Career Decision Making of African-Immigrant Students: What Career Counselors Need to Know

By Grace Wambu

The number of African-Immigrant students has been steadily rising in American classrooms (Mthethwa-Sommers & Harushimana, 2016). Nearly a quarter of the school children in the United States are immigrant students or the children of immigrants. This number is said to have more than doubled since 1990, with large numbers concentrated in major large cities (Dinan, 2017). According Camarota, Griffine & Zeigler (2017), almost one out of four public school students came from an immigrant household in 2015. Given these high numbers of immigrant children in American classrooms, assuring that these students succeed academically and in their careers is not only good for their family but for the country’s future.

Barriers to Career Decision Making

African immigrant students face a multitude of challenges within American classrooms which complicate their ability to adjust to new a school environment, making them vulnerable for academic failure (Watkinson, & Hersi, 2014). Academic under-achievement has dire consequences on the post-secondary opportunities for immigrant students. A few barriers include:

Age placement. Without the prior knowledge and skills that other students in their grade level have, age-placement increases the risk of academic failure, especially for those with interrupted schooling.

Acculturation stress. Adjusting to the U.S. classroom and educational system can contribute to a great deal of anxiety and fear of failure (Perdesen, 1991). In addition to dealing with culture shock, most immigrant adolescents are torn between upholding their home values and giving in to the school pressure to “fit in” during their middle and high school years (Clemetson, 2003). To avoid ridicule from their peers, some adolescents succumb to the pressure and decide to conform and go along with their peers, sometimes to the detriment of their academic achievement.

Language acquisition. English mastery is a pre-requisite to academic success. Lack of English proficiency may stand in the way of immigrant students’ academic success, consequently limiting their future career choices. The language barrier and accent discrimination have barred many African immigrants, even some with high education, from integrating in the mainstream job market (InMotionAAME, n.d.).

Urban settlement. Newly arrived immigrants tend to settle in urban settings, mostly because of affordable housing, possible employment, and community representation. Consequently, their children are enrolled in urban public schools which have limited resources (Shea, Ma, & Yeh, 2007). Additionally, newly arrived immigrants tend to congregate in neighborhoods where other country men who preceded them established themselves within the community (InMotionAAME n.d). These settings may lack essential resources, placing immigrant students at a disadvantage for college and career prep.

Factors Influencing Career Decision Making of African-Immigrant Students

Family Factors. Family influences have been found to be a major contributing factor in career decision making (Kochung & Migunde, 2011) among African students. Parents explicitly or implicitly convey their career expectations on their children. African parents are known to have high career expectations for their children to go to a four- year college and often pressure them to pursue careers that are considered prestigious in society. Such parental pressure may push the young people to choose careers that their parents suggest to them to please them.

Cultural Values. Within the African culture, certain careers are more valued and considered to be more prestigious than others. Careers such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, architecture are held in high regard and presumably considered to be well paying. Consequently, the majority of parents pressure their children to pursue these careers because of the prestige they bring to the family, in addition to the high income. Such pressure fails to consider the children’s personal interests.

Cultural Identity. Careers decision making may be markedly different for peers based on their levels of acculturation and ethnic identity. Students who are more acculturated to the mainstream culture are more likely to make career decisions that satisfy their interests, which might go against the desire of the family, compared to the less acculturated peers. Intergenerational conflict between the youth and family may hinder the youth from discussing their career plans with the family, resulting in seeking career information from other sources.

Strategies for Working with African-Immigrant Students

Given that African immigrant students come from diverse cultural backgrounds, being a culturally competent counselor is imperative. First, career counselors need to be aware of their own cultural biases, assumptions, preconceived notions, and personal limitations. Second, they need to understand the client’s world view. Third, counselors need to develop appropriate, relevant, and culturally sensitive intervention strategies (Okocha, 2007).

Career interventions with African immigrant students need to take a holistic approach that addresses both mental health as well as career concerns. Immigrant youths may express poor self-concept and low self-efficacy regarding several careers (Okocha, 2007). Career counselors need to be supportive and empower the student to make appropriate career decisions.

Effective interventions will require addressing systemic barriers. For example, immigrant students may not be enrolled in rigorous high school courses because of their limited English proficiency (Cohen, 2012). Students need to be empowered to advocate for themselves. Additionally, career counselors can advocate for change in policies and practices within the school system that will offer support for immigrants in the form of after-school tutoring programs, internships, and summer programs so that they can obtain academic and social skills needed to engage in a rigorous academic curriculum (Watkinson & Hersi, 2014).

Parental involvement in college and career planning is very important. Career counselors need to reach out to immigrant parents for support of their children. To encourage parental support, schools need to be welcoming and reach out to the parents for positive events, not only when there is crisis.

Assuring Student Success

Little attention has been given to the career development and career readiness of African-immigrant students. There is need for career counselors to familiarize themselves with the cultural and social issues and barriers affecting this population to effectively intervene. Academic success at the post-secondary level in this country is at stake. Career counselors can make a difference.




Camarota, S., Griffith, B., & Zigler, K. (2017, January). Mapping the impact of immigration in public schools. Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved from https://cis.org/Report/Mapping-Impact-Immigration-Public-Schools

Clemetson. L. (2003, September). For schooling, a reverse emigration to Africa. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/04/us/for-schooling-a-reverse-emigration-to-africa.html

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Dinan, S. (2017, March). Assimilation under threat as children of immigrants flood U.S. public schools. The Washington Times. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/15/immigrants-children-numbers-growing-us-public-scho/

InMotionAAME.(n.d). African immigration. In-motion-African American migration experience Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.inmotionaame.org/migrations/topic.cfm?migration=13&topic=3&tab=image

Kochung, E., & Migunde, Q. (2011). Factors influencing career choices among secondary school students in Kisumu municipality, Kenya. Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Research and Policy Studies, 2(2), 81-87.

Mthethwa-Sommers, S., & Harushimana, I. (2016). African immigrants experiences in American schools: Complicating the race discourse. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Perdesen, P. B. (1991). Counseling international students. The Counseling Psychologist, 19, 10- 58.

Shea, Ma, P-W. W., & Yeh, C J. (2007). Development of a culturally specific career exploration group for urban Chinese immigrant youth. The Career Development Quarterly, 56, 62-73.

Watkinson, J. S., & Hersi, A. A. (2014). School counselors supporting African immigrant students’ career development: A case study. The Career Development Quarterly, 62, 44- 55.


Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.

Grace WambuDr. Grace Wambu is an assistant professor of counseling in the Department of Counselor Education at New Jersey City University. Her specialty areas include school counseling and career counseling. Her research interests include, school counselor preparation and supervision, trauma and crisis, and career development and decision making of immigrants, and international counseling. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) in the state of New Jersey. She has published articles on school counselor preparation, supervision, and career decision making in several journals. Dr. Wambu can be reached at gwambu@njcu.edu

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