Feeling Seen, Heard, & Affirmed: Pursuing Professional Development Opportunities as a Person of Color

By Francisco Cordero posted 06-04-2020 07:08

June 4, 2020

by Francisco Cordero, Assistant Director for Undergraduate Career Development, and Fatim Lelenta, Assistant Director of Graduate Student Career Development, The Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University

Navigating the Workplace as a Person of Color 

When you are a person-of-color (POC) in the workplace, your identity allows you to bring a unique asset, strength, and perspective. While those are great attributes, you may find yourself paying an “emotional tax” at work, feeling in a constant state of being “on guard” against potential bias because of your gender, race, and/or ethnicity. Additionally, a POC navigating a predominantly white workplace may often think about how to deal with implicit bias, expectations about their hair and presentation, being the only or one of few people of color on their team or shifting the way they speak in conversations (code-switching).  

While in the workplace, it is important to continually evaluate the resources and support systems you have available to you to help you navigate the workplace. You can ask yourself the following:  

  • Are there professional development programs or affinity-based groups available to me that I am a part of?  
  • What safe spaces can I bring both my professional and personal identities to? 
  • Who are the professional role models I have that I can share my authentic self with? 

 With this in mind, it is important as a POC to continually engage in professional development opportunities within and outside of your organization. By staying engaged, you can unpack any incidents that have impacted you, identify sources of support, and connect with other professionals with similar identities to gain perspective. As a POC in higher education, we have found that seeking out professional development opportunities allows us to feel supported in a way that is specific to our personal and professional identities.  

What Does it Mean to be Seen, Heard, and Affirmed?  

Fatim’s Experience 

As a career development professional, I often think about my own career and how I can find ways to reach new challenges and professional milestones. I have always had a passion for writing but did not know how to get started. One day, I came across the NACE blog and I spoke with my department head about receiving a NACE membership so that I can engage, learn, and share my expertise.  

My department head thought it was great and looked forward to hearing back about my involvement. In December 2019, I wrote my first blog post and have continued to blog ever since. With this, I rediscovered my passion for writing when I wrote my first blog for NACE. This experience allowed me to connect with other career professionals and engage in community. When I reflect on this experience, I realize that it was also the first time I advocated for myself, communicated my professional needs, and took responsibility for my own success. As a person of color, advocating for yourself can sometimes feel difficult, challenging and intimidating, especially when it is the first time. It is important to note that practicing how to have these conversations is what makes it easy over time.  

I am so thankful that I asked for what I needed, because it allowed me to connect with my wonderful colleague and friend, Francisco Cordero. I learned that through advocating for myself, I was also providing space for us to share advice, takeaways and engage in a meaningful conversation and build connection. 

Francisco’s Experience  

In my current role in career services, I knew I wanted to grow in this field, and it was a goal of mine to invest in my professional development. I first spoke to my supervisor about this and we set a game plan on ways I can investigate opportunities. When costs for conferences are high, we have to sometimes get a little creative. As Fatim mentioned, she wrote a wonderful piece on her experience with NACE’s Mentorship Program. I decided to reach out to her to learn more about the program and what it was like. I mentioned to Fatim that I didn’t have a NACE membership. After some brainstorming, she suggested I submit an internal office proposal to receive a NACE membership. I shared in the proposal the need and impact of having a mentor and the cost savings it would be for our office. By collaborating with Fatim, I was able to hear her story and think through ways I could grow professionally. This helped me build confidence to ask for an alternative way to professional development. 

My proposal was approved, and I was given a NACE membership. I’ve taken full advantage of my membership by finding a great mentor (s/o to Nathan Elton, University of Delaware & Emily Merritt, Trinity College) and participating in webinars, community forums, and other exciting resources.  

My biggest takeaways from this experience were: 

  • Do your researchI looked into the cost of various memberships and associations. I compiled the benefits of each and how I can use the membership or opportunity to advance the mission and vision of our office. 
  • Ask questions and tap onto colleagues or connections for adviceI asked my colleagues and connections closest to me to share what professional development opportunities they’ve done and how they went about it. 
  • Find other professional development opportunities. Get creative and propose alternativesI decided to look into NACE’s Mentorship Program as an alternative. My approach was to show my office the added value of participating in this opportunity.  

Ways to Enhance Your Professional Development as a POC: 

As career development professionals, we continually meet with students or are in spaces where we support people to reach their career aspirations. It is imperative that we also consider our own career goals and how to seek out professional development in an intentional way. Here are some key avenues you can consider enhancing your professional development:  

  • Mentorship: A mentor listens, guides, and advises you and can support you in making professional decisions. They can also provide you with confidence to pursue opportunities and help you reach your full potential. Finding a mentor who is a person of color is an added benefit as it can allow you to share aspects of your identity freely. Topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, or deciding whether to wear your natural hair are personal challenges that directly impact how you navigate the workplace. Sharing these experiences with someone of color who can also express and understand the challenges you face as a minority can leave a persona and professional impact.  
  • Sponsorship: Sponsorship is a kind of helping relationship in which senior, powerful people use their personal clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role. While a mentor is someone who has the knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you. The benefit of a sponsor is that they not only guide you, but they also advocate for you and make you visible to others. As an ambitious and motivated person, it is important to have senior leadership in your corner to support your growth and development. When evaluating if you have a sponsor, ask yourself if your workplace provides access for you to develop this relationship. When sponsorship works, it can provide you with the support and advocacy needed to have advancement.  
  • Professional Associations/Committees: Professional associations and committees provide a wide variety of professional development opportunities that can sometimes make it feel like there is something for everyone. NACE’s People of Color Affinity Impact Team is a great example where you can find a sense of community while learning from other professionals in the field. What we love about this group is the diversity of experiences, people, and learningwhich can provide you with new perspectives, skills, and connections. It also creates a feeling where you can be heard and feel a sense of support from others in the field who share similar interests or identities. Further, professional associations and committees allow for spaces where you can ask questions, innovate new ideas, and challenge yourself. This written piece is a perfect example where Fatim and I connected with Karen Armstrong (Penn State University), a NACE POC member, and we were encouraged to write a piece and share our story and advice.  
  • Online Engagement: Use LinkedIn or other online platforms to connect with other professionals of color and share knowledge and best practices. Below is a short list of online spaces that we found useful: 

Continue the Dialogue & Share Your Experiences: 

It is important to connect, share and learn from colleagues who are navigating the same process. We both found support through sharing our experiences with each other as it allowed us to discover our values and build a meaningful friendship. If you identify as a POC who has had success or challenges navigating professional development opportunities, we welcome you to share your experience and hope to support one another as colleagues.