What do you mean selling ice cream is not a career???
Like many kids, I loved the ice cream man. In fact, I loved him so much, I wanted his job! As a Brownie (younger version of Girl Scouts) in elementary school, I remember one of the activities we did was draw a picture of ourselves in our ideal career. The group of mostly white middle class girls drew themselves as teachers, doctors, a chef, a scientist… The mothers beamed with pride as their daughters talked about their future plans. I drew a picture of myself handing out ice cream from a little white truck to all the kids in my neighborhood. My mom was highly embarrassed — how did I know? Because she told me so on the way home. All the other girls showed so much ambition. And the lone black girl wanted to dole out ice cream from a truck for a living…
Looking back on the experience, I don’t think I really had any idea what it meant to choose a career. I think children base their earliest career choices on what they see around them. If you have parents who are well educated and know how to maneuver their way to the profession of their choice, somehow you pick up tips on how to do that as you grow up. If you come from a working class family, like me, the process of becoming upwardly mobile is a bit more difficult to figure out.
Exposure to Other Options
In my new position as an Advisor at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC), I recently met a 17-year old mother who said she was coming to college to learn medical billing and coding. I immediately perked up and asked why she chose that career. She said they make decent money and she won’t have to stay in school so long. I gave her a polite smile, but inside I was burning up. Was that her only criteria for choosing a career? So many people from disadvantaged backgrounds make their career choices based on the money they think is sufficient for survival and the least amount of time needed to be in school. I understood the urgency of her situation — she was a young mother who needed to make money as soon as possible. However, in the short time I was with her (I am not her assigned advisor…) what was the best advice I could give her to get her thinking of the possibility of life beyond just securing an entry level job? There are lots of career possibilities in healthcare administration, however you need more than just a certificate to do the work. What I thought this young woman could use was an opportunity to be exposed to other options.
At PGCC, there seems to be a huge push to get students to choose a major in their first semester — and I can appreciate the reason why. Students who do not have the proper guidance can wind up taking a slew of courses that never really lead to an actual degree. Pushing students to choose a major early gives them a planned course list that they can follow during the time they are enrolled in the school. It doesn’t mean they are not allowed to change majors — it just gives them a plan early on. However, the whole idea of picking a major assumes the student is coming to college with an ideal career in mind. It assumes that they come from high schools that had a fully resourced career planning office or even participated in overpriced career focused summer camps. The truth is, many of my students don’t know much about careers beyond what they saw in their immediate environment. So how do I properly advise my 17-year old mother/student?
- Don’t belittle student career choices. How do I know that the student’s mom did not feed her family and pay the gas bill with a career in medical billing and coding? I have seen advisors and counselors outwardly laugh when they hear their students talk about their hopes and dreams. They perceive the student to have low expectations, and never really offer any advice to get them thinking about other possibilities. Belittling a student’s thoughts and dreams only makes them not trust you; you can’t properly advise a person if they only see you when the meeting is mandated. Instead of belittling choices, let them know that that is a great place to start. Perhaps medical coding and billing can be a great job while going to college. But what other courses can she take that lead to other positions in medical administration and offer greater professional mobility (and yes, bigger paychecks and benefits…)?
- Ask about their feelings towards work and career choices. I went to a careers conference earlier this year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center on Education and Work. It is a conference aimed at career counseling professionals who work mostly in universities, however there was some representation of community colleges and community based organizations. I enjoyed the conference (and do recommend it…) however I was a little annoyed with the fascination with aptitude and personality tests. I have nothing against these as tools for choosing a career, I just think it doesn’t make sense to start off an advising relationship with them. Does the student come from a household where both parents are working? Some of my students come from families of multiple generations of dependence on public assistance. How does that affect a student’s career choice? Many students are already fearful of tests and may be feeling like their intelligence is being questioned — particularly after being placed in developmental reading, writing, and math courses.
Do you advise college students who come from families with low-income? Do you feel like advising these students is different from advising other groups? Tell me about it!