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Expanding career options and optimizing abilities: the case of Laura.

The authors present a case of a 15-year-old Mexican American adolescent girl who is uncertain about her educational and career future. The ecological model of career development (E. P. Cook, M. J. Heppner, & K. M. O'Brien, 2002) is applied to the case. The authors suggest career counseling interventions for this client and discuss potential concerns and issues that may arise in career counseling with this client.


The race/gender ecological model of career development (Cook, Heppner, & O'Brien, 2002) is a promising approach to understanding the career development of racially and ethnically diverse individuals. In this article, we present the case of a Mexican American adolescent girl, Laura, who is uncertain about her career possibilities. The case describes Laura's family history, her extended and nuclear family, and her school environment. Laura's feelings about gender and cultural messages, as well as her hopes and fears, are described in the case narrative. Then, the ecological model is applied to Laura's case. We suggest interventions based on Laura's case and discuss potential barriers in the career counseling process.

Case Example

My name is Laura, I am 15 years old, and I was born in Arizona. My grandparents moved here from Mexico. They owned a store in Mexico but had to sell everything they owned when they moved to the United States and started with almost nothing when they arrived. They never regretted their decision, even though by U.S. standards they were very poor. My grandfather was a butcher, and my grandmother stayed at home and raised nine children. They hoped that moving to the United States would provide better opportunities for their children. None of their kids (including my father) graduated from high school. In fact, most quit before high school. All of the boys were expected to either work at the butcher shop with my grandfather or to find another job that would help support the family. The girls helped take care of their younger siblings.

My parents have been married for 16 years. I have a younger sister, age 13, and two younger brothers, ages 12 and 8. My father is a mechanic. He's been with the repair shop for many years and does some work at home to make extra money. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school. She's a housewife, but after my youngest brother started school, she started working part-time as a receptionist. At first, my father didn't want her to work, but she insisted. My father agreed that we could use the money. She is usually home when we return from school and does all of the chores at home. My sister and I help her with the chores, but my brothers don't do anything. My father says that housework is a girl's job and that his boys aren't going to do girl's work. It makes me angry when he says things like this. I don't think it is fair that he treats my sister and me differently from my brothers.

I am close to my mother. She tells my sister, brothers, and me that we could be anything we want to be. She tells my sister and me that we should do well in school and get good jobs so that we can take care of ourselves. She says that our education is very important and talks to our teachers often to see how we are doing in our classes.

I attend one of the high schools in my hometown with over 1,300 students in my freshman class. But, I hear that these numbers will decrease over the next few years. In fact, I heard that a girl in my gym class is withdrawing from school because she is pregnant. Some of my classmates travel north during the summer with their families. They are called migrant workers because they travel to other places during peak harvesting times to seek employment. One of my good friends, Lourdes, does this. She doesn't start the school year until October and then leaves sometime in April.

The school counselor came into one of my classes last week to talk to us about colleges and universities. I've dreamed about going to a university after high school, but I don't think that I will. I've always been a good student and make mostly As and Bs. I have a couple of cousins who attended a big state university, but one came back after the first semester, and the other transferred to a college closer to home. I'm afraid that I won't get good grades at a university and that the same thing will happen to me that happened to my cousins. Besides, my parents don't have the money to send me, and if they did, the nearest university is 2 hours away. I don't want to live that far from my family. I've thought about attending a local community college and working so that I could live at home and help my parents financially.

I do know that I want to get married and have kids someday. But I have no idea what I want to study or what I want to be. The counselor told us that the decisions we make now can be very important later. How can I start to make decisions about what classes I'm going to take next year when I don't even know what I want to be doing in 5 or 10 years? The counselor said that it is important to set goals. I just have no idea what I want to do and what kind of goals I should be setting for myself. How do people decide what they want to be?

Application of the Ecological Model

The ecological model of career development (Cook et al., 2002) encourages the integrative examination of Laura as a person who is simultaneously Mexican American and female, with no social identity superseding the other or occurring in isolation. Rather, the model acknowledges that Laura's world comprises her unique personal traits and social identities that are developing in the context of multiple environmental systems. The influences from these multiple systems potentially both constrain and facilitate Laura's life decisions. For example, her personal aspirations are intricately tied to social expectations from her father, mother, and peers, as well as to societal stereotypes of Mexican American girls. These influences represent the individual (i.e., personal aspirations), microsystems (i.e., family), and macrosystems (i.e., societal norms).

At the microsystem level, it is important to view Laura's individual characteristics, including her skills, values, interests, and self-perceptions. Gathering this information about Laura may be accomplished through the administration of the Strong Interest Inventory (Harmon, Hansen, Borgen, & Hammer, 1994), the Skills Confidence Inventory (Betz, Borgen, & Harmon, 1996), and other formal career assessments. Examining the values and expectations among the different microsystems in which Laura operates and exploring the feelings that surround potentially conflicting microsystems are necessary. For example, her family's expectations may be inconsistent with the school's expectations. At the macrosystem level, it is useful to analyze the social and cultural messages that Laura received regarding careers and to explicate stereotypes of Mexican American girls and women that she has heard. Helping Laura understand how these social processes may influence her career-related decisions would be a critical step in the career counseling process. In sum, effective and culturally appropriate interventions with Laura must be multisystemic and must explore the personal meaning that Laura attributes to the influences that stem from the multiple systems in her environment.

Proposed Intervention With Client

The model encourages the promotion of personal competencies for managing institutional and environmental challenges to achieving goals. Thus, the counselor might help Laura build coping skills that are both culturally appropriate and affirming for dealing with the potentially conflicting demands of her multiple systems. Coping with challenges to her career development may not necessarily mean changing her ethnocultural values but rather making modifications to how she responds to them. This approach might include identifying key factors in Laura's environment and how each factor helps or potentially hinders her perceptions of life choices.

Facilitating optimal person-environment interactions in which individuals can develop vocationally is a key component of the model. To this end, Laura's counselor might help her to develop her possible vocational self--connected to what she might become, what she would like to become, and what she is afraid of becoming (see Day, Borkowski, Punzo, & Howsepian, 1994, for a detailed description of this intervention). This work would include explicit discussion of Laura's understanding of the type of Mexican American woman that she desires to be in relation to the type that she is expected to be. Relatedly, examination of Laura's beliefs of the anticipated outcomes of different choices (e.g., what might happen if she attends a university or the local community college) might provide useful information regarding Laura's perceptions of the consequences that may result from her decisions. The use of guided imagery, using the different options identified by Laura, may aid the journey of identifying the possible consequences. In addition, the counselor should explore Laura's occupational aspirations and expectations to determine if there are any discrepancies between the two and, if so, should explicate the reasons for those discrepancies. This can be ascertained by simply asking Laura what her ideal profession would be if she had all the necessary resources (e.g., support of family, financial aid, motivation, skills) and what career she realistically thinks she will pursue.

The centrality of relationships for many women in making life decisions is a key assertion in the model. As such, the counselor should foster the development of both proximal and distal communities of support for Laura. Proximal support systems may include family members, male and female, who can encourage Laura to openly explore her interests. In addition, the counselor may encourage Laura to talk to her cousins who have attended college to obtain realistic expectations for higher education and strategies for success. Moreover, the counselor might use bibliotherapy to provide a distal community of vicarious support for Laura. The literature might include some historical publications relating to Mexican American girls and women and how they have made choices and reconciled their multiple identities. Perhaps Laura might even be encouraged to creatively write about how she is experiencing ethnocultural expectations from her various ecosystems. Other possible interventions include encouraging Laura to interview Mexican American women who have careers in which she is interested, starting a support group for Laura and her peers to discuss their educational and career concerns, and having Laura construct a family career genogram, with the assistance of one of her family members, that they can then discuss.

The model includes a review of the challenges and strengths for women that are produced by their multiple identities and roles. A related concept is multiple role realism, which seems important to address given Laura's desire for a family and potential outside employment. Again, the counselor might help Laura explore how the women she knows manage these multiple demands. She might do a small vocational and personal biography on someone she knows to obtain this information.

Possible Problems and Issues in Counseling

One issue that may potentially occur with Laura is premature termination. Therefore, it is especially important that the counselor focus on building a working alliance with Laura in the initial session. This can be done by discussing Laura's reasons for seeking assistance, her expectations, her prior experiences with helping professionals (i.e., school counselors), and any differences between the counselor and Laura (e.g., age, gender, race/ethnicity).

It is possible that counselors may place their values on Laura. For example, the counselor may encourage Laura's independence in a way that is detrimental to her familial relationships. Thus, identifying ways that Laura can assert independence and still feel connected to her family will be critical. Similarly, the counselor may intervene with the intention of a 4-year education as the goal when this may not necessarily be a fit for Laura. Counselors should be aware of their values regarding different types of career and educational options and how each value is conveyed to the client. It is equally important for counselors to understand Laura's worldview and how this may influence her career and educational choices.

Another problem may be a lack of focus on Laura's strengths. With clients of color who encounter many challenges, a common practice may be to focus on the problems or barriers rather than on strengths. Identifying strengths related to her individual skills and her culture (e.g., her strong academic skills, her mother's involvement with her education, her strong family network) will be important. Along the same lines, there may be a tendency to vilify Laura's father as an irrational, uncaring, or unsupportive person. Encouraging communication to help Laura and her father understand each other's point of view may help. Given the importance of family in Laura's life, a counselor might want to consider involving the family in their work.

Potential Barriers and Additional Recommendations

See Table 1 for a list of potential barriers to achieving positive outcomes with Laura. Some additional recommendations to consider in the case of Laura include the following:

* Referring Laura to a mentoring program

* Providing educational and career information to Laura's family, particularly her parents

* Touring a college campus and career center with Laura to introduce her to these services

* Helping Laura solicit information from various colleges and universities and assist in the application process if she decides to continue her education

Final Comments

Laura's case provides an example of multiple issues that may arise in working with adolescent girls of Hispanic descent. The ecological model of career development (Cook et al., 2002) provides a vehicle for examining the complex, nested influences that have shaped Laura's experience, as well as ways of intervening to enhance Laura's career development.

Potential Barriers to Effective Counseling and Positive Outcomes in the
Case of Laura

Internal Barriers External Barriers

Low self-efficacy regarding Lack of information regarding
attending and succeeding in career and educational options
Conflict between personal values Financial concerns
Lack of knowledge about self Socialization
 Lack of role models


Betz, N., Borgen, F., & Harmon, L. (1996). Skills Confidence Inventory applications and technical guide. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Cook, E. P., Heppner, M. J., & O'Brien, K. M. (2002). Career development of women of color and White women: Assumptions, conceptualization, and interventions from an ecological perspective. The Career Development Quarterly, 50, 291-305.

Day, J. D., Borkowski, J. G., Punzo, D., & Howsepian, B. (1994). Enhancing possible selves in Mexican American students. Motivation and Emotion, 18, 79-103.

Harmon, L., Hansen, J., Borgen, F., & Hammer, A. (1994). Manual for the Strong Interest Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psycholgists Press.

Lisa Y. Flores, Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University; Angela Byars, Department of Counseling Psychology, University of Wisconsin--Madison; Danielle M. Torres, Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, University of Oregon. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa Y. Flores, 109 Townshend Hall, 1885 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210-1222 (e-mail:
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Article Details
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Author:Torres, Danielle M.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Previous Article:Struggling with two identities: the case of Eileen.
Next Article:Sexual harassment and dual-career issues: the case of Megan.

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