Academic journal article Career Planning and Adult Development Journal

Career Counseling with Americans of Arab Descent

Academic journal article Career Planning and Adult Development Journal

Career Counseling with Americans of Arab Descent

Article excerpt

Americans of Arab descent (AAD) comprise a population under heightened scrutiny in contemporary times. Historically, conflicts between the United States and regions of the Arab Middle East (defined here as the collective group of 22 Arab League States: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Sjibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritainia, Morocco, Oman, State of Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen) have been characterized as rifts between east and west, capitalizing on differences rather than similarities among people and overlooking the common human elements in individu- als' hopes, dreams, aspirations, and values. Mainstream and other media depictions of male Arabs are of barbarians and oil sheiks, with more recent ones of perpetrators of 9-1 1 and other terrorist acts. Their female counterparts are portrayed as unenlightened, passive, and submissive. These stereotypes of Arabs, then, carry over into impressions of AAD, as well. Often unwittingly associ- ated with terrorist and related incidents in the United States and in the world, quite often mistakenly, this group of individuals is col- lectively, at times simultaneously respected, feared, and subjected to acts of discrimination. In short, Arabs and AAD are a misunder- stood people. Due to these reasons, among others, AAD warrant special attention in career development arenas. Like for many other multiculturally diverse populations, career interventions for AAD are optimally effective when formulated and delivered in cultur- ally appropriate context. In the following article, we will review key definitions and demographics relevant for Americans of Arab descent (AAD), present information about Arab culture and values in the United States, and discuss career development and world of work issues germaine to this population in today's world. After set- ting the context, we will review relevant career theories and high- light effective strategies and techniques for working with AAD, provide case examples and corresponding analyses, and conclude with implications and conclusions for career counseling professionals.

Definitions & Demographics

There are several important misconceptions around AAD and related populations. It is important for culturally sensitive career counselors to be aware of distinctions, subtle as they may seem, in order to best understand clients who are AAD. The first of these distinctions is the differentiation between the terms Arab and Middle Eastern, which are not interchangeable. The term Middle East is a concept originated by the United States and other western entities to describe a vast geographic region that encompasses a broader area than the League of Arab States, and in fact, does not fully encompass the Arab League States, which spans Asia and countries in both northern as well as sub-Saharan Africa. The Middle East, in fact, includes countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey, to mention a few, that are not Arab countries by any definition. It has been a term employed by the United States Census and other groups in the recent decade to limit immigration from those regions and to profile individuals from and with ancestry from both the Arab States as well as those from the greater Middle East. The second key distinction is between the terms Arab and Muslim, which are often also used synonymously. Like the terms discussed above, the motivation at times for the lack of differentiation of these two groups is again, political, which at times can be either detrimental or beneficial to the AAD population, depending on the present purpose (such as making a case for representation by population size, which, in and of itself, could be either detrimental or beneficial). In career and other counseling, it is critical to distinguish Muslim and Arab clients. Some may be Muslim Arabs (or Arab Americans, or AAD), but others may be AAD but be nonMuslim, while many others still might be Muslim with countries of origin in the greater Middle East or elsewhere entirely.

When defining the AAD population as having origins within the 22 League of Arab States (as defined by the Arab American Institute, one of the largest advocacy groups for AAD in the United States), the numbers are estimated as well above 3 million. Immigration from the Arab Middle East has occurred since the late 1800s, and is often characterized as having taken place in approximately 3-4 distinguishable waves. These are worthy of note here in that they impact other key demographic issues, in particular, as they relate to the world of work and implications for career development. The first wave of immigration began in the late 1 800s and continued through the turn of the century. This immigrant group, like many other ethic counterpart groups, immigrated primarily for economic gain and the promise of a more profitable life. Largely uneducated, this Christian group of immigrants was successful in peddling and other entrepreneurial pursuits. Although their goal may have been related to the then-Ottoman Empire and discrimination against non-Muslims in the Arab Middle East, these individuals, in search of the American Dream, were hard workers who intended to resettle their families and lives in the United States. Thus, they tended to embrace the American way of life and its customs.

The second group of immigrants began arriving after World War II, often in response to political turmoil, was more educated and predominantly Muslim. This group is often referred to as the Brain Drain, with another wave of similarly characterized individuals and families joining them in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, for similar political reasons. While this group may have had openended intentions in terms of remaining in the United States versus returning to their countries of origin, they tended to retain their traditional customs and language.

The final, most recent group is an immigrant group composed largely of refugees seeking political asylum, primarily from Iraq. This group has immigrated and resettled in the United States since the early 1990s, often after transitional several-year stays in refugee camps contributing to their cumulative traumas. While these individuals may desire to return to their countries and regions of origin, such a goal may be unrealistic if not impossible due to financial, political, or other barriers. The post-traumatic stress suffered by many of these individuals is, therefore, compounded by grief and loss, as well as the significant barriers they may experience in acclimating to the educational, employment, and other societal structures in place in their new host countries. The three primary waves of immigration from the Arab Middle East may sound vastly different, and yet, these individuals, in the past decade, have melded together to form a very cohesive ethnic identity. Like other immigrant groups, ethnic enclaves begin to form when immigrants from the same families or later waves follow their predecessors into the same towns, cities, and states. States with large percentages of AAD in their census are California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, with the largest urban enclaves in New York, NY; Dearborn, MI; Los Angeles, CA; Chicago, IL; Houston, TX; Detroit, MI; San Diego, CA; Jersey City, NJ; Boston, MA; and Jacksonville, FL.

Given that the earliest immigrant group was predominantly Christian, the vast majority of AAD are non-Muslim. Roman Catholics comprise the greatest percentage (35 per cent), Muslims comprise another 24 per cent, with Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Other and No Religious Affiliation groups comprising smaller percentages still. In addition, again due to the immigration patterns described earlier, there are higher percentages of youth and foreignborn Arab Americans in the United States, as compared to other ethnic groups.

Culture and Career Development Issues in American of Arab Descent

In traditional Arab American families, the patriarchal structure may be maintained, prescribing professional roles for men, and roles relative to raising and providing cultural and values training for children, for women. At the same time, education is a value attributed to both women and men, and lays the groundwork for later employment of Arab Americans (Haboush & Baraket, in press). In the most traditional cases, a higher education for women may be seen as an asset to the family dowry. Taken together, Arab immigrants have been productive members of United States society, striving for higher education and economic independence in order to better the lives of their children (Naff, 1985).

Arab Americans tend to represent a wide range of careers, similar to other non- Arab American counterparts. A few noteworthy trends are that AADs tend to be represented at higher rates in professional careers with fewer representing service jobs as well as government sites (AAI). Median income levels are higher for AADs than their non- AAD counterparts, as well. Thus, the historical and career demographic background for AADs appears to indicate that the economie opportunities afforded by life in the United States appeal to the entrepreneurial and independent spirits of AADs, while requiring a concomitant adaptation to American social and cultural values (Haboush & Baraket, in press).

Collectivism, a worldview that places priority on group goals (ie. those of the family or the ethnic group community) versus personal goals, also characterizes the culture of Americans of Arab descent. The set of values that underlie the collectivist worldview influence living arrangements (eg. living with extended family), counseling requests (eg. including family members in counseling sessions), decision-making about job offers and promotions, and many other aspects of AAD 's lives. Consideration of family honor and prescribed role within the family, from both a gender and a generational perspective, also come into play in career development decisions and concerns.

As mentioned earlier, the religious backgrounds and associated spiritual practices of AAD are diverse. The practice of Islam, however, merits special consideration in this discussion of career development concerns because of several contextual factors. As is the case for other religions, individual variations exist in how different Muslim traditions are practiced. Some Muslim traditions include fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the practice of formal daily prayer and the wearing of the hijab (or headscarf). The hijab has become a politically charged symbol representing subjugation of women to some and to others (including many who wear it) empowerment and a rejection of the objectification of women. Muslim women who wear the hijab have experienced biased reactions from others, including discrimination from employers (Haboush & Baraket, in press).

AAD, individuals perceived as Arab, and Muslims, whether of Arab descent or other, have faced particular scrutiny and mistrust in the United States after the tragic events of September 1 1 , 2001 (e.g. Padela & Heisler, 2010; Nassar-McMillan, Lambert, & Hakim-Larson, 201 1). This has carried with it an economic and psychological impact. For example, Davila and Mora found a decrease in earnings of Arab males compared to non-Hispanic whites that could not be explained by "changes in the structure of wages or in observable characteristics beyond ethnicity" (2005, p.587). Over 800 cases of employment discrimination against AAD were reported in the year following 9/11 (American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2003). Employment and hiring concerns included discriminatory actions related to hiring (for example, lower frequencies of call-backs of individuals with "Arab sounding" names on resumes), demands to not wear the headscarf, demotions and terminations, verbal assaults and other harassment.

How aspects of Arab- American culture such as collectivism and patriarchy shape the distinct worldview of an individual of Arab descent depends upon a myriad of factors, including local community, immigration history of the family, and country of ancestry. Moreover, the experiences of being an American of Arab descent in the United States differ, shaped in part by local community support and the culture of the settings in which the individual spends her or his time (ie. workplace or school). Keeping in mind both general characteristics and experiential trends, however, is important when providing effective, multicultural career development interventions for AAD.

Theories, Strategies and Techniques

The foundation of all effective career interventions with AAD is a multicultural career counseling framework. Providing effective multicultural career counseling requires looking inward and outward. Looking inward, career development practitioners are called upon to identify their own attitudes toward and knowledge about individuals of Arab descent (Hakim-Larson, Nassar-McMillan, & Patterson, in press) a mandate that is also reflected in the National Career Development Association multicultural career counseling competencies (National Career Development Association, 2009). Reflecting on one's own beliefs about any values or practices of members of this group that are different than one's own, and then seeking to understand client behavior through a filter informed by this reflection is essential in serving this individuals from this and other groups.

Moreover, the ecological perspective of career counseling paves the way for conceptualizing the client concerns and counseling interventions in a manner that aptly takes into account the multilayered reality in which any career concern comes into fruition. Career decisions and actions are influenced by contextual factors at multiple levels, including the individual (Cook, O'Brien & Heppner, 2004). The ecological perspective where the individual is envisioned as surrounded by concentric layers of systemic influence from proximal factors at the micro-level to distal ones at the macro-level provides a useful tool for both conceptualization of a client's career concern and identification of potential interventions. At the core of the ecological model is the individual nested within his or her microsystem. Microsystems are those with which the individual interacts on a regular basis, for example, the family, workplace and/or school. Mesosystems are defined by the interactions between two microsystems, such as teachers and parent or religious leader and school counselor. Exosystems are those that indirectly influence the client, such as the media or the neighborhood. Finally, macrosy stems are the ideological components that permeate the underpinnings of society.

Within the ecological paradigm, an individual's behavior is seen as a function of both the person his- or herself and of the environment (Conyne & Cook, 2004). At the individual level, a significant focus is on helping the client develop skills that will help him or her successfully cope with the work environment and "the structure of work opportunities in the United States" (Yakusko, Backhaus, Watson, Ngaruiya & Gonzalez, 2008). Social cognitive career theory (SCCT) aligns well with an ecological framework likewise providing structure to examine proximal and distal factors impacting an individual's career development, specifically his or her learning experiences, self -efficacy, outcome expectations, and barriers to career development (e.g. Lent, Brown & Hackett, 2000). Self-efficacy relates to the judgment the individual makes about his or her ability to perform a task or action. Outcome expectations can be described as what the individual believes will happen as a result of taking a certain action. Previous sections of this article provide a useful base knowledge of the contextual complexity that surrounds the career-related actions of an individual of Arab descent, as well as the value system that may shape the messages conveyed directly or indirectly about what is important in the world. Paramount is the understanding that each person has a unique history and set of predispositions.

Understanding the multisystemic influence of contextual factors on an individual's career or vocational development makes it difficult to evade the call that numerous authors have made for stepping "outside the box" when devising counseling interventions (e.g. Blustein, Kenna, Gill & De Voy, 2008; Yakushko, Backhaus et al, 2008; Nassar-McMillan, 2003). Departing from the traditional counseling focus on the individual, the ecological perspective also calls for interventions intended to improve the client's environment. Systemic interventions include advocacy and public policy. It also includes community interventions and potential collaborations with other helping professionals, including religious leaders.

The Case of Hussein

Hussein arrived in the United States in 2007. Originally from Iraq, he was trained as a pharmacist, and worked in this field alongside his father. With his wife and 4 children, ages 4-17, he left Iraq in 2003. He sought and then was granted refugee status in the United States. Highly educated, he can read texts in several languages, including English, and speaks English well, but with a strong accent and regular grammatical errors. His wife does not work outside the home, and actively tutors the children in their schooling. He reports that she, too, knows English quite well, but is not comfortable speaking it.

Although Hussein can drive, the family does not own a car. His eldest child, a boy, does well in school and has started mentioning his interest in going to college. The family attends mosque regularly. He just learned that his sister and her family were given refugee status to come to the United States.

Because of the lack of transferability of professional credentials, Hussein has been working in a convenience store since he arrived in the United States. He regularly works the late shift, and reports being tired all the time. On the other hand, he says, he has a "very good boss" who does not mind if friends stop in to see him as long as he does his work and keeps the store in order. In fact, the manager is from the same part of Iraq as Hussein and his family and helped the family find an affordable two-bedroom apartment close to the store.

Hussein seeks career counseling at the encouragement of a case worker at the social services agency that helped the family in their original transition to the United States. He reports an interest in working as a pharmacist, or at least in a related field, again. He also expresses resignation that his career options in this country are limited.

The Case OfNaMa

Nahla is a 27-year old woman whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. At the encouragement of her family, she earned a bachelor's degree in economics and business administration at a reputable university close to her home town. She has been working at the local office of a national consulting firm since she graduated with honors from college. Currently, she lives with her parents and two younger brothers, as she did during college. She reports that her parents are proud of her, and often talk about her accomplishments with family friends. In the past year, her mother has also started to bring up the idea of arranging a marriage for Nahla, reminding her frequently that "this is how your father and I met."

Nahla describes her job as one that is challenging and intellectually stimulating. She says she "gets along well" with her colleagues. She also mentions that occasionally she is asked by coworkers why she doesn't wear a headscarf. Because of her high affinity with number crunching and ability to conceptualize and communicate the big picture, the manager of her division has started to entrust her with more responsibility. She has been offered a promotion within the company that would involve moving to a different state. This promotion is her stated concern when she comes in for career counseling at her alma mater. She conveys feeling "torn" and wanting to bring in her parents to a subsequent consultation so they can help in the decision process. She has not told them of the offer of promotion yet.

Case Analyses

Career interventions with Hussein and Nahla first involve examining one's own beliefs and knowledge relevant to the cases above. Relevant self-checks include personal views about political events related to Hussein's country of birth and their potential influence on the counselor's perspective. Hussein and his family attend mosque regularly. If the career development practitioner identifies with a religious or spiritual practice other than Hussein's, what does he or she know and believe about Islam? For Nahla's case, for career counselors whose cultural context involves an individualistic world view, is their assessment of Nahla impacted by her living arrangements with her family? What preconceptions arise when hearing her expressed interest in having family members attend a career counseling or consulting session with her? Does either case bring up any gender issues about what men and women should or should not do? Moreover, what is known about the diversity of the Arab American population in terms of religion and world views? Through identifying his or her own questions, points of bias, and knowledge, the career counselor starts to clear the way for effective multicultural counseling.

In talking to Hussein and Nahla, details from their distinct stories start to fill in the spaces provided by the ecological paradigm. At the individual level, both are professionals who come from an Arab or Arab American culture. The microsystems of each include family and workplace. At this point, their circumstances seem to diverge.

At the microsystemic level, details emerge about Hussein's home and family with special note taken about potential strengths and stressors impacting his career concerns. His status as primary wage earner probably impacts his flexibility with exploring career options that may align closer to his professional training, particu- larly if these involve new training. While listening to Hussein, the career counselor would also probe to learn Hussein's level of self-efficacy to make changes to his vocational circumstances, and what his outcome expectations for any of these changes may be. Given the high incidence of mental health concerns, includ- ing post-traumatic stress disorder, within the recently arrived Iraqi population (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson, 2003), making sure that Hussein and his family are connected to social services that could provide appropriate mental health interventions if war- ranted is important.

Also relevant at the micro-level is the degree of support that Hussein feels from his manager. It appears that he experiences a level of community connection through the visits from his friends throughout his work day. These benefits of his current workplace are substantial, and may also contribute to a sense of ambivalence as he considers unfamiliar work options. Within Nahla's micro- level context are her family and workplace, both described by her in generally favorable terms. The traditional Western world view that prevails over much of consideration of linear career progression puts individualism at the heart of the discussion. While not eliminating the idea that this job promotion could be a great opportunity for Nahla, her career concerns seem to relate to the close relationship she has with her family and what would happen if she moved away. Within a collectivist framework, Nahla can be helped, first, by describing her current conflict as something that is completely rational, and second, by helping her to identify what her outcome expectations are if she accepts the promotion or if she doesn't. Nahla may benefit from identifying strategies to communicate with her family ways in which the family relationship will be maintained if she decides to take the promotion.

Conversely, if she decides not to accept this particular promotion, role-plays can involve discussions she could have with her employer about other ways her career development can progress while maintaining geographic proximity to her family. Traditional Arab American values place emphasis on educational achievements and employment as a source of family honor (Haboush & Baraket, in press), a reality reflected in Nahla's description of her family sharing her achievements with friends of the family. Other points that may warrant further exploration are familial expectations about marriage, and their impact on her current career dilemma.

As counseling progresses into the meso- and macro-levels of the client's reality, the systemic influences that contribute to or encumber Hussein's and Nahla's career development come into play. While working with Hussein to identify career options that take into account such factors as the family's reliance upon public transportation, and lack of transferability of professional credentials, points of public and institutional policy emerge that may warrant attention on an advocacy level through support of initiatives related to affordable transportation and the development of retooling programs aimed at facilitating relevant career entry for the numerous highly trained workers that enter our country through the refugee and immigration program. Nahla's mention of a co-worker that asked why she doesn't wear a headscarf points to the need for continued outreach about the diversity of the Arab American population. Issues of discrimination at the workplace or within the community may call for our attention.


From country of family origin to skin color to immigration history and local community patterns, the Arab- American population is diverse. Because AAD are usually grouped within the classification of European American, this population is often omitted from classification as an ethnic minority within multicultural literature (Nassar-McMillan, in press). Yet certain beliefs, values and cultural norms prevalent within the Arab- American population are distinct from those of the dominant mainstream culture, and require cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness on the part of the career development practitioner.

Cross-cultural sensitivity includes the awareness of the daily prejudice and discrimination that tints the lives of many AAD. Intensified by current events and media images, this discrimination can take the form of microaggressions, outright hostility or even violence. The willingness to openly discuss issues of workplace discrimination and assist clients in identifying what course of action to take can help increase the client's self-efficacy in the relevant realms. Moreover, advocating for the AAD client through micro-interventions or support of relevant public policy also align with the ecological perspective of career counseling. Career development practitioners are called upon to familiarize themselves with pertinent laws and legislation, as well as resources to help combat workplace discrimination.

The importance of collaboration and awareness of community resources holds particular relevance in work with refugees and recent immigrants. Collaborations with mental health professionals are also critical. With career concerns often deemed a safer, more acceptable topic to address with a helping professional, career development practitioners are at times invited into a client's world before a mental health counselor may be. With the high incidence of mental health concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder, within the immigrant community (Yakushko, Watson & Thompson, 2008), career development practitioners need to be make effective referrals linking clients to community resources.

Career development practitioners play an important role in the lives of individuals in transition. Being able to help clients enroll and progress in local training and educational programs that may lead to higher wage jobs can lead to stronger economic viability for these individuals and their families. Providing culturally sensitive services to the diverse population of AAD involves examining one's own biases about individuals of Arab descent, understanding and respecting the cultural values of AAD, and advocating when needed to help combat workplace discrimination.



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[Author Affiliation]

About the authors

Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, PhD, is Professor and Program Coordinator of Counselor Education at North Carolina State University. She earned the Ph .D. in Counseling and Counselor Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1994. She has served in a variety of clinical mental health, schools, and college settings over the past 25 years, and her initiatives have included promoting the professionalism of counseling and counselor education. Her scholarship spans multicultural, gender, and career development issues, with a special focus on Arab American acculturation and ethnic identity development. She has published over 65 books, refereed articles, and other instructional materials and delivered over 70 conference presentations. She currently serves as a member of the CACREP Standards Revision Committee and the Census Information Center advisory board to the Arab American Institute, and has served as a board member for the National Board for Certified Counselors and the North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional Counselors. She is past Associate Editor for Multicultural Issues for the Journal of Counseling & Development, for which she currently serves as Senior Associate Editor. Her recent funded projects include a NSF project examining stereotypes in science and engineering career fields, and a NASA/NIA project evaluating educational science and engineering curriculum tools. Her undergirding areas of expertise across include scholarship, teaching, and professional service, as well as areas for consulting, include advocacy, career development and underrepresentation issues, program evaluation, supervision, and internationalization. She earned the PhD in Counseling and Counselor Education at University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1994; the MA in Guidance and Counseling in 1986 at Eastern Michigan University- Ypsilanti; and the BA in Psychology in 1984 at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan. She served as a Counselor, UAW/General Motors Human Resource Center, Pontiac, Michigan; as Counselor/Site Supervisor, Charlevoix, Beaver Island Lighthouse School, Michigan; as Counselor/Intern at Loyola University, Chicago; as Career Planning and Placement Coordinator at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo; and as Associate Professor or Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Austin Peay State University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and full Professor at North Carolina State University. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of North Carolina. She holds certifications as an Approved Clinical Supervisor and National Certified Counselor from the NBCC. Books she authored or co-authored include: Behavioral Care of Arab Americans: Perspectives on Culture, Psychosocial Development, and Health. Developing Your Identity as a Professional Counselor: Standards, Settings, and Specialties. Counseling Arab Americans. Counseling Arab Americans: Counselors' Call for Advocacy and Social Justice. Among her many honors is the 2003 Best Practices Award from the American Counseling Association. She was a finalist for the 1989 National Distinguished Service Award from the American Association for Counseling & Development.

Contact her as follows:

Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, PhD

Professor and Program Coordinator, Counselor Education

Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Counselor Education

Counselor Education Program, North Carolina State University

Box 7801, 520 Poe Hall, Raleigh, NC 27695-7801. 919-515-2244.


Lynn Zagzebski-Tovar, MEd, is at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. Contact her as follows:

Lynn Zagzebski Tovar

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