Diversity, Psychology, and Career Exploration at Howard Community College

By Pat Brothwell - February 18, 2020

There are a few things that make Counseling & Career Services at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, a little different from other collegiate career service offices. One is that it's not just where students can get career advice, but also general support and counseling. Dr. David Tirpak, the Associate Director of Career Services, is uniquely qualified to serve this dual purpose. Dr. Tirpak's not only a career development professional who's worked in community college counseling offices for years, but also a licensed psychologist. The other unique aspect of the office is that HCC really embraces the "community" in its name. Career counseling and job search appointments aren't just available to students at HCC, but anyone in the county looking to make a career change. 


 We were interested in how Dr. Tirpak's psychological background informed his approach to career counseling. He talked about how psychology and career exploration go hand in hand. His training, a blend of personal and career counseling, aids in him being especially attuned to what's going on with someone's career decision-making process. He emphasized how cultural background, socioeconomic status, and upbringing are all factors in how an individual figures out what they'd like to do. 

 Dr. Tirpak believes that hearing firsthand about a future career is what will help a student or job seeker determine if it's their right path. He encourages students and potential job seekers to talk with someone, take a class, or conduct an informational interview with a professional. It's why he finds VirtualJobShadow.com to be such a valuable resource. Because Dr. Tirpak is a firm believer in firsthand accounts, and because he draws on his counseling/psychological background to tell him how many individual components go into career choice, he likes to expose students and job seekers to various occupations of interest during their consultations. He finds value in observing the way they process their initial thoughts and feelings, then discusses that with them. 

 Howard Community College has been utilizing VirtualJobShadow.com in career services for seven years now, but has also recently begun using it for their new student orientation, which they hold twice in the fall and twice in the spring. An introduction to student services was always part of the program, but this past year Dr. Tirpak was given 30 minutes to emphasize the guided pathways the school offers and a look at all the resources Counseling & Career Services has in place. Dr. Tirpak did an introduction to the career development process and showed a VirtualJobShadow.com video from the stage so students could see its value in action. He showed the dental hygienist video, as that's a popular program at HCC.

 Dental hygienists came up again, probably inspired by our recent talk with Dr. Robinson, when we asked Dr. Tirpak if he ever felt the stigma against community college. He acknowledged why the question came up, but said fortunately not often. He continued how he's proud to work in the community college system, and how diverse and vibrant HCC is. They have students from varying ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and currently boast students from 111 different countries among their 14,444 students. Dr. Tirpak said a stigma would be the last thing you'd think about if you visited Howard Community College. The campus is super modern, they have a culture of celebrating the achievements of their students, and the college President, Kathleen Hetherington, who started at the Community College of Philadelphia before getting advanced degrees at Widener and Villanova, is a staunch advocate for them. There's also the role they play in the greater Howard County community. Approximately 25% of career counseling appointments at the center are community members, typically 50% of job fair attendees come from residents of Howard County, and 22.2% of seniors from Howard County high schools enrolled at HCC this past school year. The "HCC at a Glance" portion of the Howard Community College website does a great job of breaking down the return on investment for students. Dr. Tirpak mentioned the competitive starting salaries of some of their 2-year programs, specifically referencing dental hygienists. 

 We all need to work, but people are looking for jobs for different reasons. Some may be trying to identify what they want to do when they grow up. Others may be having a reset. Still others, Dr. Tirpak pointed out, may have had a major life event, either physical or emotional, that has them reevaluating what they want or can do. You have to take these things into consideration, that not everyone is starting on the same page, and that's why self-assessments are vital. That's why self-reflection is key. You need to discover what someone values, what makes them happy, and what kinds of priorities they have before figuring out a career path.

 We asked Dr. Tirpak how much career satisfaction can impact someone's quality of life from a psychological perspective. It's huge, he said. It's such an important part of who you are. Think about meeting someone for the first time. You often lead with what you do for work. It's part of our identities. It's how we plan and spend the bulk of our days. Our jobs are a massive percentage of who we are. 


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