Working class students attending four-year colleges have reason to believe few people support their job search process. Perhaps their families encouraged them to pitch in at home instead of attending a career event (Barratt, 2011). Or maybe they attended a workshop and the presenter assumed they already had a wide network of supporters who could connect them to opportunities (Parks-Yancy, 2012). Perhaps when they visited the career center, the career advisor made them feel like they needed to gain several new skills without any personal strengths to draw on through that process (Tate et al., 2015). Those encounters demonstrate how career center employees can inhibit working-class students’ job searches by focusing on deficits, by not recognizing the knowledge of their families, and by assuming students have equal access to all social capital. In this post, I outline three related incorrect assumptions I have held and how I intend to change my practices to more effectively serve working-class students.
Assumption #1: Working-Class Students Have Only Deficits
I have underserved working-class students by assuming students have only deficits and by overlooking their strengths. Gorksi (2011) wrote that the deficit approach causes us to believe that low-income students are “intellectually, culturally, and even spiritually inferior” (p. 30). I work as a career coach at a small private liberal arts college where there are often gaps in achievement between upper-class students and working-class students. While this gap formed by inequity is obvious, the institutional structures that cause that inequity are not so visible. Inaccurate assumptions have made it easy for me to view gaps in achievement as evidence that working-class students have less ability instead of evidence of inequity (Means & Pyne, 2017). As a result, during initial meetings with students I would often look only for the challenges that working-class students face, such as a limited knowledge of career options or a lack of professional networks (Tate et al., 2015).
To reorient my perspective, I plan to recognize the strengths that working-class students possess and how they can leverage them in their job searches. Tate et al. (2015) conducted two focus groups with 15 first-generation students and determined they felt they were more persistent, motivated, appreciative, self-reliant, responsible, and adaptable than non-first-generation college students they knew (Tate et al. 2015). While preparing working-class students for interviews, I could help them capitalize on those strengths by discussing how persistence, independence, adaptability, and other qualities make them excellent candidates for available positions. I could also create programming that emphasizes how students can capitalize on their strengths and values to achieve career goals. For example, I could demonstrate how first-generation college students could use their adaptability to deal with an identified challenge, like a lack of opportunities to develop professional networks (Tate et al., 2015).
Assumption #2: Parents Have Little to Offer Their Working-Class Children
Most working-class students’ parents do not have a college degree, which can make it difficult for them to understand their child’s experiences. According to Parks-Yancy (2012), many low-income parents expect their children to make financial and emotional contributions to the household when they are not in class or doing homework. Families may assume that students have a lot of “free time” and that college is only about attaining a degree (Parks-Yancy, 2012). With these facts in mind, I have made the false assumption that parents need to be educated by institutions about the college experience, and that parents have little to offer their working-class children.
Holding those assumptions blinds me to the wealth of knowledge that working-class parents can offer their children. Yosso (2005) outlined six forms of capital that comprise community cultural wealth. While she was referring to communities of students of color, working-class communities offer many similar forms of capital (Yosso, 2005). For example, familial capital refers to cultural knowledges nurtured among kin that teachers the importance of maintaining a strong connection to our community and its resources (Barratt, 2011; Yosso, 2005). Working-class communities likely also teach navigational capital, which refers to skills of maneuvering through social institutions, especially institutions not created with their social class in mind (Yosso, 2005). Instead of focusing our efforts on sharing our own “knowledge,” which likely represents the values of our own social classes, we should focus on encouraging conversations between parents and their children. Through those conversations, parents can pass on capital of value to the working-class and students can help parents better understand their student experience.
Assumption #3: Working-Class Students Have Equal Access to Certain Social Capital
A third way I have underserved working-class students is by assuming all students have equal access to certain forms of social capital. Barratt (2011) defined social capital as “an interpersonal network of people who can collaborate and join their resources” (p. 9). When assisting students with their job or internship search, I would start by suggesting that they talk to friends, parents, professors, or others they know to find leads on open positions. However, according to Parks-Yancy (2012) many low-income first-generation students do not know the value of connecting with professors, career counselors, and other staff, and they may not have been taught the social skills required to do so.
I have also assumed that all students have access to the same social capital. Barratt (2011) wrote that some social connections are more prestigious than others. Even though students of the working class will have already built some level of social network, they may not always include prestigious connections that Barratt identified, such as deans, professionals from the community, or even faculty. Working-class students’ social networks may be made of contacts from lower paid occupations (Tate et al., 2015), who may be less prepared to help students accomplish their different career goals. Students’ lack of contacts from their possible career areas form a significant problem when we consider that people who use social networks to find employment generally find jobs faster and are offered higher salaries than those who do not (Parks-Yancy, 2012).
A more effective way I could respond to working-class students would be to teach all students the value of building social connections and the skills needed to carry that out (Parks-Yancy, 2012). I could strongly encourage students to talk with faculty outside of class and emphasize that interactions with university faculty and staff can help students gain recommendations, contacts, information and advice related to their careers, internships, graduate school and job opportunities (Parks-Yancy, 2012). I could also teach students essential community building skills, including how to introduce themselves, how to request contact information, how to talk about their career goals, how to ask about job opportunities, and how to follow up with contacts (Parks-Yancy, 2012).
My assumptions about students’ abilities, families, and social networks have led me to miss many valuable opportunities to serve working-class students. By recognizing our assumptions, listening to others different from ourselves, and partnering with students and families each of us can improve our practice. We can respond to inequity by using existing programming to help students recognize their strengths, increase their communication with their families, and build their communities. Addressing inequities and combating social class assumptions will likely never be intuitive or easy, but the changes made by career professionals today have the potential to significantly transform the future career paths on which working-class students will travel.
Julie Maahs is a Career Coach at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. She obtained a M.S.Ed. in Student Affairs Administration from University of Wisconsin La Crosse and a degree in Social Studies Education from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Julie grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada and is dedicated to the pursuit of lifelong learning.