Understanding Intersectionality and Using Career-Life Interventions to Empower First-Generation Students of Color

By Jonique R. Childs and Edward Anthony Colozzi

The inherent struggles of first-generation college students of color (FGCSC), as a result of racial and ethnic disparities, are often overwhelming when examined from the framework of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991). It is important to identify and recognize how racial stressors create barriers that are interwoven across students’ career-life roles, especially during post-secondary education. Post-secondary institutions must lead by example and create a fair and equitable place to attend to the culturally diverse backgrounds, values, and traditions of students (Evans & Sejuit, 2021).

Practitioners who consider process-oriented, values-based approaches will empower students to appreciate their uniqueness, talents, interests and core values, which allows them to fully express themselves across all career-life roles and be successful. This article will first briefly examine intersectionality and provide examples of challenges and barriers that can cause anxiety and stress. Included are examples of positive personal characteristics useful for fostering students’ self-advocacy. The use of process-oriented career-life interventions are briefly discussed as effective ways to increase students’ self-awareness, and empower students’ success in decision-making and all their career-life roles.

Intersectionality, Barriers, Students’ Positive Characteristics, and Life Events

Using Crenshaw’s (1991) theoretical framework of intersectionality to examine the multiple identities held by FGCSC provides insight into the powerfully rooted systems of racism, oppression, and racial discrimination that can influence career choice and result in career uncertainty and stress (Evans & Herr, 1994; Fouad & Bingham,1995). Intersectionality reveals multiple overlapping barriers and challenges that FGCSC need to be made aware of when exploring education, work, and life choices. Several specific examples are provided below to encourage discussions for both action planning and further research.

Barriers and Challenges First-Generation College Students of Color May Face

  • Oppression and implicit biases in the workplace
  • Social economic limitations including income disparity of parents and educational institutions; disparity in school resources
  • Occupational discrimination with less on-the job training
  • Exposure to opportunities compared to their European American counterparts
  • Explicit/implicit biases: imposed stereotypical occupational choices associated with certain racial-ethnic/gender groups
  • Lack of social and cultural capital, which reduces generational wealth
  • Lack of role models to develop community connections

These are only a few of the barriers and challenges facing FGCSC in addition to other challenges most entering post-secondary students encounter. When practitioners use reflection in process-oriented values-based approaches, it serves as a powerful catalyst for helping FGCSC recognize important positive characteristics and life events that enable them to deal with challenges, and guide creative, effective, and relevant career-life exploration and planning.


Positive Personal Characteristics

The practitioner may note several of the following examples of positive personal characteristics are similar to many students seeking post-secondary education, choosing a major, dealing with stress, balancing life roles, and searching for work and a life that provides a measure of meaning and purpose (Childs & Colozzi, 2021; Colozzi & Colozzi, 2000; Daire, 2021; Holland, 1973; Makela et al., 2021; Puchalski, et al., 2014; Stoll, 2021; Westgate, 1996.

  • Desire to explore their cultural and multi-cultural heritages
  • Resiliency through hardships from lived experiences
  • Reliance on spirituality and its supportive role with stress and achieving wellness across life roles and diverse faith traditions
  • Curiosity to gain self-knowledge and explore unique talents, interests, core values and personality types related to discovering meaning and purpose and unique calling(s)
  • Justifiable determination to experience equal opportunities for education and work that is fulfilling and meaningful, with equal remuneration and opportunities for advancement


Using Self Knowledge, Reflection and the Career-Life Paradigm

It is important to engage entering FGCSC to prevent attrition and encourage retention in their new post-secondary communities. Practitioners who use process-oriented, values-based interventions can foster a willingness readiness to reflect and an increased awareness of one’s self-knowledge, especially core hidden/implied values, to discover calling(s) that provide meaning and purpose (Colozzi, 2003; Colozzi & Colozzi, 2000; Colozzi & Haehnlen, 1982; Colozzi & Thul-Sigler, 2016; Rogers, 1977).

During reflection, it is critical for practitioners to reframe traditional views of career as work to align with a more reality-inspired paradigm, such as a ‘career-life.’ This encourages students to intentionally use and balance their career-life roles to advance their self-knowledge, wellness, and self-actualization (Colozzi, 1981, 2007; Colozzi & Haehnlen, 1981; Super, 1980). This encouragement occurs as the paradigm is modified to view career-life as simply CARE, defined as one’s self-knowledge (talents, interests and core values), and the giving/receiving of care or a caring experience throughout the life span (Colozzi, 2011; 2014; Colozzi & Byars-Winston, 2014; Thul-Sigler & Colozzi, 2019).

Reframing career-life to CARE (Colozzi & Byars-Winston, 2014) explains how all human interactions are accompanied by a physiological energy release that can either occur or be blocked, depending on the individual’s congruence with various career-life role environments in which to express oneself. This dynamic affects stress levels directly through the release of positive or negative hormones that influence gene expression, physical well-being, and mental health (Benson & Procter, 2010). These are important considerations for designing process-oriented, values-based interventions to assist FGCSC to succeed as they deal with complex challenges and barriers that are often causes for anxiety and stress.

Discussion Questions for Post-Secondary Action Planning

The following discussion questions can inform action planning at post-secondary institutions and are beginning steps to meeting the needs of FGCSC (Childs & Colozzi, 2021; Colozzi, 2000; 2003; Colozzi & Colozzi, 2000; Daire, 2021; Makela et al., 2021; Stoll, 2021; Westgate, 1996).

  • Are post-secondary institutions sufficiently teaching entering students how to be effective self-advocates?
  • Are institutions sufficiently providing equity-minded approaches with individual/group counseling, self-development and career-life exploration and planning courses that effectively address these topics, including students’ needs for connection with others?
  • Are colleges initiating sufficient equity-minded discussions and assessments with entering students regarding specific concerns (e.g., first in family to attend college, racial ethnicity, implicit/explicit biases, racial discrimination, social/economic limitations)?
  • Are colleges providing sufficient assistance to all students (not just those experiencing a poverty-barrier) with cost-effective resources that foster student learning and success?

Suggested Research Questions

  • How can institutions identify and create cost-effective interventions designed to effectively engage FGCSC, prior to and during college attendance, that address specific intersectionality concerns/barriers and increase student learning and success
  • How can institutions more thoroughly examine the personal and social domains of career development (e.g., increasing self-efficacy and awareness of self-knowledge, core values, and relationships with others), that support FGCSC self-advocacy, clarity about making career-life choices, and success with transitions?
  • What additional areas of research (such as spirituality) might reveal ways to reduce FGCSC stress and positively affect role balance and wellness?

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Career Practitioners as Influential Leaders

If practitioners and all post-secondary institution stakeholders are to understand FGCSC, they must be willing to listen with empathy, exhibit cultural humility, shift perceptions, engage in authentic discussions, and take effective actions. Utilizing the CARE paradigm, post-secondary practitioners can be influential leaders within their institutions and inspire the creation of equity-minded, process-oriented interventions that focus on the realities of students’ career-life roles. These life roles can be causes for stress and also opportunities for students to discover their special calling(s), become effective self-advocates, and make informed choices that provide meaning and purpose.



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Jonique ChildsJonique R. Childs, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Education Student Development program. She has completed her Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of Iowa. Additionally, she has completed an graduate minor in Multicultural Education & Cultural Competency, is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). Jonique has also completed dual Masters degrees MS.Eds in school and clinical mental health counseling with an emphasis in career development. Dr. Childs has previous experiences as an at-risk school counselor, college career counselor, and clinical mental health counselor on the national suicide prevention hotline. She can be reached at jrchilds@umass.edu


Ed ColozziEdward Anthony Colozzi, Ed.D.is the retired owner of Career Development and Counseling Services and a former MA state licensed mental health counselor,  nationally certified counselor, and master career counselor. Ed is an active MA State Certified Trainer, an NCDA Fellow, and is President of the MA Career Development Association (MCDA). Learn more about Dr Colozzi at www.creatingcareerswithconfidence.com,  E-Mail: careercoachcolozzi@verizon.net


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