Career Goal-Setting for Black, Indigenous and Students of Color from High-Poverty Urban Areas

By Sherri L. Turner and Carolyn A. Berger

With the increasing poverty in the United States, and the major economic impact COVID-19 has had on the urban poor (Tampe, 2020), there is an urgent need to address work-related issues confronting young people from high-poverty urban environments. Even with the economy rebounding in 2021, and the 8.1 million jobs in the U.S. that are still unfilled (BLS, 2021), there is no guarantee that young people who live outside the context of social privilege will be able to successfully move into the labor market, or become employed in jobs that they find fulfilling and rewarding.

Poverty can have an unfortunate outcome on the career development of marginalized youth (McWhirter et al., 2013). This can be especially true with K-12 students from high-poverty urban areas. Seventeen percent of all children under 18 years of age live in poverty, whether in cities or rural areas (Evans & Sejuit, 2021). Students from high-poverty urban areas struggle in the face of concentrated disadvantage, characterized by underfunded schools, lower levels of educational achievement, less work experience, weaker job-seeking networks, and a greater risk of unemployment after leaving school (Kneebone & Holmes, 2016). In addition, Black, Indigenous, and Students of Color also experience racism and discrimination on an ongoing basis within educational and employment systems that were curated for others, but not for them (e.g., Bonifacio et al., 2018). Although there is very limited research in this areas, if career counselors hope to lessen constraints on the vocational potential of Black, Indigenous, and Students of Color, it is essential that their work be informed by a clearer understanding of the factors that influence the career development of these young people within the contexts in which they must make career decisions.

Anticipation of Racial Discrimination and Its Effect on Career Goals

Research has shown that setting viable career goals (i.e., goals that are clear, specific, and for which young people are actively preparing) are strong determinants of promising educational and career outcomes. Indeed, in a study of 220 high school students from a high poverty urban area (59% male; 44% Asian American, 56% African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American; Conkel-Ziebell et al., 2018), researchers found that setting viable career goals was associated with academic achievement, a stronger vocational identity and a proactive approach to preparing for and pursuing desired careers. This suggests that effective goal setting can position students of color for greater career success.

However, in a study of 195 high school students from a high poverty urban area (45% female; 50% Asian American, 50% African American and Asian International; Conkel-Ziebell et al., 2019), researchers found that the anticipation of encountering racial discrimination in their future employment negatively affected the clarity and specificity of boys’ career goals via its impact on their career decision self-efficacy. For girls, the anticipation of encountering racial discrimination negatively affected their expectations that the decisions they made would result in desirable career outcomes. This in turn diminished the clarity and specificity of their career goals.

Practice Implications

Practically speaking, if clear, specific career goals are the drivers of advantageous career and educational outcomes, and anticipating racism in future employment diminishes the abilities of students of color to set and reach viable career goals, then career counselors need to focus on helping students’ meet and overcome racist treatment toward them both now and in the future. In order to do this, career counselors must acquaint themselves with and commit to an agenda of anti-racism in both their career-counseling sessions and in addressing the public. Actively identifying and opposing racism in policies, behaviors and beliefs can improve future employment opportunities for all young people of color (Kendi, 2019).

Teaching Students Anti-Racist Skills

Additionally, career counselors need to teach students anti-racist skills that they can use to effectively counter racially-hostile environments as early in their high school career as possible. Learning to recognize hostile work environments, and to gain skills concerning how to counter discriminatory acts, report incidents, and consult with supervisors, human resource directors, and affirmative action/EEOC officers, will give students confidence in these situations because they will have the tools to address them. When students know how to actively and effectively participate in safeguarding their employment rights, they can approach the world of work more confidently, and with more assurance that racism does not have to keep them from reaching their career dreams.

Discussing openly the issues of employment discrimination with students of color is very important, even if the counselor must broach the subject first. Surfacing and fully discussing with students the anxiety, fear, and sadness that they experience when they do not trust in their own career exploration or decision-making abilities, or in the outcomes that will follow, can lead them to see their counselor as an ally. Helping students learn to cope and to implement sound strategies can lead to improved confidence that they can overcome these future barriers (Pope, 2009).

Photo By Yingchou Han On Unsplash

Employing Counseling and Career Development Skills

Counselors need to be prepared to deal with the impact of poverty and oppression on the career development of adolescents (Evans & Sejuit, 2021). Career counselors have and can employ the tools of our professions to make the lives of students of color better and to continue to support equity in the employment market. Based on research and learning about the challenges from the students themselves, urban poverty is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Through employing both counseling skills and career development skills, which sets us apart from the rest of the counseling world, we can help them learn to set clear, specific, viable career goals.




BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics]. (2021). Job openings and labor turnover survey. https://www.bls.gov/jlt/

Bonifacio, L., Gushue, G. V., & Mejia-Smith, B. X. (2018). Microaggressions and ethnic identity in the career development of Latina college students: A Social cognitive career cheory perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 46, 505–529. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0011000018776909

Conkel-Ziebell, J., Gushue, G. V., & Turner, S. L. (2019). Anticipation of racism and sexism: Factors related to setting career goals for urban youth of color. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 66, 588-599. http://dx.doi.org.ezp1.lib.umn.edu/10.1037/cou0000357

Conkel-Ziebell, J., Turner, S. L., & Gushue, G. (2018). Testing an integrative contextual career development model with adolescents from high-poverty urban areas. Career Development Quarterly, 66, 220-232. https://doi.org/10.1002/cdq.12144

Evans, K. M., & Sejuit, A. L. (2021). Gaining cultural competence in career counseling (2nd ed). National Career Development Association.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. Random House Publishing Group.

Kneebone, E., & Holmes, N. (2016). U.S. concentrated poverty in the wake of the Great Recession. https://www.brookings.edu

McWhirter, J. J., McWhirter, B. T., McWhirter, E. H., & McWhirter, R. J. (2013). At risk youth: A comprehensive response for counselors, teachers, psychologists, and human service professionals (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole/Cengage.

Pope, M. (2009, April). The 12 ‘er 13 keys to successful career counselling with ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities. Keynote Presentation at CANNEXUS 2009, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Tampe, T. (2020) Potential impacts of COVID-19 in urban slums: addressing challenges to protect the world’s most vulnerable. Cities & Health. https://doi.org/10.1080/23748834.2020.1791443



Sherri Turner

Sherri L. Turner, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology in the Counselor Education Program (formerly the Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology Program) at the University of Minnesota. She received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri at Columbia. She specializes in career development and assessment, and presents at state and national conferences such as ASCA, NCDA, and APA. Her primary research and scholarship focus is on the career development of Native American students, and students in high poverty urban areas. She is currently Associate Editor for Research for the Professional School Counseling journal. She can be reached at turne047@umn.edu



Carolyn BergerCarolyn A. Berger, Ph.D., is the program coordinator and a teaching assistant professor for the University of Minnesota’s Counselor Education program. She received her Ph.D. and M.Ed./Ed.S from University of Florida, with a B.A. in psychology from Northwestern University. She holds licenses as a clinical mental health counselor (LPCC) and as a school counselor in the state of Minnesota. Carolyn regularly presents at state and national level conferences such as ASCA, ACA, and NCDA. Her publications in refereed journals have included topics such as student underachievement, college and career readiness, and career development.  She can be reached at caberger@umn.edu


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