Career Services for Refugees, Immigrants and their Children

By Mopelola Oluwadare

It is a challenge for many immigrant and refugee families to start new lives in the United States because of changes in environment, culture, habits, and traditions. These changes make it difficult for immigrant and refugee parents to navigate the U.S. educational system, to advocate on behalf of their children, and for school counselors to understand the nature of their particular educational needs.

How Voluntary Immigrants and Refugees Are Classified

People move from one place to another either out of desire or necessity. Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 enacted by the U.S. Congress defines a refugee as:

A person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. (Mossaad & Baugh, 2018, p. 1)

Understanding the differences and similarities between a refugee and an immigrants will help school counselors to better assist children of refugees and immigrants when they start school. Both refugees and voluntary immigrants parents are deeply affected by memories of leaving loved ones behind and by culture shock, the disorienting effect of experiencing an unfamiliar way of life in a new country (William, 1976).  These experiences deeply impact these parents, who need to obtain information about the U.S. educational system for betterment of their children.

While similarities exist, there are differences between refugees and voluntary immigrants, as the following points reveal:

  • Refugee immigrants are unable or unwilling to go back to their native countries, whereas voluntary immigrants can make trips back home to see friends and family members.
  • Whereas voluntary immigrants often have time to gather some information about their new environment, refugees might not be as informed because of their urgent departures from their home countries (William,1976).
  • Refugee immigrants have a higher chance of getting educated and gaining proficiency in the English language than voluntary immigrants (Cortes, 2004).

This information can be helpful to school counselors as they look for creative ways to work effectively with children of refugees and immigrants in the public school system.

Engagement of Refugee and Immigrant Parents Could Affect K–12 Education

The National Immigration Forum (2016) reported that in 2014 there were 17.5 million children under the age of 18 living with at least one immigrant parent in the United States.

Education and career counseling for the K–12 population could be improved by noting that parents of students with refugee status are more likely to seek out educational resources than those who are not classified as refugees (Cortes, 2004). Lower high school dropout rates, for example, have been associated with parents’ frequent monitoring of their children’s school activities (White & Kaufman, 1997). Refugee and immigrant students with limited or no English skills can be further assisted if career guidance counselors increase parents’ awareness of and engagement in their children’s education to meet academic expectations. For immigrant and refugee parents, awareness and engagement may simply begin with understanding letter grades and their corresponding grade point averages. Parents’ understanding of their children’s academic potential and the signs of their struggles to meet expectations could start necessary conversations and lead to better use of available resources by parents, teachers, and counselors, which is necessary to enact change to achieve better career options and outcomes.

Effective Career Services

Providing effective career services in the schools might involve getting clear answers to the following questions:

  • Is one of the student’s parents a refugee or voluntary immigrant?
  • Are the parents aware of parent–teacher meetings? Is language a barrier?
  • Are the parents aware of after-school programs that further supplement the child’s education while giving the parents time to pursue their own education?
  • Is the parents’ or student’s exposure to career options limited?
  • Are the parents’ current information and beliefs about the American education system accurate?
  • Are students encouraged to pursue career paths that match their interests, passions, and natural skills?

These questions will assist career practitioners in understanding the degree of both students’ and parents’ educational and career-related needs.

The highlighted differences and similarities that exist among refugees and voluntary immigrants play important roles in understanding their children’s educational and career-related needs. Effective communication between parents and school personnel could improve a child’s access to resources in school. Career counselors who seek to provide guidance to students as part of the process of gaining the knowledge and skills needed to engage in profitable career exploration can be more effective by being mindful of these factors. The children of refugees and voluntary immigrants are affected by the changes that arise from living in a new country. An awareness of how these parents respond to associated changes will help career counselors improve the recommendations provided when working with each group.


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Mopelola OluwadareMopelola Oluwadare is a professional from Nigeria who arrived in the United States with her family at an early age. Her experience in several U.S. based industries provided a foundation for helping immigrants and refugees advance in their career endeavors. She founded MyJobShine, a career development service that partners with employment recruitment agencies abroad to better prepare newly arriving Americans for the job market, before and after arrival. She can be reached at mopelola.olu@gmail.com.


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