GRIT: A Shared Perspective Between Advisors & Ex-Offenders

By Mylene Culbreath

What is Grit?
A colleague recently introduced me to the psychological construct "grit." This term refers to one's "perseverance and passion toward a long-term goal" (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, 2007, p. 1087). Initially developed by Sir Francis Galton, much of the modern day research has been credited to Angela Lee Duckworth and colleagues. Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who has collaborated with scholars at various institutions. According to the research, individuals with “grit” have the ability to maintain motivation and resolve over extended periods of time despite failure and adversity (Duckworth et al., 2007). Struck by the essence of its meaning, I was reminded of my student population of interest, ex-offenders.


Ex-Offender Transition
Approximately 1.6 million people in the United States are incarcerated each year, with a staggering 700,000 inmates being released through a seemingly revolving door (Gonzalez, 2012). Community colleges have become a place of reform and redemption for those previously incarcerated with the creation of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA), an employment training initiative and a host of related programming. Although many community colleges are attempting to meet the challenge, others have been criticized for their subpar efforts in effectively assisting this student group.


Role of the Career Advisor
As a career advisor at an urban community college, I worked with a significant number of formerly incarcerated students. During my first week, I met with a student who wanted help finding a part-time job that would complement his newly declared major; nursing. Aware of his conviction, I was immediately overcome with anxiety and frustration. Anxious that I would have to inform him nursing was not an option and frustrated with the academic advisor for planting and watering this seed of false hope. This situation introduced two important concepts; self-disclosure and competency.


Generally, support personnel are unaware of the criminal background of a student unless it is disclosed. Oftentimes, the subject is rarely broached. Due to unfamiliarity with the issue, many advisors will unknowingly provide inaccurate information or refer the student to a colleague. In an effort to avoid this response, practitioners can broach the topic by asking about situations that may preclude particular occupational choices. The question of ethics and privacy come into play, but a student would much rather be asked in the beginning than surprised at the end. However, in an effort to avoid policy violations I encourage you to verify your institution's stance on this issue.


If a criminal record is disclosed, it’s important to know how to proceed. Honestly, how much does the typical career advisor know about restoration of rights, guidance documents or even community resources that aid in ex-offender transition? Many formerly incarcerated individuals face issues that are assumed privileges by most. In addition to psychosocial adjustments, this population’s primary concern is the procurement of shelter, clothing, financial support, and often times, valid identification (Caputo-Levine, 2010). The breadth of knowledge required to assist this population is often overlooked in diversity and professional training. In response, The National Career Development Association (NCDA) and National Institute of Corrections (NIC) partnered to offer the Offender Workforce Development Program (OWDP) and Global Career Developer (GDP) credential. While both programs offer an impressive curriculum, cost, time and awareness have hindered practitioners from participation. This reality begs the question, now what? How do we assist without adequate resources? The answer to this question brings us back to grit.


Recommendations for Practice
“Grit” provides a medium to integrate two seemingly different yet intrinsically connected realities. “Grit” speaks to the character of the formerly incarcerated student. Are we to assume that every formerly incarcerated student is gritty? Absolutely not. This perspective simply suggests that formerly incarcerated students attending community college have made a conscious effort to change the course of their lives in spite of inevitable adversity; thus demonstrating a degree of “grit”. “Grit” is a mentality that can be shared between the student and the advisor. By incorporating the GRIT method the two form a collaborative partnership for success.


G: Genuinely Reflect – To be effective, advisors must evaluate their perceptions and biases. Consider how you would react and how the severity of the crime would impact your interaction with the student.


R: Rigorously Research - Becoming informed of the literature, practices, but most importantly the laws in your city and state surrounding ex-offender transition is critical.


I: Innovatively Collaborate - The majority of institutions of higher learning have created a system rendering career and academic services in compartmental silos as opposed to complementary units. Given this reality, career and academic advisors can take an active stance to work collaboratively to ensure a consistent exchange of information and resources.


T: Tirelessly Train - Actively seek out opportunities to develop your ability to work with this population. It can be difficult to find time for additional training, but it's worth it. As mentioned earlier, the OWDP and GDP programs are available. Many of their courses also have a distance learning component. Similarly, there are a number of community, and statewide partnerships open to practitioners. Reaching out to local One-Stops would be a good place to start.

Ex-offender reentry continues to be an area for concern. Unfortunately, many practitioners lack adequate training. However, with increased awareness and the adoption of the GRIT perspective, advisors can begin to provide equitable services to students formerly incarcerated.

Caputo-Levine, D. (2010). Lessons for prison re-entry from the feminist movement. Dialect Anthropology, 34(1), 497-500. 

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Personality processes and individual differences. Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.61087

Gonzalez, J. (2012). Ex-offenders prepare for work, and life, at community colleges. http://chronicle.com/article/Ex-Offenders-Prepare-for-Work/132435


Rendon, L. (2012). Fulfilling the promise of access and opportunity: Collaborative community colleges for the 21st century. Retrieved from


Mylene CulbreathMylene Culbreath, M.S.Ed., NCC has worked in student affairs, particularly in career services, for a number of years. With her experience in public, private, proprietary, and faith-based colleges and institutions, she offers a unique perspective to the career advising process. She earned her BS in Psychology from the University of Virginia, M.S.Ed. in Counselor Education from Old Dominion University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Workforce Education at the University of Georgia. Her research focus is in career adaptability, purpose and identity. She can be reached at mculbre8@uga.edu


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Steven Heugel   on Friday 05/02/2014 at 11:13 AM

Hi Mylene: Thank you for addressing this very critical area. As an OWDS and GCDF (Global Career Development Facilitator) for the last 9 years, I have discovered the many challenges the formerly incarcerated have faced. I have developed a copywritten EXITS (Ex-offender Interviewing Tip Sheet) form that assists jobseekers regarding the application & interviewing process. However, the bottom line is whether an employers' corporate policy allows the hiring of those with any criminal records...misdemeanors included, even with recent education/training of any kind. I have seen a huge decline in the consideration of hiring them, (that includes staffing agencies as well.) We still have alot of work to do with employer outreach and relationship building in this realm. Thank you.

Momma Bear   on Thursday 01/26/2017 at 06:53 PM

Your article hit on some areas that brought some "aha" moments to me. While other advisors work their job, I am advocating for that applicant who needs a reality check. My interest is sincere and they respect that. We can not afford to give the former offender false hope and allow them to enter into a training that will set them up for long term disappointment. I want to research and use grit in my future presentations. Thank you for sharing your insight.

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