inventive. Even within Colombia, a country with a shared language, an exceptionally respectful and cautious approach was required by the project team to understand the cultural nuances that were radically different from one region to another, often from an urban to a rural zone, with various ethnic compositions. To be successful, career practitioners needed to exercise a high level of cultural awareness and sensitivity as well as a great deal of resilience, patience, emotional self-management, adaptability, flexibility, interpersonal skills, curiosity, and open-mindedness.

One of the barriers we faced with this population was the students’ limited ability to reflect on themselves and understand the necessary information. The team took the time to find a common language to understand, value, and accept the uniqueness of each student, which aided the communication issues and increased the receptiveness to the information shared throughout the project.

In school settings, the team found large deficiencies in the students’ development of basic reading, math, science, social studies and English (Cesar Alonso, n.d.). Because 90% of students in this region do not reach the expected development of basic skills to enter higher education, it is very important for career practitioners to have a wide knowledge of alternative career paths that are viable and affordable for students and their families.

It was also a challenge to find resources in the local community and honor the value of their contributions. We strove to empower teachers, school counselors, school principals, and parents to engage in and commit to building career awareness from their respective roles. We encouraged them to be aware of the hidden and parallel guidance that students are receiving, and listen to each other's perspectives, expectations, limits, beliefs and fears. These efforts played an important role in our joining the community and being more effective in our project objectives.

A Successful Project

Due to the wide range of abilities and resources among the students, it has been an enormous undertaking to identify and support students who are capable of outstanding results, such as maintaining high grades, adapting to higher education settings with high achievement, and successfully entering the workforce in their chosen fields. It has been very important for us to leave behind any biases about what is possible and what is not within this context. Overall, the team considers the project a success.

Approximately 30 students have enrolled in the program since 2017. In 2019, a survey was conducted on decisions made by students, which revealed that 52% were enrolled in some kind of higher education after high school, which is considerably higher than the national average of 39% in Colombia. Seeing the graduates in their new professional roles, such as an English teacher in a private school, confirms that social mobility is possible and fosters hope for a positive change in quality of life. This gives us indicators on how to improve SDG goal #10, Reduce Inequalities.

All this has been viable with the strong commitment of a private enterprise to goals established by a public entity. There remains a great need for partnerships between the public and private sectors to achieve more goals (SDG goal #17, Partnerships for the Goals).



Cesar Alonso, J. (n.d.). Quality of secondary education in Villa Rica after two years of pandemic: Saber 11 exam results 2021. Icesi University, Observatory of Educational Realities. https://repository.icesi.edu.co/biblioteca_digital/bitstream/10906/92762/1/Libro_ORE_Saber11_Villa%20Rica.pdf

Ho, C. (Host). (2022, December 20). The U.N. sustainable development goals [Audio podcast]. Career Practitioner Conversations with NCDA. https://www.buzzsprout.com/1963679/11892932-the-u-n-sustainable-development-goals-sdgs-and-career-development-with-dr-candy-ho

Mathews, L. (2023), NCDA’s impact on international career development. Career Developments, 39(1), 2.                                                                                                                                                           

Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Socio-occupational guidance. https://www.mineducacion.gov.co/1621/article-342444.html

Orientarte. (2023). Our history. https://liveyourdreamcareer.com/our-history/

O’Shea, S., Groves, O., Austin, K., & Lamanna, J. (2022). Career development learning and sustainability goals: Considerations for research and practice. Springer. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/bfm:978-981-19-6637-8/1?pdf=chapter%20toc

Sustainable development goals. (2023, October 23). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_Development_Goals


Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.

Marcela MesaMarcela Mesa, is a Psychologist and GCDF in Cali, Colombia, with 24+ years of experience delivering career services in private practice, passionate about helping people make good career decisions from a broad diversity of social contexts. Trained as a Psychologist in the Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen in Germany, Specialist in Gestalt Therapy and Human Talent Management, founder and CEO of Orientarte in Colombia (www.orientarte.com) and now Orientarte LLC (www.liveyourdreamcareer.com) in the US, aiming to deliver career services for Latinos living in the US. She is also co-chair of the NCDA Global Connections Committee. She can be reached at linkedin.com/in/orientartemarcelamesa and mmesa1019@gmail.com


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1 Comment

Jim Peacock   on Saturday 11/11/2023 at 12:14 PM

What a challenge to bring career education to this underserved population. You demonstrate the importance of understanding the group you are working with and the creative problem-solving that often must be done to reach underserved students.

Thank you for sharing your great work.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.