Dislocation: The power of off-campus study

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Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Agora” (Grant Park, Chicago).

For the past ten years I have taught a course called Values and Vocation at Chicago Semester, an urban experiential education program that welcomes college students to Chicago to complete a semester-long internship experience and take urban studies courses. The mostly seniors and a few juniors that take my course are introduced to the idea of having a calling and thinking about where that calling might take them as they move on from Chicago and graduate from college.  For most of the students, being in Chicago is a new experience – many of the students are living in a setting quite different from their college campuses, grappling with how to integrate themselves into a new place, while interning in a learning setting very unlike a college classroom. As they lean into this new place and these new experiences, they are simultaneously trying to conceptualize how their encounters in Chicago might inform their first steps after college.

To help students reflect upon these experiences, I use the concepts of displacement and belonging to talk about how it sometimes feels to live into one’s calling.  Finding and following one’s calling, especially as an emerging adult, can cause students to grapple with questions about their identities, values, and place.  In the literature on transformative learning, “disorienting dilemmas” or dislocation is an important part of learning development.  This growth is similarly imperative in one’s journey to discern one’s calling. Many students ask themselves these questions when they engage in off campus study, practicum experiences, or international travel, as these educational experiences are designed to be immersive and transformative to students’ growth and educational goals.  Consequently, teaching a vocation course while students are experiencing this dislocation can be particularly insightful for students as they discern what they are called to do post-college.

Published in 2014

In order to walk students through feelings of dislocation I use a book called Poor Millionaires,written by Nathan Roberts and Michael Kimpur, to illuminate how the experience of dislocation can be difficult but ultimately can yield a richer understanding of who one is, where one is rooted and how one might go forward in the discernment process.  The book is written by two young men who attended Bethel Collegein Minnesota – a school that sends some of its students to our program. While at the school both Michael and Nathan experience feelings of dislocation and outsider-ness, albeit for very different reasons.  White, middle class, conservatively religious author Nathan Roberts meets co-author Michael Kimpur, an international student from Kenya, who is older, married, and attending Bethel to study educational leadership in hopes of returning to Kenya to build a school. Through their friendship – across race, culture, age, and class – they journey together in asking questions about who they are and what they are meant to do with their lives.

When I use this book, students seem to connect to these two men’s stories, which are both courageous in different ways. Students also recognize that both men stepped outside of their comfort zones to learn, grow and live into their vocations.  Through a variety of disorienting experiences, both Roberts and Kimpur first look backwards to understand where they have come from to ultimately ask questions about where they are going and where they truly belong.

I find this book is helpful in my vocation’s class because along with naming the hard things that Michael and Nathan encounter – the outsider-ness, their shifting identities, confronting new cultures and ways of thinking – it also names experiences that our students at Chicago Semester have while they are here for the semester.  Many feel vulnerable and like outsiders at their new internship sites, in their new neighborhoods, and with students from a variety of schools that they’ve never met before.  Part of their reflective process while they are here is to ask questions about how what they are learning can be applied to life after graduation.  As they reflect on Michael and Nathan’s stories, students share that they relate to Nathan’s feelings of failure or to his feelings of conflict with his community of origin because of his evolving belief systems.  They also express that Michael and Nathan’s stories help them to see that being uncomfortable in a new place is actually teaching them something; it is a part of the process of learning about one’s self and about the direction one might be called towards.

The conversations we have in the vocation’s class situate their reflections within a larger context related to purpose and meaning.  Many students recall a sense of being “called” to Chicago to this learning experience, that it was something that they felt “meant” to do. My task is to help them unpack this experience so that they can live into what this means for them as they graduate.  As we reflect on the book together, we ask questions such as: How might living in a new city and feeling vulnerable impact your understanding of your calling?  How might the stories you’ve encountered in Chicago influence your sense of vocation? And, how does learning about this new placegive you insight into where you ultimately belong?

Just as the authors of Poor Millionaires share their dislocating stories that led them to uncover their callings, I think that classes about vocation that happen alongside off-campus or international study programs enrich the conversations we have with students about how to integrate their experiential learning into a fuller understanding of their vocations. I have seen this first-hand in my work with students at Chicago Semester and believe that these deeper conversations about vocational discernment through moments of dislocation truly enhance how each student reflects on his/her experiences and moves them into fulfilling their callings.

NOTE: On “disorienting dilemmas,” see J. Mezirow, “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997: 5-12.

Rebecca Burwell is a faculty member at Chicago Semester, an experiential urban education program affiliated with Trinity Christian College.  Her degree is in sociology and she has spent the last decade teaching classes on the city as well as interdisciplinary courses on vocation, diversity, and social justice.



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