Counselor Educators, Working Identities and Constructing a Better, Healthier World
By Victoria Shivy
Just a few weeks into the pandemic and many counselor educators have, after a period of disconnection and transition, reconnected with their students albeit in some new ways and nearly unrecognizable times. COVID-19 has impacted every student and institution, leaving more questions about today, tomorrow, and unthinkable dates in the future. So, how can counselor educators “be there” for students?
No doubt we have checked in with our students. We have offered them our (virtual) support and compassion. Our voices, familiar from classrooms, share encouragement and warmth from a distance. We’ve also updated our syllabi, offered ways for them to reach out during “office” hours, and reviewed the changed parameters for assignments and exams. We’ve asked if our students have requisite technology and understand how to use it – even as we’re devouring quick-start manuals on webcams and USB microphones. We’ve listened and can “hear” the stress in the students’ emails, chats, and videoconference voices. Hopefully we’ve empathized as they tell us they long for connection, information, more simple times… But what comes after that? What’s next and what messages might we deliver when we also have no idea what will come? What can we share besides our beliefs and hopes for better times ahead?
First, Look Inside
Nearly all career theories suggest that work fulfills important needs. Blustein (2019) in “The importance of work in an age of uncertainty” discusses work as a source of fulfillment, structure, and identity. Though he starts with the premise that work is survival, he continues on saying “when it is going reasonably well, (work also) offers people a profound way of feeling alive and connected to the world” (p. 15). Hmmm. Though few might say work is going well right now, it remains an essential way to stay vital and engaged.
Being sidelined from work and school means separation. So, although scaling back school assignments —those papers to write and readings to digest—may at first seem like the compassionate choice, perhaps we should think that through. Most graduate students are with us to learn, as much as they are with us to obtain their professional degrees. Keeping clear markers for participation and accomplishment is important, and for more than just transcripts. Academic work can help students hold onto their work values and dreams that, one day, they will realize in society as counselors.
In addition, the structure that working or school work provides may give us more reason to get up in the morning (or, turn in at a reasonable hour at night). Though often we view work as hindrance to socializing, it requires organization and structure, and provides distraction from the news and streaming media.
Finally, it might be too easy to forget that graduate studies are a source of identity for students, a “means of understanding themselves in relation to the social and economic world” (Blustein, 2019, p. 22), even if the social and economic worlds are in flux. Helping students focus on their respective identities– on who they are, what they most value, and who they want to become— offers powerful incentive for carrying on through the challenges.
Then, Seeing Beyond the Self
Fortified, perhaps, by our own meaningful work as counselors and educators we then (taking our students along) might look at what’s happening ‘outside’ – that is, in our communities, our nation, and across the globe. A social justice perspective on career counseling would say that we must. A recent blog by Tristam Hooley, Ronald Sultana, and Rie Thomsen (n.d.) showed how the pandemic is accelerating changes to work already in place. These authors suggest the societal responses to COVID-19 could deliver “a knock-out blow to stable conceptions of the nature of work.” Awakening to this prospect is unnerving. But, with this in mind, Hooley et al. reiterate signposts for counselor educators and our students to use, to take a critical view of work in our time. Here are a few actions they recommend:
- Building critical consciousness – can we ask ourselves, what are the politics of coronavirus? How might the actions of governments, educational institutions, powerful corporations, and even religious institutions have repercussions for the work lives of individuals? Can we commit to awareness and what has been called attentive career guidance?
- Naming oppression – have we considered the injustice of how lower-wage high-risk workers bear the costs of this crisis, while many professionals work from the safety of home? Can we address amplification of the digital divide? Will we remember he needs of vulnerable workers now, and when they seek to resume their careers?
- Question what is normal – when ‘this is over’ and how work ‘will look’ will, no doubt, be radically different for people, based on their health status, social class, race, gender, and geography (among other factors). Can we take action in our community so the ‘new normal’ is more equitable than before? Could we promote career counseling as an essential service for people who have lost their livelihoods, savings, businesses or health?
Work life can help or harm individuals. Career counseling professionals can accept the (changing) status quo or think and act on behalf of individuals and their communities. As Hooley and colleagues state:
Career is not just a synonym for the time we spend on the labor market selling our time to the highest bidder. Rather, career is a thread that runs through your life joining your paid work, with your unpaid work, education, family time, leisure, citizenship and everything else. It is about exploring fresh ways of being human… (in) ways that are respectful of self as symbiotically nested in communities. (et al., n.d., para. 1)
This pandemic will yield a new normal. In coming years, the process of helping people to choose their and career paths could look quite different than it does today. So, a career class focused on traditional career theory and individual assessments, for example, may need to be changed. With the potential for large-scale work disruption comes talk of a guaranteed basic income that “unpacks survival needs from the marketplace” (Blustein, 2019, p. 210). People will still seek a match to match with their world, for fulfillment, structure, and identity, but what if that match is no longer about work? And, our occupational world could be in flux for some time. How will we come to know about ourselves (our interests, values, and abilities), in a world filled with change?
Counselors’ Roles Creating a Better World
Of course, and for now, we must see to the health of ourselves and our students; the challenges become clearer as days go by. We are in a reactive space, and could be for some time. We really don’t know what our individual or collective ‘new normal’ will be, even as we are charged with carrying on, and responding. For now when it’s quiet and the webcam is off, perhaps we can think of what we can do –as career professionals— to help construct a better and healthier occupational world.
Blustein, David L. (2019) The importance of work in an age of uncertainty. NY: Oxford.
Hooley, T., Sultana, R., and Thomsen, R. (n.d.). Why a social justice informed approach to career guidance matters in the time of coronavirus. Retrieved from: https://careerguidancesocialjustice.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/why-a-social-justice-informed-approach-to-career-guidance-matters-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/
Victoria A. Shivy, PhD, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has worked with underserved populations (first-gen college students, people from lower SES backgrounds, individuals who’ve experienced incarceration) across her career. At VCU she teaches at the undergraduate (Careers in Psychology and Experimental Methods), and graduate- levels (Career Development and Careers in Biomedical Sciences). Her research is focused on career decision-making and career intervention. She can be reached at email@example.com