Janet* came into my office as a senior in college and as per usual, I asked her how she was doing. However, at this particular meeting, she seemed a bit more nervous and on edge.
“How’s it going? What have you been up to as far as your professional development goes?” At the point of this meeting, I was no longer working in career services (though I had at a previous institution), but I always checked in about my students’ professional progress.
“Well… I don’t know. I’ve gotten really involved here at the university and have really explored my identities. I’m a peer mentor at the LGBTQA Resource Center. I’ve joined the Latino Caucus and more. I’d like to think that future employers will count that as positive, but…”
She cast over a knowing glance. “I guess what I’m really asking is… should I list things on my resume that may inform employer’s perceptions about my identity? How can I really assess a company’s culture of diversity? How do I know if they are inclusive?”
After exploring what her previous steps had been (she’d gone to a career counselor, asked a few mentors, etc.), we spent some time searching employer websites, identifying her LinkedIn contacts to discern:
- If EEO statements were prominent,
- Where information about professional affinity groups and spaces were,
- Company organizational structure, and
- Different levels of diversity (i.e. structural diversity in number AND how equitable staff hiring practices were through networking contact info).
And then some…
After about 15 minutes, the student was able to come up with a few concrete things she would be looking for. But one of her comments really struck me,”When I’d asked this same question before to another adviser I was told, ‘That’s interesting… We never thought about that.’ ”
Although that sounded like an isolated incident, I couldn’t help but reflect on the times many of my students, particularly students who held marginalized socio-cultural identities, told me they’d gotten a similar answer. For example:
Q: “How should I wear my natural hair in the workplace? I’ve heard accounts of natural hair not being professional and being stereotyped as not as groomed?”
A: We’ve never thought about that before! You should talk with ______.
Q: “I regularly wear my traditional cultural and/or religious garments, jewelry, or head wraps. But when I look at what many have told me professional dress is, I’m feeling like maybe I won’t fit in. How should I deal with this in the interview process and beyond?”
A: You should talk with _____________.
Q: “I am a first generation college student and I am from a working class background. I’ve been looking at average salaries for my field and my family and I have been talking about what it means for me to potentially make more than them. I’m wondering how I can have that conversation with my family in ways that doesn’t make them feel further marginalized or make me feel isolated”.
A: “I’ve never thought about that before…”
It’s simple to pinpoint, “Advisers probably shouldn’t verbalize that they hadn’t thought about that before…” (which is a fair statement). But what’s helpful is to reflect back on how not thinking about these things impacts our overall ability to serve students in a well-rounded way.
There are career decisions that happen at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality/sexual identity, and more. While we may love to believe that we are sending our students into an altogether equitable and just world, we understand that this is not always the case. They are relying on us to assist them as they think through how their sociocultural identities show up, are perceived, and are received in the workplace. While we may have colleagues that specialize in these areas, it’s insufficient for us to operate without basic levels of understanding in these areas.
One of the things that is integral to student affairs, and particularly career services/career discernment programs, is continual, professional development. In order to serve all of our students, we need to grow in cultural competencies that allow us to see how personal identity intersects with professional identity. Directors of career centers, those who have the power to institute learning benchmarks and policy, also have the power to ensure that our students are being served by our own professional development and learning toward cultural competencies and how that impacts career decisions.
Another important piece is the art of referring. While we do have institutional experts in these areas and can call on their expertise, we also need to have a full understanding of what our colleagues do. This way, we serve our students by making intentional referrals, instead of deferring to whom we think might assist that student based on a title or a name.
Lastly, we have to take an important look at who we have as staff and leadership in our career centers. In his work on overcoming stereotype threats, Claude Steele identifies as concept called “existence proof,” which I think is also helpful in this context. Steele explains that fostering the sense of belonging in an academic space and/or professional space requires both positive mentoring from that space’s community members AND role models who may share similar sociocultural identities as the student. This is existence proof. As we look at our staffing choices, we are also making statements (even if they are unconscious ones) about who belongs in that space, who we serve in that space, and who is left out of that space (intentionally or unintentionally).
As practitioners and professionals, we are called to expand our consciousness, learning, and growing so that we can always be in tune with what our students need. As we think about our goals for the year, let’s also think about how we can better serve our students at the intersections of their needs!
Steele, Claude. (2010) Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us New York : W.W. Norton & Company
Morell, K., & McCune, B. (2011, December 11). Interview with Dr. Claude Steele. Retrieved January 20, 2016, from http://depts.washington.edu/trio/triotrain/topics_steele.php