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Constructing Coherence in the Community College Career Decision-Making Space


Today, community college students are tasked with making high-stakes decisions about their major and career paths in a very complex and confusing decision-making environment, often without adequate labor market knowledge and career guidance which can have a direct impact on their future earnings, employment, and mental health (Baker, Bettinger, & Marinescu, 2018; Scott-Clayton, 2015; Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen & Person, 2006; Wolniak et al, 2008). This study utilized a mediated-action approach (Penuel & Wertsch, 1995) to examine the career development and decision-making processes of community college students. Researching the action of choosing a major and career path, rather than the individual making the decision, enabled the researcher to foreground structural and contextual affordances and barriers and provided a window into how students construct coherence (Erickson, 1968) in a complex decision-making environment (Baker et al., 2018). For the participants in this study, making a decision about their major and career path required navigating a dynamic and shifting labor market (Fouad & Bynner, 2009), a complex ecosystem of postsecondary credentials (Carnevale, Garcia, & Gulish, 2017), and various contextual and structural affordances, barriers, and constraints (Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, & Autin, 2016). For many participants, this complexity was confounded by a lack of labor market knowledge and knowhow (Baker et al., 2018); sociopolitical barriers and previous schooling experiences (Diemer, 2009; Duffy et al., 2016); efforts to balance peers, family obligations, and work (Saenz et al., 2018); and experiences in classes, especially math and science, that impacted their self-efficacy and outcome expectations (Baker et al., 2018; Lent & Brown, 2013; Lent, Hackett, & Brown, 2000). The findings of this study suggest that community college students need: (a) access to labor market knowledge and knowhow; (b) differentiated career guidance and career exploration opportunities; (c) career guidance that extends into the classroom and is contextualized in disciplinary learning; (d) opportunities to explore and cultivate their sociopolitical development across career fields; (e) career guidance focused on developing their career adaptability; and (f) emotional and psychological support to navigate the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty they report feeling throughout their career development and decision-making processes.

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