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Publication: The Career Development Quarterly
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 26420
ISSN: 08894019
Journal code: GCDQ

Career counseling is defined as "the process of assisting individuals in the development of a life-career with focus on the definition of the worker role and how that role interacts with other life roles" (Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005, p. 224). One goal of career counseling is to help students set goals toward their career aspirations. Career aspirations refer to students finding incentives to set objectives toward and be motivated to meet their occupational goals (Quaglia & Cobb, 1996). To better accomplish this mission, career counselors have begun to consider the sociocultural contexts (i.e., identity and racism) that influence students' career goal-setting processes (Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005).

Recendy, researchers have theorized that identity and racism may enhance or detract racial and ethnic minorities from specific occupational goals (e.g., Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005). To further extend the career counseling literature, this study amalgamates career aspirations with two areas of research: racism and identity. Similar to other scholars (e.g., Helms & Piper, 1994), we postulated that racism would have a negative impact on African American college students' career goals. We also assumed that identity would moderate the relationship between racism and career aspirations. Although the extent to which identity buffers against the attacks of racism has received recent attention (Cross & Vandiver, 2001), we found no study that identified ethnic identity as a protective-reactive factor for career aspirations. Therefore, it was predicted that the more African American college students identified with their ethnic identity, the weaker the effect of racism -related stress would be on their career aspirations.

Racism: A Career Rarrier on Carper Aspirations

Recent developments in the career counseling literature have focused attention on how career barriers influence African American college students' career development (Neblett, Shelton, & Sellers, 2004). Career barriers are defined as "events or conditions, either within the person or in his or her environment, that make career progress difficult" (Swanson & Woitke, 1997, p. 434). In their recent meta-analysis, Fouad and Byars-Winston (2005) examined racial and ethnic differences on career aspirations and barriers. The results of their study showed (a) no significant difference in career hopes among racial and ethnic groups and (b) that racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to be exposed to career barriers. In other words, career barriers such as racism or racial-related stress might preclude racial and ethnic minorities from meeting their occupational goals.

However, only recently have scholars considered racism-related stress as a potential career barrier (Neblett et al., 2004). Racism-related stress is defined as "the race-related transactions between individuals or groups and their environment that emerge from the dynamics of racism, and that are perceived to tax or exceed existing individual and collective resources or threaten well-being" (Harrell, 2000, p. 44). Racism-related stress merges Jones's (1997) tripartite model of racism (e.g., individual, institutional, and cultural) with Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) transactional model of stress and coping (Harrell, 2000). Drawing directly on these well-defined models, Harrell posited that individuals and environmental factors are constantly interacting with each other and that, when a race-related event threatens an individual's personal resources to cope, it is perceived as a psychological barrier.

Ethnic Identity and Career Aspirations

Ethnic identity is also reported to have an influence on the career development process. Phinney (1992) described ethnic identity as individuals sharing a common origin and participating in shared cultural activities. Within this context, ethnic identity is a social construct that is coupled with the identification of and the identification with meanings and expectations associated with belonging to a group (Phinney, 1996). This may include adopting the thinking, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors that are associated with group membership and the investment of time and energy with one's social group (Jaret & Reitzes, 2009). Ethnic identity also includes both a commitment to one's group and participation in social activities of one's group (Phinney & Ong, 2007).

Much of the research connecting identity to career development has explored the effect of racial and ethnic identity on vocational maturity and career goals. For instance, Jackson and Neville (1998) were the first researchers to empirically investigate how identity predicts African American college students' vocational identity and hope to achieve goals. The results of their study indicated that African American college students who conformed to White cultural standards and values reported lower levels of vocational identity. Conversely, African American college students who accepted healthy aspects of both the American society and their own racial identity reported higher levels of vocational identity and career hopes. More recently, Duffy and Klingaman (2009) conducted a cross-sectional study and examined the extent to which ethnic identity was a determinant of career development progress among 2,432 first-year college students. The results suggest that, when African Americans strongly identify with their ethnic identity, they tended to report higher levels of career decidedness.

Identity as a Psychological Buffer Against Racism Regarding Career Aspirations

A psychological buffer is defined as "any psychological act of protection, which Blacks employ when they encounter Whites who are explicitly acting in a racist and insulting manner" (Cross & Vandiver, 2001, p. 379). Consistent with the construct of a psychological buffer, this study postulated that ethnic identity would psychologically safeguard African American college students' career aspirations from racism. As previously noted, we found no empirical studies that examined these variables simultaneously. However, empirical evidence does suggest that identification with one's ethnic background serves as a buffer for other important psychological variables. For example, research conducted with African Americans suggested that racial and ethnic identity moderated the negative effects of perceived racism on indicators of psychological health, such as self- worth (Cross & Vandiver, 2001; Neblett et al., 2004; Sellers & Shelton, 2003). Evidence has demonstrated clearly the buffering effects of identity, and we postulated that the same would be true for career aspirations.

Purpose of This Study

Examining how racism-related stress and ethnic identity are determinants of African American college students' career aspirations is imperative for gaining a picture of barriers to their career possibilities. By focusing on these variables simultaneously, we may determine whether racism-related stress leads to a lack of career goal-setting or a perception of the opportunity structure in their career-related choices among this population. Given that ethnic identity is a construct that is related to important psychological domains, further investigation of its importance for African American college students' career progress is needed. Therefore, we predicted that ethnic identity would moderate the relationship between racism-related stress and career aspirations. In other words, as African American college students experienced increased racism, we expected that they would strongly identify with their ethnic identity as a means to psychologically protect their career aspirations.



A total of 163 African American college students from an urban, predominately White midwestern university volunteered for this study. A convenience sampling procedure was used to recruit participants who self-identified as African American. Demographic information indicated that 83 (50.9%) were women and 80 (49.1%) were men. The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 26, with an average age of 23 years.


Prior to data collection, the university's institutional review board (1KB) approved the research proposal and measures used fix this study. After receiving approval, the research team contacted student organizations and student affairs offices on campus to coordinate the survey distribution. The survey instruments were counterbalanced to reduce the chance of order effect. Data also were collected at the university student center and online using Survey Monkey. All of the participants were informed that the research project involved an investigation of factors that influence a person's career aspirations. Before questionnaires were administrated, participants read a consent form that stated that the study was voluntary, being conducted anonymously, and approved by the university's IRE.

Independent Variables

Index ofRace-Related Stress-Brief Version (IRRS-B). The IRRS-B (Utsey, 1999) is a self-report scale rooted in the idea that racism (individual, institutional, and cultural) is a unique source of stress. The IRRS-B is composed of 22 items that are rated on a 5-point Likert-type scale, ranging from 0 (this never happened to me) to 4 (this event happened and I was extremely upset). Completing the IRRS-B required participants to rate race-related events in their daily lives. There are three subscales (Individual Racism, Institutional Racism, and Cultural Racism) and a Global Racism scale. Scoring the IRRS-B is performed by summing the total of the weighted subscale scores. Higher scores on the IRRS-B are indicative of experiences of greater levels of racism-related stress. Utsey (1999) reported the Cronbach's alpha as .78 for Cultural Racism, .69 for Institutional Racism, and .78 for Individual Racism. In this study, the alpha coefficient for the Global Racism scale was .88.

Mult (group Ethnic Identity Measure (MEIM). The MEIM (Phinney, 1992) consists of a total of 15 items with 12 questions measuring ethnic identity. For this study, the 12 items measuring ethnic identity were used. The items are measured on a 4-point Likert type scale (4 - strongly agree, 3 - somewhat agree, 2 - somewhat disagree, 1 - strongly disagree). Scoring for the MEIM is derived by reversing the negatively worded items, summing across the 12 items, and dividing by the number of items to obtain a mean. Ponterotto, Gretchen, Utsey, Stracuzzi, and Saya (2003) found that the Cronbach's alphas for the MEIM tended to range from .81 to .92. For this study, the alpha coefficient for ethnic identity was .81.

Dependent Variable-Career Aspiration Scale (CAS)

The CM (Quaglia & Cobb, 1996) comprises 10 items that measure goals that students set for their career choices. Scoring the CM requires that four of the items be reverse scored and added together to determine a total. This total is then divided by the number of items, computing the mean. Higher scores on the CAS are indicative of a stronger career goal and achievement orientation, and lower scores indicate less motivation toward career goals and achievement. The Cronbach's alpha for the CM on a sample of 329 students, of whom 30.7% were African Americans, was .92. Studies on the internal consistency of the CAS found it to be moderate to moderate high (.77 to .80). For this study, the alpha coefficient was .82.


A moderation regression analysis was used to test whether ethnic identity moderated the relationship between racism-related stress and career aspirations (Cohen & Cohen, 1983). Following the recommendations of Frazier, Tix, and Barron (2004), the continuous predictor and moderator variables were centered and plotted. Values within 1 SD below the mean were considered low, and values 1 SD above the mean were considered high. For the analysis, the participant variables were entered as a block of variables in the first step. In the second step, racism-related stress and ethnic identity were added. In the third step, the interaction term of Ethnic Identity ? Racism-Related Stress was entered. The F test for significance of change in R2with a Rvalue of .05 and effect size of .06 or greater was used to determine a moderation effect of ethnic identity on racism-related stress and career aspirations.


Preliminary Data Analysis and Pearson Correlations

As recommended by Field (2005), preliminary data analysis was conducted to determine if the assumptions of moderation analysis were met. To test for normality, the normal probability plot was used. The results showed no violations of normality. Multicollinearity was tested by looking at the variance inflation factor (VIF) scores and tolerance values. The VIF values were less than 10, and the tolerance values were greater than .2, suggesting that multicollinearity was not an issue. To check for homogeneity of the variance, we plotted the ZRESID against ZPRED. The results indicated this assumption was met. The Durbin- Watson statistic was used to test the assumption of independence of the errors; the results support the conclusion that the residuals were uncorrected . Pearson's product correlations were conducted and revealed that career aspirations had a significant and positive relationship with ethnic identity (r = .170, ? = .034) and age (r = .173, p = .03). The results also showed that racism-related stress was related to ethnic identity (r= .087, ? = .05) and age (r= .312, ? = .05).

Moderation Analysis With Career Aspirations as the Criterion Variable

To test whether ethnic identity moderated the relationship between racismrelated stress and career aspirations, a moderation regression analysis was conducted. The results for this analysis are presented in Table 1 . The demographic variables of age, gender, and education were entered as a block of variables in the first step and did not account for any significant variance (p = ns) in career aspirations. In the second step, the model was improved when the racism-related stress (p = .04) and ethnic identity (p = .03) variables were entered. These variables accounted for 7.5% of additional variance in career aspirations. In the third step, the interaction term Racism-Related Stress x Ethnic Identity was entered. The results showed an interaction effect, 1 56) = 4.09, p = .04, indicating that the effect of racism-related stress on career aspirations is conditional upon levels of identity development. The additional interaction term explained 2.6% of the significant portion of the variance in career aspirations. Although the effect size (il2 change - .026) for the interaction effect was small, the beta weight coefficient for the interaction term was positive and significant, suggesting that, as racism related-stress increases in the context of low identity development, career aspirations decrease. Conversely, as perceived racism increases in the context of high identity development, career aspirations increase. Figure 1 also provides further evidence of an interaction effect of ethnic identity.




In this study, we hypothesized that as African American college students experienced increased racism, their ethnic identity would serve as a psychological armor to protect their career aspirations. The results support the psychological buffer construct and demonstrated that the effect of racism-related stress on African American college students' career aspirations is conditional upon their levels of identity development. In other words, as racism related-stress increases in the context of low identity development, career aspirations decrease. Conversely, as perceived racism increases in the context of high identity development, career aspirations increase. This is evident by ethnic identity interacting with racism-related stress to predict career aspirations in a positive direction. This could suggest that ethnic identity is a cultural adaptation that buffers against the threats of racism-related stress and results in African American college students finding incentives to achieve their occupational goals.

Our findings add to the body of literature on the moderation value of ethnic identity (i.e., Neblett et al., 2004; Sellers & Shelton, 2003), by supporting the assertion that identity is a psychological buffer against the attacks of racism on career aspirations. The results also could mean that African American college students who have high career aspirations may expect that, because of their increased aspirations, they will have more racism-related challenges to encounter along their career trajectories. Thus, they might look for support from where it will more likely come - the group with whom they identify. It also may be that African American college students who are more sensitized to racism are also more sensitized to their own racial and ethnic identity, particularly if their career aspirations are high. These notions are consistent with the identity development theory (Phinney, 1992, 1996; Sellers & Shelton, 2003).

Current findings indicate that racism-related stress plays an important role in African American college students' career goals. When racism-related stress was entered in the moderation equation, it was identified as a statistically significant predictor of career aspirations. The beta coefficient for racismrelated stress was negative, suggesting an inverse relationship. Our findings are consistent with past studies that suggest that African American college students suffer career deficits as a function of experiencing racism (Neblett et al., 2004). Additionally, age and identity had a positive relationship with racism-related stress, suggesting that older African American college students who embrace their ethnic identity reported experiencing more racial stressors.

As expected, the results of this study provide support for ethnic identity as a determinant of career aspirations. Compared to racism-related stress, ethnic identity displayed the strongest significant and positive correlation with career aspirations. The beta coefficient for ethnic identity was also larger than the coefficient for racism-related stress, and it accounted for more of the significant proportion of the variance. Furthermore, the beta weight coefficient for ethnic identity was positive, suggesting that African American college students who strongly sought out their ethnic group were more likely to be motivated to set career goals. The results of this study are consistent with past studies that have demonstrated that African American college students who have a strong racial and ethnic identity reported higher levels of vocational identity, career hopes, and career decidedness (Duffy & Klingaman, 2009; Jackson & Neville, 1998). Additionally, career aspirations were positively correlated with age, suggesting that older African Americans were more likely to be motivated to achieve their career goals.

implications for Practice

We believe that these findings make an important contribution to the career counseling literature and have implications for counseling African American college students. First, we expanded the concept of psychological buffer by applying it to career aspirations. Our findings support the notion of a psychological buffer of ethnic identity against racism-related stress regarding career aspirations. Second, because embracing one's identity buffered against the stressors of racism, this study invites career counselors to gain an understanding of the cultural factors related to African American college students' career aspirations. This means that career counselors might need to explicitly discuss the importance of identity in career progression with their African American clients. Next, this study points to the importance of career counselors using theoretical models that are situated in a culturally specific context. Readers are directed to the work of Fouad and Bingham ( 1995), who examined best practices for counseling ethnic and racial minorities. Finally, given that the relationship among age, identity, and career aspirations was positive, career counselors might consider connecting African American college students with older peers of the same ethnic background. By connecting them with older African Americans on campus, career counselors may afford younger African American students the opportunity to engage in a process whereby their career aspirations are valued and realized.

Limitations of the Current Study

Although we believe these findings add to the emergent literature on career aspirations, caution is warranted. First, the generalizability of this study is limited to the university setting in which the study took place. Further research could replicate this study at other universities. A second caveat to this study is the research design. The research analysis used for this study was moderated regression analysis; therefore, no direct causal relationship was established. Third, this study used self-report measures, which rely on participants' responses to questions. As with all self-report measures, consistency biases and social desirability might be evident. In other words, the participants might have skewed the results by portraying themselves in a more negative or positive direction. However, we believe this was not the case, considering that the scores on the measures were normally distributed. A final caution is the small effect size, suggesting that the moderating term played a small part in understanding career aspirations. To this end, we recommend that future studies include other measures of identity (i.e., Black Racial Identity Scale) and racism (i.e., Perceived Racism Scale) to better understand how sociocultural variables affect African Americans college students' career aspirations.


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Author affiliation:

Darrick Tovar-Murray, Jara Andrusyk, Ryan D'Angelo, and Tia King, College of Education, DePaul University, Chicago; Ericka S. Jenifer, Mental Health Clinic, United States Air Force, Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Darrick Tovar-Murray, College of Education, DePaul University, 2320 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614-3250 (e-mail:

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