Seeking a Career in Social and Political Change at a Time of Global Disruption

By David J. Smith

This is a period of unprecedented social and political change. Today, it is critical to ensure that marginalized communities can access economic opportunities and health services, as well as secure social justice. Calls for criminal justice reform and accountability (Subramanian et al., 2020) offer the opportunity of setting in motion substantial structural change in alleviating inequality and oppression. The worldwide pandemic is bringing needed attention to the failings of public health systems as the coronavirus is disproportionately leveled against Black and Brown people (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

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Current college students and recent graduates are seeking ways to respond to both the change and lack of change. Some are taking to the streets, others to the voting ballots, and still others are considering how they might incorporate the need to advance change into meaningful careers. Examples include careers as humanitarian aid workers, community development specialists, and public health professionals (Snipe, 2021).

As the world needs more workers attending to social and political challenges, an emphasis on identifying the best career pathways for would-be professionals is required. Unfortunately, career offices are at times not as familiar with not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), international governmental organization (IGO), international and community development, and social justice work than with the for-profit corporate and professional services fields.

Career offices might consider the following to best position students for social and political change careers that are often found in the not-for-profit and NGO/IGO sectors.

1. Make the connections between students lived experiences and community needs.
Students come from a range of social, economic, and political backgrounds. Helping them recognize ways in which they can make change in their communities is important. Many come from circumstances and environments where local and community-based change is needed, but they might not always recognize the issues in their own backyard. As such, educating them as to the challenges in their own communities – especially as it might relate to a cultural or ethnic group they identify with – is an important first step. For example, given my own work focuses on the needs of refugees, I see the need for working with groups newly arriving to the United States. Assisting a nongovernmental organization that helps refugees adjust to living in the U.S., like the International Rescue Committee, might be an avenue for students living near borders to explore.

2. Help students frame their aptitudes and abilities in tangible ways.
During college, students will engage in a multitude of career shaping experiences including course projects, hearing from practitioners in various fields, and engaging in internships and practicums. Through these opportunities, they can learn and develop aptitudes in a range of skills and abilities. Yet often there is a tendency to generalize the learning for purposes of a resume or promoting themselves. Students need to be made aware that listing ”well-organized” or ”culturally competent” on a resume is often too vague to be helpful. What exactly did students do that shows cultural competence? Did they apply a specific insight or ability to get a project completed? Or decide to engage in a certain course of action based on the correct assessment of a cultural norm? Often, students can use a well-crafted story to show how they applied a generalized skill in a specific way.

3. Provide students with experiential opportunities to engage in the work.
Having an immersive experiential opportunity to engage in the work of social justice allows students to test their skills and allows them to preview their profession. Students might aspire to a specific kind of work, only to recognize that it might not be for them once they engage in the day-to-day grind. Internships and other experience-based activities can be useful here. For example, students can learn about the work of humanitarian operators by role-playing and engaging with those who are served by their efforts - such as civil society actors and internally displaced persons. In this way, students reach a reasoned conclusion of whether the work is for them or not. Providing students with the chance to reflect after an experience, makes learning, as John Dewey argued, an “active and constructive process” (Dewey & Boydston, 2008, p. 43).

4. Connect students with peers who can offer relevant insight.
Role models and mentors are important in career development. Someone aspiring to a specific line of work learns from seeing themselves in someone else. Career practitioners often connect highly successful senior professionals to students on the belief that this provides students with accurate models. Though interesting for students, senior professionals may not be as helpful to aspirants, as would more junior professionals. By being closer in age to those seeking a career, more relevant insights can be shared. Someone who is a few steps ahead of the student, might be more in sync with their needs. Recent alumni can be valuable here.

In conclusion, the current state of global disruption and need for social and political change present opportunities for those pursuing meaningful careers that bring about change to seek professional pathways. In turn, career offices can play a significant role in providing students with concrete and articulable strategies for directing their interests towards making global and community change.




Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 18). COVID-19 hospitalization and death by race/ethnicity. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html

Dewey, J., & Boydston, J. A. (2008). John Dewey: The middle works, 1899-1924. Southern Illinois University Press.

Snipe, M. (2021, January 22). Coronavirus spurs students to seek public health degrees. The Express. https://www.lockhaven.com/news/health/2021/01/coronavirus-spurs-students-to-seek-public-health-degrees/

Subramanian, R., Eisen, L., Merki, T., Arzy, L., Stroud, H., King, T., & Nahra, A. (2020). A federal agenda for criminal justice reform (Rep.). Brennan Center for Justice.




David Smith 2021David J. Smith is a career coach based in the Washington, DC area. He teaches career development to graduate students at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). He is a member of NCDA. David can be reached at davidjsmith@davidjsmithconsulting.com

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1 Comment

Naupess Kibiswa   on Thursday 02/24/2022 at 06:30 PM

This is a very instructive article, especially for people like me that need an introduction to the US workplace

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