Why Career Planning for Students Starts with Exploring Identity

One of the biggest challenges facing our current generation of students is preparing for a dynamic workforce never before seen. New jobs are being created every day. In fact, many students are being prepared for jobs and careers that don’t even exist. This challenge has been the foundation of my educational background and the focus of my research.

Creating and Understanding Identity

My approach to career planning is driven by personal development. It’s much harder for students to think about the future without a firm sense of who they are. It is for this reason my career classes don’t start with a list of jobs and what students want to do in five years. Today, industries rise and fall, so being very externalized (job title, salary, etc.) about a specific career may not serve students well in the 21st century. Having a skill set with multiple pathways will always be more fulfilling, especially when that skill set and those pathways lead to a particular set of values or ways of expressing one’s identity.

Our identity is shaped by external forces all the time, so it’s important to put those things into perspective. One of my courses started with helping students think about the context that shaped their past. We did this by creating family trees, only with careers. Students were able to not only identify attitudes and stereotypes from the careers of their siblings, parents, grandparents, etc., but also how the past was informing who they are in the present. Once students had a solid sense of who they are in the present (as informed by their past), they then thought about different life paths and what they want their future to look like.

Developing a Cultural Context

My background in multicultural counseling led me to work for TRIO for several years. This experience formed the culturally inclusive approach I take with my courses. It doesn’t start with the assumption that everybody comes from a future-oriented, middle class value system. That culture represents some students, of course, but my classes are built to embrace a multitude of experiences. While it is my goal to cultivate engaging, effective and inspiring career development for all students, I am especially focused on underrepresented students who may not have access to the same resources.

One way this perspective has taken shape at the University of Minnesota is through a group called the African American Student Network, which provides space for African American students to talk about their experience once a week. Students come and go as they please, but in eight years we’ve had a few hundred students stop by to talk about whatever is on their mind. And the results have been significant. Students who participated at least once had a 20% higher four-year retention rate than those who didn’t.

While the African American Student Network is different than my career planning courses, they are both focused on creating spaces where students feel included and validated, where they can speak up and where their voices matter. They feel more connected to themselves, their teachers and their education, and these connections all lead to a richer educational experience.

3 Ways for Parents, Teachers and Students to Work Together

While parents are influential, of course, a strong correlate for students doing well in school is a strong relationship with their teachers. Relationships matter in education, both in career development courses and in places like the African American Student Network. So how can parents, teachers and students work together in career and life planning?

1. Engage in education. The classroom is a great place for self-exploration and identity development; it not only helps students figure out who they are and who they want to be, it’s easy for everyone involved to work together in supporting a common goal.

2. Set high expectations that focus on plans after high school. Every student should aim high. More often than not, this means graduating high school and going to college, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page. Parents should start the discussion early, continue it often and keep teachers engaged.

3. Set goals and track progress. When students have focused goals, they tend to work hard in achieving them. Parents, teachers and students need to work together in setting goals and tracking them from start to finish. This progress includes achievements and setbacks.

Tabitha Grier-Reed

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Tabitha Grier-Reed

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