Success Is a Two-Way Street

Photo by Lindsay Laguna

When I was pursuing my EdM in Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of my courses was on immigration and education in the United States. The professor for that class was one of my favorites. One day, we were having a large group discussion about the barriers in government policy that historically have made upward mobility challenging for different immigrant groups throughout American history.

During that discussion, my professor emphasized that success is a two-way street. She did not stop with that declaration. She went on to use herself as an example. Growing up in an immigrant family, she worked hard to get to her current level of educational attainment and upward professional mobility. Simultaneously, she gave credit to mentors, sponsors, and supporters who motivated her throughout her academic and career journey. Furthermore, she acknowledged how if she had been living in a different era where there were more policies restricting immigration and upward mobility for people of her immigrant group such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, it would not have mattered how hard she worked; it also mattered what structures and systems were in place to enable her educational achievement and professional success.

I always admired how this professor gave herself credit for her role in her own success, and she acknowledged both the small-scale and large-scale networks that contributed to her achievement. I tend to run in social circles where high achievers tend to be individualistic in framing their success while others display their accomplishments through a collectivist lens. I appreciated how this professor could do both.

In my earlier posts such as Find New Paths to Explore, What Will You Do with Your Power?, How Will You Use Your Voice?, and How Will Your Employer Advance DEI?, I consistently have pointed to the structural and systemic inequities in the United States and around the world.

As I gained more experience in career development work, I became aware of how professionals in my field were not so aware of these structural and systemic inequities.

Just because I often advised and coached people individually, that does not necessarily mean our sessions were limited to looking at their accomplishments through an individualistic lens.

When I was interested in advancing my own career and professional development in my industry, I realized how much emphasis was placed on continuing education and trainings on issues that I felt leaned more toward an individualistic approach. This approach did not address the larger policies, systems, and cultures in society that serve as contributors or detriments to someone’s success.

Over and over again in my career, I remembered how my Harvard professor declared that success is a two-way street. That makes sense since she is a sociologist, and sociologists by nature focus on social constructs.

What is interesting is that many people in my field are educated and trained in theories, conceptual frameworks, and other philosophies that do not take social constructs into account. Now given the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, career services associations are starting to publish more literature and offer more workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Only time will tell where all of these professional development articles and sessions lead.

Personally, I hope there is a growth of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in my field, but I hope they consistently get tied to issues of justice. If you have been paying attention, you know that post-George Floyd’s murder, media and health organizations like WBUR and the American Public Health Association (APHA) are publishing pieces such as Racism As a Public Health Crisis and Racism and Health.

These pieces are foundational for education and dialogue, but how do they translate to advocacy and activism for career development professionals?

Whether you are a career coach or not, how does your work intersect with racism? How can you address racism in the work you do—whether it is paid or unpaid labor? Hopefully it is paid labor, but that is a whole other issue for another day.

Public relations statements on racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion are nice, but we need tangible, systemic solutions that address racism as a public health crisis and social justice issue. Until then, success will remain a two-way street that only groups and individuals with adequate privilege can access.

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