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Teaching Students of Color How to Navigate the Workforce

The Situation

I recently attended a networking event hosted by my alma mater. The event brings local alumni and current students together to meet, discuss, and connect. As a young alumni, I always look forward to this event--it's my chance to support and give advice to current students in the way alumni did for me.

One thing I always notice is the difference in the networking skills of students of color versus those of their white peers. Many, if not all, of the white students are very direct in their quest to connect. They have a list of which alumni attendees they want to speak with, a pile of business cards and resumes to hand out--they are on a mission.

Students of color tend to stand in a group with each other and look very overwhelmed by everything that is happening around them. As I observe, it is almost as if they have no idea what they should do or perhaps are a bit intimidated by the whole idea of talking to people they do not know. This scene of students of color standing in a group at a networking event while their white peers work the room is one I see time and time again.

From my high school students to the college age students I work with, very few of them understand the importance of networking and how to do so effectively. As networking in-person and on platforms like Linkedin have become the norm, students of color are missing out on a crucial aspect of building their future careers. When I ask students of color about their job or internship searches they mention that they have applied everywhere, but have received no response.They are going about their searches all wrong.

The students of color I work with are submitting applications blindly without ever connecting with someone first and establishing rapport. Many of them do not have Linkedin accounts and dare I say that some of them had no idea it exist. While many of the students of color understand the commonly used phrase, "It's all about who you know", it seems they have no idea how to create a network and how to make it work for them.

I currently manage a mentorship program for first-year and/or first-generation students, many of whom are students of color. One of their many requirements is to make one appointment each semester with the career development center. However, it is not enough to just require them to use the service--it is very important to identify staff in the center who understand the experiences of students of color. I am working with our career development center to identify the staff who can provide culturally competent guidance. Not to mention, this year we are working together to create a workshop series to help our student leaders of color use their multicultural experiences in their job search.

Barriers Students of Color Face

Students of color are, yet again, being underserved by our non-comprehensive efforts in preparing them for the workforce (Daire, LaMothe, & Fuller, 2007). Gushue & Whitson (2006), argue that there is a lack of culturally sensitive career development and we are failing to take in account the unique barriers that low-income students of color face. For example, Kenny et al., (2007) found that students of color express much lower confidence in their ability to navigate the job search process. This is a direct effect of the family misfortunes, lower socioeconomic status and limited access to mentors who have experience navigating the workforce (Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003).

Furthermore, students of color are aware of how underrepresented they are in various fields. With that knowledge, they come to the conclusion that they will not be successful and disregard their desire for a career in certain fields (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Killeen et al. (1999) states that students of color frequently lower their expectations and settle for jobs that do not match their skills. They are forced to self-select out of various fields, because of their race.


Many other student services have begun to understand the unique needs of students of color and have implemented solutions, career development is a bit behind (Patton & McMahon, 2006). Students of color have the drive and the content knowledge, but they are lacking the skills needed to navigate the process of finding a job and/or internship. We need more culturally sensitive and tailored programs to help this population understand how to market themselves, reflect on their goals, network and handle race related issues that may arise in the workplace. Lastly, students of color need to be connected with strong mentors who share in their experience and who can provide advice (Karunanayake & Nauta, 2004).


Daire, A., LaMothe, S., & Fuller, D. (2007). Differences between black/African American and white college students regarding influences on high school completion, college attendance, and career choice.TheCareerDevelopmentQuarterly, 55, 275-279.

Gushue,G.,&Whitson,M.(2006).The relationship among support, ethnic identity, career decision self-efficacy, and outcome expectations in African American high school students:
Applying social cognitive career theory. Journal of Career Development, 33(2), 112-124.

Karunanayake, D., & Nauta, M. (2004). The relationship between race and students’identified career role models and perceived role model influence. The Career Development Quarterly, 52, 225-234.

Kenny, M., Blustein, D., Chaves, A., Grossman,J., & Gallagher, L. (2003).The role of perceived barriers and relational support in the educational and vocational lives of urban high school students. Journal ofCounseling Psychology, 50(2), 142-154.

Kenny, M., Gualdron, L., Scanlon, D., Sparks, E., Blustein, D., & Jernigan, M. (2007). Urban adolescents’ construction of supports and barriers to educational and career attainment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54(3), 336-343.

Killeen, J., Watts, T., & Kidd, J. (1999). Social benefits of career guidance. NICEC Briefing. Cambridge, England: NICEC. (ERIC DocumentReproduction Services No. ED436671)

Patton,W.,& McMahon, M.(2006).The systems theory framework of career development and counseling: Connecting theory and practice. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 28(2), 153-166.

Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. [Electronic version]. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96.

Cornell F. Woodson