Creating an Impactful Career Development Course: Incorporating Social Justice with Career and Major Exploration for College Students

By Matt Eng and Eve Millett

Many academic institutions have created courses for their first-year students that help them adjust to their post-secondary careers, introduce them to the opportunities therein, explore resources, and begin to set career goals. However, some students need more time, and find themselves in their second year without a major. What can we do to address the needs of those students? In response to this need, the University of Hawai‘i created an academic course directed towards students after their first year, with additional care taken to address transfer students’ needs. UNIV 340 Academic Exploration through Advising is an upper-division course “designed to assist exploratory students in the process of researching personal, career, and educational goals and the impact of these goals on the decision-making process” (University of Hawaii, 2021). It meets a graduation requirement (Writing Intensive), which plays a role in garnering interest in the course.

Integrating a Social Justice Curriculum

In our current society, many career fields are creating diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. This has led to the development of social justice focused training in areas across all job sectors. While this is very important, many college students leave their institutions with little to no interaction with the idea of social justice prior to being hired into the workforce. Therefore, when looking to develop UNIV 340 further, it made sense to include social justice in the goals of this course.

Course conversations include social justice focused discussions, including a week specifically designated to helping students understand their identity and how identity interacts with major/future career plans. This week-long unit includes readings, videos, and discussions regarding identity exploration, social justice, and how to apply this to major/career plans. One activity is a “privilege” activity, during which students have to actively recognize and discuss the privileges they enjoy. This concept is extended further by having the students explore what privilege in education and/or the workplace looks like and how to challenge oppression in those arenas.

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Materials provided to students include works from the fields of ethnic studies, student affairs, and information from several news media outlets. Career professionals including academic advisors know and teach that it is essential to continue to engage with social justice resources, such as the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Ibram X. Kendi, and social justice resources provided by NCDA, as knowledge is always being created. When students initially read the material and interact with the lessons for that week, they are a little unsure of its impact. However, by the end of the semester, it is often this unit that students’ course evaluations state as very impactful. In addition to benefiting from understanding the impact of identity as students, it is very helpful to have explored these ideas prior to entering the professional work world.

Connection to Career Development Theories

Incorporating identity development and social justice into the course allows career professionals/advisors to move beyond the “Big Three” tenets of career development theories – interests, values, abilities (Swanson & D’Achiardi, 2005) – and address the broader needs of students. In this way, the course more fully prepares students for the realities of the world in which they will enter post-graduation. Emergent theories of career development, such as Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent et al., 1994), Career Construction Theory (Savickas, 2019), Planned Happenstance (Krumboltz, 2009), and Chaos Theory of Careers (Pryor & Bright, 2011), emphasize a need for adaptability and understanding the dynamic nature of both students and careers. Including social justice principles in the career development conversations allows career counselors to review the inequities and sociopolitical realities of occupational attainment and growth (Irving, 2020). By incorporating both elements into our practice, students are better informed and can engage in a holistic approach to career planning.


The foremost guiding principle of the course is that it is easier and more satisfying to make decisions about majors and careers after participating in guided reflection. Since guided reflection is embedded into the core of the course, updating the curriculum to incorporate identity development added another lens through which the students can view the major and career exploration process.

Within the course unit focused on social justice, the students are instructed via self-reflection and discussion. Students examine the barriers that they face to obtain higher education and how that may impact their learning and decision-making experiences as well. Students are then encouraged to engage in campus activities to further understand their identity and meet other students to hear their stories, hopefully becoming their allies in the process. Another guiding principle of the course is for students to take identity and social justice knowledge far beyond this course to become engaged citizens in the community.


It may not be feasible to create an academic major and career exploration course on every campus. In lieu of a course, incorporating social justice and identity development into workshops conducted from career services can aid this key element of career development in students. Skills, values, and interests will likely remain the backbone of career development. As we are looking at the needs of our students and the ever-evolving world of work, we need to be prepared to update our practice. More than just preparing students with an understanding of themselves, incorporating identity development and social justice education into the process of career development will impact how these students change the world of work and its norms.



Irving, B. (2020). The positioning of social justice: Critical challenges for career development. In P. J. Robertson, T. Hooley & P. McCash,  The Oxford Handbook of Career Development. The Oxford University Press.

Krumboltz, J. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 135–154. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072708328861

Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45(1), 79–122. https://doi.org/10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027

NCES. (2020, May). The condition of education - post-secondary education - finances and resources - sources of financial aid. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cuc.asp

Pryor, R. G., & Bright, J. E. (2011). The chaos theory of careers: A new perspective on working in the twenty-first century. Routledge.

Savickas, M. L. (2019). Career construction theory: Life portraits of attachment, adaptability, and identity. Mark L. Savickas.

Swanson, J. L., & D’Achiardi, C. (2005). Beyond interests, needs/values, and abilities: assessing other important career constructs over the life span. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Research to Work (pp. 353–381). Wiley.

University of Hawaii. (2021). UNIV 340 academic exploration through advising. https://manoa.hawaii.edu/catalog/courses/univ-340-academic-exploration-through-advising-3/




Matt EngMatt Eng, M.Ed., is an academic advisor in the Mānoa Advising Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, which specializes in assisting exploratory (undeclared) students find and declare their major. He has background in both academic advising and career development at the collegiate level and has designed two academic courses for major and career exploration. Matt can be contacted at matt.eng@hawaii.edu.


Eve MillettEve Millett, M.A., M.Ed., is an academic advisor in the Mānoa Advising Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, which serves the exploratory (undeclared) student population. She is the supervisor for the campus wide peer advisor program and works on different initiatives to support underserved students on campus, including the Mānoa Access Initiative. She also currently teaches UNIV 340. Eve can be contacted at: millett@hawaii.edu.


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Dave McCall   on Saturday 04/03/2021 at 09:42 AM

Great work. I love the connection between Social Justice and Careers. I have started to embed some of this into my Career Exploration course, but definitively need to continue to expand these pieces of the course.

Melissa Venable   on Tuesday 04/06/2021 at 11:34 AM

Thank you for this inspiring piece! It's past time for me to review my course materials and activities with diversity and social justice in mind.

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