NACE Journal, November 2021
Is experiential learning designed for Black students?
Race has been at the core of a national discussion since May 2020 and the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other people of color who have died at the hands of the police. This topic is not widely discussed in the literature, but it is an important issue that we are facing within higher education.1
Earlier this year, the public tenure case involving Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Knight Professorship at the University of North Carolina, in which the board of trustees, in an unprecedented manner, did not initially vote to approve her tenure package, shined a spotlight on the often-unwritten rules about the differences that Black people experience in predominantly white institutions (PWIs) of higher learning.2
Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, could not escape marginalization, so it is not surprising that some college students may face obstacles in gaining access to services at PWIs. Even though Black students are widely represented at PWIs,3 they are not always fully immersed in the culture of the institution and involved in the experiential learning opportunities that can help them with their transition to the middle-class workforce.4
My doctoral research focuses on Black students’ participation in experiential learning and how students perceive their participation influencing their career readiness. In the summer and fall of 2020, I conducted a research project over the course of two qualitative research classes in which I interviewed Black students to learn about their college experiences. Some students had participated in experiential learning and others had not.
This article will provide an overview of the current landscape of Black college students; review relevant literature; share a case study with Black students from a four-year, southeastern PWI; and discuss university funding practices and employer-led practices to engage Black students in experiential learning.
The Current Landscape
Black students currently make up approximately 13% of the college population.5 As organizations work to diversify their workforces, it is important to remember that Black students can be found on many different types of campuses. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 7% of Black students attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and 53% attend PWIs.6
Given the significant number of Black students on PWI campuses, we must determine ways to engage them in experiential learning and the career development process. According to NACE research, there is a disparity in paid internships for students of color.7 My research indicates that Black students at PWIs perceive different college experiences from their peers and are not as engaged in experiential learning, even though they may be interested in these experiences. To provide parity in paid internships, employers must create a comprehensive strategy to work with all institutions of higher education to reach Black students. To be successful recruiting students of color at non-HBCU institutions, employers must make their desire to reach these students known to the leadership of these institutions so that engagement with students of color is made a priority. It is important because internships lead to jobs,8 and it is important for Black students to be competitive in the job market.
In 2007, 57% of Black bachelor’s degree holders were employed. By 2016, data show significant improvement with 87% of Black degree holders as employed, but larger percentages of these hires were in office support and community and social services roles.9 (Note: The 2016 data include individuals up to age 34. The study measured degree holders up to age 29.)
George Kuh found that experiential learning, which he calls high-impact practices (HIPs), helps students succeed in terms of retention, graduation, and mentoring relationships with faculty.10 He indicated that students of color typically benefit more from these experiential learning opportunities than their peers, but the number of students participating remains low (typically around 6%). This suggests that students of color are missing out on a key path to developing career readiness competencies that will assist them find meaningful employment after graduation. Unfortunately, this specific student population is not widely studied in the literature.
Murillo, Quartz, and Del Razo studied low-income students of color who participated in high school internships.11 These students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds participated in internships that provided them with knowledge of a professional environment and career options that they were not aware existed. The experiences helped the students to believe in their ability to transition into a professional career. Their supervisors and mentors helped serve as references and even helped them complete college applications.
The same article uses a cultural wealth perspective to take the students’ knowledge of their personal experiences and see how those could be used to explore various career paths and to learn about social justice and advocacy in an organized manner. Cultural wealth is looking at students’ assets such as navigational, familial, and aspirational. These are strengths that may be overlooked in our Black students.12 Internships allowed these students to gain aspirational capital, which was described as the ability to think beyond their current circumstances to possible career options that they have never seen modeled in their community. Students also gained navigational capital in learning how to navigate professional organizations, which is helpful when transitioning to college and adulthood. The internships also helped the students expand their network. These experiences provided minoritized students with exposure and opened their mind to more possibilities for their lives.
Falconer and Hayes discuss the cultural wealth of the students and the importance of building relationships early in the student’s college career to build trusting relationships.13 Mentorship is a key strategy. Students offered the following suggestions for improving career services for African-American students: provide alumni and professional mentors in their field of study as well as mentoring programs with upperclassmen; offer job preparatory classes; provide individualized attention through one-on-one advisement or counseling; and have a more visible career services office on campus.
Phillips and Saxon studied Black and low socioeconomic students at a southern PWI to identify ways to increase their access to high-impact practices/experiential learning.14 They found that students needed:
- More knowledge of what internships entail.
- University support and consistency when sharing internship information through official university channels.
- Financial resources to support students in internship experiences to include scholarships for unpaid internship experiences, relocation, and other expenses.
- Social networks to help students find experiences.
The authors note that if students went to mostly Caucasian high schools, internships may be discussed prior to getting to college. However, students from Black high schools may not know about the importance of internships unless they were made aware because of high academic achievement. Moreover, some students discounted their previous experiences and did not think they would be qualified due to limited availability of internships and perceived quotas.15
For students of color, their knowledge of experiences and access to those experiences may significantly influence their participation in paid internships. Mentorship can help lead students to career options, scholarships, and resources that may be available to pay for internship experiences. The importance of aspirational and navigational capital must be underscored. Students must visualize their ability to rise beyond their personal experiences and see the possibilities of life in the middle class.
In addition to visualization of opportunities, students must be provided with opportunities to participate in internships at the highest level. In their research, Jones, Win, and Vera found that paid internships at the highest level of government in the United States reflect the impact of race on opportunity in the United States.16
- Even though the undergraduate student population is approximately 50% white, more than 70% of the congressional interns are white.
- Even though 15% of undergraduate students are Black, only 6.7% of paid congressional interns are Black.
- Even though 20% of undergraduate students are Hispanic, only 7.9% of paid congressional interns are Hispanic.
These numbers reflect the demographics of Congress. Jones et al. note the disparity in paid opportunities. Although these internship experiences may only last a little more than 30 days, they are vital in creating a pipeline to full-time employment in Congress and can often open the door to political office. Access to these experiences often provide access to power at the highest level in our country.17
Najmabadi shares that internship experiences may not be as accessible for students of color when compared to affluent students due to time constraints, finances, and social networks.18 Students from working class or lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not have time to take on internships, may not be able to relocate to take internships in a certain area, and may not have the networks to help them get their foot in the door at desirable internships.
Wright and Mulvey take it a step further and indicate that internships are essential for college graduates’ entry into the labor market, explicitly describing internships as the “new degree.”19 Asserting that the value of the college degree has changed because more students are going to college, the authors note that the internship serves as a differentiator among college graduates. Further, they assert that middle class students and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understand the importance of the internship, which helps them have an easier transition into the professional workforce. According to Wright and Mulvey, more affluent students gain multiple experiences that build their resume—“opportunity stacking,” as they describe it. They also claim that affluent students take advantage of university networks and personal networks to gain experiences. Many of the most desirable opportunities are often unavailable for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds because they do not have the personal networks to help them access these opportunities. The authors share that affluent students are selective about internship experiences and want to be able to cite certain brands on their resume. Internships are now what sorts students and makes them the most competitive in the entry-level job market.
Edwards, Fernandez, and Cauthen discuss the critical role that internships play in assisting students with securing ideal employment.20 This policy brief explores disparities in paid internship opportunities and acknowledges that federal aid is no longer needs-based at many institutions, which presents access challenges for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. For underrepresented minorities and those from lower socioeconomic status to increase their representation in the middle class, structural support is needed. The authors assert that there is a need for a structured and consistent program to provide internship experiences for college students. They also note that a college degree alone is not enough to gain employment opportunities, and students who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do not have the ability or support to take an unpaid internship. Disparities in internship participation widens the gap between the haves and have nots in American society.
Unfortunately, a large part of the literature on experiential education is quantitative and does not specify student outcomes based on race. In fact, relevant articles often end with a note indicating that results may vary based on specific demographics. These studies are used to help develop policies, programs, and services for all students. However, we do not have much specific data that address the nuances of experiential education and Black students.
Case Study: Methodology
My research, which is largely qualitative in nature, suggests that Black students do not experience the predominantly white campus in the same way as their majority peers. For example, it is important to remember that students’ comfort with engaging on campus may be impacted by the history of the campus. For example, some building names may be offensive. Additionally, students may have never been in environments with large numbers of people of different races. This is also true for faculty and peers who have never worked or studied in proximity to students of color.
Students who registered for and/or attended a career-related program designated for diverse candidates were invited via email to participate in the study. A snowball sampling approach was employed to obtain referrals of Black students who had not participated in experiential learning. Students were also contacted through LinkedIn. All of the initial semi-structured interviews were conducted through video conferencing. In all, seven students took part in the study: three sophomores, one junior, and three seniors; of these, five were female and two were male. Four of these students participated in a second interview.
Interview data were categorized through manual coding using Invivo, Descriptive, Emotion, and Value coding to organize subcodes and create categories. The categories were combined to create themes from the interview data. I also conducted an observation of approximately 60 Black students through a campus event and coded field notes from that event.
In the first round of interviews, students were asked about their:
- Engagement outside of class;
- Comfort and discomfort on campus;
- Perception of the value of internships, study abroad, undergraduate research, and service-learning experiences;
- Barriers to participation in experiential learning;
- Career goals;
- Engagement with faculty;
- Knowledge of engagement opportunities; and
- Perception of how race influences Black student engagement on campus.
Case Study: One Size Does Not Fit All and Other Key Findings
During their interviews, students shared the following insights:
Race was a major factor for the students. One size cannot fit all: Targeted programming is needed to reach Black students.
All students described comfort in multicultural spaces. They described feeling that they were able to relate to other students and discuss things that were more relevant to their experiences. Students described feeling supported in support services offices and in mentor programs with upperclassmen of color.
Students were most interested in internships and study abroad. Only one of the students had participated in an internship. This was something that he was encouraged to do by his parent. The others were thinking about the internship because of a class requirement. Students seemed interested in study abroad mainly to experience travel and to experience another culture.
All students discussed the importance of financial assistance and scholarship to cover costs associated with participating in internships and study abroad.
Only one student was certain about career goals. The others all discussed a need for career guidance and needed to gain more information about career options. Some had general ideas about careers, but no specific plans.
Students described their isolation: They were in classes as the only Black student or as one of a few Black students. Some mentioned that their voices were not heard in group projects among their peers. Only one student described a strong relationship with faculty; two students had staff mentors.
Students were very appreciative of the opportunity to share their experience and be heard. One student suggested that university leadership engage in such talks with students regularly.
Students were focused on academics and graduation as their No. 1 priority. As the literature discusses, this is a huge accomplishment for first-generation students. It is sometimes seen as the priority without any focus given to other aspects that will help the student find employment after graduation. As a result, experiential learning opportunities can be seen as a distraction unless they are framed appropriately to students as important opportunities to building relationships that will help them to get a job after college. This mindset can be reframed for students through university support of experiential learning for all students.21, 22
Mentorship was mentioned by most of the students. They discussed the importance of having mentors who “look like them” to help them learn how to navigate spaces, know what to expect, and begin to think about what happens after college.
Exploring Insights Through Student Voices
Students’ experiences on campus—and in life in general—influence their perception of themselves and their access to opportunities, including experiential education options.
A number of themes arose through the interviews. (Note: Pseudonyms are used to protect the privacy of the students.)
Theme #1: The role of race. In their interviews, students talked about the experiences available to them and the experiences other students of color were involved in on campus. In fact, several students discussed the experience of being one of a few Black students in their classes, and not having many or any faculty of color. They described a feeling of isolation and of sometimes being dismissed. This can translate into a student feeling unwelcome or not belonging in predominantly white spaces, which can impact whether they get involved in experiential learning opportunities.
This gets to the crux of the matter: Black students who attend PWIs are talented enough to attend these schools but may not be engaged within the larger community of the PWI.
When discussing engagement in experiential learning specifically, Dana said, “I think race has a lot to do with that. I think if you don't necessarily see someone that looks like you [or they] don't do something, people just assume, oh, they don't do those things.”
A couple of students mentioned not knowing what to expect when getting involved in an experiential education opportunity, but another noted that Black students are discouraged from participating if there are no other Black students represented.
Damian, an international student who is originally from Africa, discussed the culture shock he experienced in being Black in America and how it influences his engagement. He said, “I'm Black now and in the white man's world. I'm pretty sure when I was back home, I never got… the talk… [Now] my parents have to sit me down and tell me now the different rules of engagement and all that stuff. It's weird, but over time, you kind of just learn how to [go] with it and do your best to keep your head down and just do your own thing and America will reward you.”
His interview also pointed to the subcultures within the Black community. Damian discussed feeling like an outsider, both as an African in a predominantly white space and within the African-American community because he did not relate to all the traditions. He talked about his feelings of isolation as well, even in social settings.
Another student, Greg, referred to Black students at PWIs as being “slept on,” i.e., being ignored. Damian shared a similar experience, noting that his classmates dismiss him when he gives answers in class, but acknowledge the same answers given by others.
These microaggressions affect the student’s confidence and feeling of belonging.
Theme #2: Financial barriers. In addition to not seeing other Black students represented, several students identified finances as a barrier to participating in experiential education. Working students cannot afford to set aside paying jobs to take part in an unpaid internship. Although a paid internship might alleviate some of that financial stress, NACE research has surfaced disparities in paid internships, with students of color underrepresented.23
Many of the students suggested scholarships as a means of supporting students in unpaid internships. Tiffany, for example, pointed to housing and relocation costs that make taking part in internships hard, and cited scholarships as a possible solution. Damian also discussed the need for education around scholarships so that students are aware of what’s available to them.
Finances are not just a barrier to taking part in experiential education. As Damian explained, “School is not only about going to class and all, it’s about interacting with your professor, getting to be there with your friends. If you're working all the time, then you’re…missing out on college life.”
Theme #3: Clarifying career goals. All but one student discussed a need to find more clarity on their career goals, something that taking part in internships and other experiential education opportunities could help them with.
Tiffany discusses trying to figure things out. She knows she wants creative control but is not sure about her career path. Dana wants to enjoy her work and learn and grow, but she does not have any specific goals because she is not sure what field she wants to go into.
One student wisely noted the importance of helping students identify their why. Multiple students talked about not thinking about what to do after college. They said after high school, they knew they had college as the next step, but they did not really think about the next step after college. Several students talked about the importance of career-related classes or departmental internship requirements that pushed them to think about their career and prepare for the internship or job search.
Theme #4: The importance of mentors. The last theme that arose from the interviews is the importance of mentorship. Students at PWIs expressed a need to hear from professionals of color because their teachers who are non-minority do not have the same experiences as them. White guest speakers or alumni presenters may not fully understand how Black student experiences will be different because of their race. This is tricky because most faculty and staff at PWIs are not of color. PWIs can begin to mitigate the students’ concern by being conscious of the Black students’ experience and acknowledging the difference in their experience.
Only Greg mentioned strong ties with a faculty mentor, not surprising as the literature indicates that students of color do not always have faculty or mentors who look like them to guide them.24
In discussing his mentor, Greg noted that, “He helped me pass his class…he helped me because we both are Black men. And [he] helped me get more out of my shell…[and gain exposure] to the industry. We were just having conversations about being Black in America and he helped me understand that [there] is more to it…And we did discuss the things that have gone down in the world. And, in the industry also, and how we [as] Black people [are] treated [by] society.”
Tiffany desires a mentor to tell her about their experience in corporate America and to help her think about how to navigate corporate, predominately white spaces. She also wants to know what to expect in the job search.
Damian suggested pairing students with other students of color who have been successful in gaining experiences. He talked about a diverse recruiter encouraging him at a career fair and staying in touch when an opportunity became available. He also talked about the importance of a Black manager who visited his internship site that provided him with some comfort and relief when there were no other people of color at the internship site. They had coffee together, which was an important experience for Damian. He sought out mentors in former students, but not all Black students are making these connections. It is important to remember that all students are different and will need different types of support.
Funding Sources & Recruiting Strategies
To fund internships, many schools have endowed scholarships to assist students with internship expenses and study abroad. Additionally, some states have provided funding sources to help students with demonstrated financial need. For example, the Florida Workforce Experience Program provides state funds to help with workforce development.
In addition, several colleges in the state provide paid internships to help students by providing need-based aid. One such program exists at the Florida State College at Jacksonville; the program is intended for students in career areas where their degree or certificate requires work experience. Employers benefit from the opportunity to train workers on the job while getting some help in paying their wage. In this program, the employer pays the students for the work they perform and then invoices the college for 70% of those wages.25
Another example is the Kansas Micro-Internship Program. The state of Kansas and the Kansas Department of Commerce, Board of Regents, and DeBruce Foundation partner with Parker Dewey to provide micro-internships for five to 40 hours of work. This program is open to 32 Kansas-based public colleges and universities, representing 165,000 students.26 An investment from the state and federal government may be a key strategy in providing more equity in paid internships for Black students and all students of color.
Strategies for Recruiting Diverse Talent
Focused internshipsOrganizations interested in pursuing internships for Black students or students of color should consult with legal counsel to ensure the internships are structured to meet legal requirements.
Organizations can also consider providing internships within scholarships to engage more students from diverse backgrounds.27
Through my work with the NACE DEI Committee as well as my doctoral studies, I met with eight employers to discuss their strategies to recruit diverse talent.
These interactions revealed that seven out of eight organizations were building their DEI efforts, but only two had specific programs to target students of color for internships.
- Many were focused on recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
- Seven organizations were developing targeted programming and working with student organizations.
- New councils, strategic partners, and DEI champions were in place in three companies to focus on diversifying their recruiting efforts.
Based on feedback from students, targeted programs are essential to engaging Black students.
Doing Our Part
As we all work to engage more Black students in experiential education at PWIs, we must remember that we are all responsible for building authentic relationships with these students and encouraging them to be involved. We can undertake this by incorporating the following into our work:
We must acknowledge and account for race in predominantly white spaces. If Black students are not using our services, we must adapt and think about what we can do to reach these students. One-size-fits-all programming does not fit all students. We must have customized programming and outreach to target this target student population.
We must communicate that career classes are beneficial for engaging students in career preparation and the internship search process. Students may not be aware of the necessity and value of these experiences. Structural pathways are needed to engage students who may not be aware of the importance of the value of experiential learning.
We must also recognize that students sometimes are not aware of the opportunities that are available to them. It is our responsibility to speak with them, share the opportunities, and encourage them to get involved. We must ask ourselves whether we are tapping these students for opportunities and encouraging them to apply for certain experiential learning opportunities.
We must provide mentorship. Almost all the students interviewed noted the importance of having mentors from similar ethnic backgrounds. They acknowledged that their experiences were different, and they needed someone to help them to navigate these spaces. We must find ways to engage students in culturally diverse spaces or where the students are. We need to answer these questions: Do we have peer educators of color? Do we have partnerships with our Black student union or multicultural center? Do students have a space to gather? Are there mentors?
Finally, we must provide scholarships and financial assistance. Students may not have the time or resources needed to participate in experiential education, which can be a luxury, if the schools are not providing adequate support. Our job as career connectors is to eliminate barriers to help all students engage in these valuable experiences.
1 Ladson-Billings, G. & Tate, W. F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47-62. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279676094.
2 Brown, S. (2021, July 6). Race on Campus: The Racial Climate at UNC. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/race-on-campus/2021-07-06?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_2544986_nl_Race-on-Campus_date_20210706&cid=rc&source=ams&sourceId=4844484&cid2=gen_login_refresh.
3 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Trend Generator. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/TrendGenerator/app/buildtable/2/2?rid=65&cid=57&cidv=1%7C2.
4 Harper, S. 2009. Race conscious student engagement. Washington, DC: Liberal Education Association of American Colleges and Universities.
5 Postsecondary National Policy Institute (2021). African American Students in Higher Education: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://pnpi.org/african-american-students/ .
6 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021).
7 Collins, M. (2020, November). Open the door: Disparities in paid internships. NACE Journal, 19 – 22.
8 Wright, E. & Mulvey, B. (2021). Internships and the graduate labour market: how upper-middle-class students ‘get ahead’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2021.1886051
9 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Post-Bachelor’s Outcomes by Sex and Race/Ethnicity. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_tbb.pdf
10 Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to
them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
11 Murillo, M., Quartz, K.H. & Del Razo, J. (2017) High School Internships: Utilizing a Community Cultural Wealth Framework to Support Career Preparation and College-Going Among Low-Income Students of Color. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 22(4), 237-252, DOI: 10.1080/10824669.2017.1350182/.
12 Yosso, T. J. (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8:1, 69-91, DOI:10.1080/1361332052000341006.
13 Falconer, J.W., Hays, K.A. (2006). Influential Factors Regarding the Career Development of African American College Students. Journal of Career Development, 23(3), 219–233.
14 Phillips, K. & Saxton, J. (2018). Increasing access to high-impact practices: A case study on internships at the University of Mississippi(ProQuest No. 10842892) [Doctoral Dissertation, The University of Mississippi]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
15 Phillips, K. & Saxton, J. (2018).
16 Jones, J., Win, T., and Vera, C. (n.d.). Who Congress Pays: Analysis of Lawmakers’ Use of Intern Allowances in 116th Congress, Pay Our Interns. https://payourinterns.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Pay-Our-Interns-Who-Congress-Pays.pdf.
17 Jones, J., Win, T., and Vera, C. (n.d.).
18 Najmabadi, S. (2017, March 12). How colleges can open powerful educational experiences to everyone. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com.umiss.idm.oclc.org/article/How-Colleges-Can-Open-Powerful/239462.
19 Wright, E. & Mulvey, B. (2021).
20 Edwards, K.A., Hertel-Ferdandez, A., & Cauthen, N. K. (2010). Paving the way through
paid internships: A proposal to expand educational and economic opportunities for low-income college students about the economic policy institute. Economic Policy Institute Desmos. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/90852
21 Harper, S. 2009.
22 Najmabadi, S. (2017, March 12).
23 Collins, M. (2020, November).
24 Laird, T.N., Lorenz, A.B., Zilvinskis, J. & Lambert, A. (2014). Exploring the effects of a HIP culture on campus: Measuring the relationship between the importance faculty place on high-impact practices and student participation in those practices. Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. http://hdl.handle.net/2022/23875 .
25 Florida State College at Jacksonville. (n.d.). Florida work experience program. https://www.fscj.edu/student-services/career-development/fwep
26 DeBruce Foundation. (n.d.). Kansas micro-internship program initiatives. Retrieved from https://debruce.org/initiatives/kansas-micro-internship-program/
27 Siler-Nixon, D. (2021). Future of your org through d&i. USF Muma College of Business. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHzeZLfJzCI.