Exporting Vocation

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What messages are we exporting?

Several months ago I had lunch with a former student who was in the process of looking for work, having been downsized out of a position as content-creator for an online journal. She was weighing the merits of moving to a larger city against staying in the mid-sized town she loves, while saving costs by splitting her time (and living arrangements) between her parents’ home and a friend’s apartment where she helped with utility bills.  As it happens, we were sitting in a small restaurant in a beautiful, economically fragile, small city in Eastern Europe, but our conversation could have occurred in the United States. In fact, it could have occurred anywhere that a country or a region of a country (the Midwest of the United States, let’s say) has been hit by the Great Recession and a weak recovery, by the loss of jobs, by the departure of college-age and professional people for better work opportunities and social infrastructure elsewhere, and by a sense among those who remain that the past was better than the present and that opportunities for meaningful work are rare.  Opportunities for work, meaningful or not, were, in fact, what my friend was seeking.

And this leads me to the conversation that sits at the heart of this post.  My young friend, who had kindly met me at a little restaurant near my hostel before catching a bus to her family home, told me that she had been moved by my enthusiasm and obvious love for teaching when we had shared a classroom years earlier, she as a student and I as a Fulbright Scholar. At that time, I had expressed gratitude for and joy in the work I did in a way that so struck her that it remained a memory when the particulars of our classroom discussions had faded. She said to me over our hot and staggeringly intense coffees, “I want to find work that means as much to me as your work does to you.”

Cafe in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

And then she said that she felt that her employment history to date had left her with a sense of failure and frustration – and she did not have hope that the future would bring more fulfilling opportunities, although it might, she most fervently hoped, bring the possibility of a job. Better yet if that job enabled her to use her considerable abilities in multiple languages, as well as her analytical skills and quietly sharp sense of humor. But that would be the icing on the cake. She was simply looking for cake, or more metaphorically accurately, for bread.

Her memories of that long-ago classroom experience were good ones, and I was (and am) honored and delighted that she recalls me as a warm, engaging classroom instructor who prompted genuine questions and helped to guide lively classroom discussion. All good. But my very warmth of enthusiasm and expressions of happiness also set the stage for her expectation that this is what it means to be successful in one’s choice of career, and that not achieving this means that one has failed, not just in work but somehow in life.

Photo by author of cafe near her hostel in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The fact that her memory of what I said led her to see her own life circumstances in a certain way has prompted an entire train of thought about how vocation-speak exports from the United States. It gave me pause at the time, over our coffee and pastries, and her conclusion distressed me. What does it mean to serve as this kind of example of a life lived in accord with a vocation that one has actually found and been able to pursue? How privileged is this? What does it mean to stand in front of others who, through no fault of their own, seek but cannot find this kind of path into meaningful work?   What does it mean to be an American abroad, sharing one’s joy in one’s profession with students who seek models for meaningful and satisfying lives, when their own opportunities are severely limited?

What could I say over coffee to this student friend or to many others with whom I’ve had similar conversations? She was, like many young people, unemployed and seeking for any kind of job that would be reasonably sustaining and that would, ideally, minimally meet college-level qualifications. Employment, in this context, at this time, is about making the best of what’s available. Also, of course, her life is full of much more than work. She has family, friends, loved ones, hobbies (including a very serious hobby, a passion for a particular art form), a community of faith, service commitments, political interests, and more. As is true of all of us, her life is very much more than the work she finds to do. So we talked about this for quite a long time.


Photo taken by the author in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Assertions such as “if I stop loving what I am doing, I’ll quit, because I believe in following my heart” or “I would do this for free because it is my life’s vocation” or “this is not a career but a calling,”  or “commit yourself to your vocation – push through all the difficulties” – are all (or mostly) good and inspiring thoughts. Nice, if you can indeed pursue work you love – or find employment sufficient to pay the rent and utilities and cover food and healthcare while you write or paint or try to break into the theatre.  But what does this look like to students (and others) in developing countries? in fragile economies? in conflict zones? I work with students who come from comparatively poor countries and from war-torn regions (students from countries in Eastern Europe and Africa, from Syria, from Yemen), and their concerns are only in part about pursuing meaningful lives: they are mostly about finding jobs in a rough economy, or getting out and pursuing an education in a country that isn’t at war.

We celebrate the educational system in the United States as the best in the world; students seek to come here because of this. Some travel dangerous roads to reach U.S. consulates to complete their visa interviews. And education is intended as a preparation for one’s life work, as well as one’s life, for a career as well as for the more ethereally untethered lifelong engagement in learning.  So what are we doing? What are we promoting? How realistic are our efforts and, if not realistic, how deeply are we implicated in historic asymmetries that make vocational explorations much, much more available to some young people than to others?

What might vocation mean in the context of an economy that was struggling to right itself? When jobs are limited, and particularly limited for college graduates? When meaningful work might not be a possibility? When the only jobs available might be unchallenging (indeed mind-numbingly boring) or unsatisfactory in any number of other ways (including, perhaps, and just for example, through participation in old-boy networks, payoff schemes, corruption, or the gray-economy borderlands to criminality)?

Is the vocational approach to career discernment in a college setting a distinctively American way of thinking about career choices? What happens when students do not have a choice of employment? When an economy is struggling and friends are leaving for better lives elsewhere? What happens when discerning vocation – the work that is meaningful – means to some leaving friends and family (and even country) behind in order to find opportunities commensurate with their abilities?

I have more questions than answers about “exporting vocation,” as you see.  I’ll follow up with a second post unpacking some of the ways in which “thinking through vocation” brings a depth and nuance to current (and often fraught and contentious) conversations about refugee students, migrants, and the globalized world of higher education.

Bren Tooley is the Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and the Peace Corps Prep Program at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria in 2010 and again in 2018, a faculty instructor in the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Bulgaria in 2012 and 2014, and a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar participant in Brazil in 2001. She has been faculty member and academic administrator at Colorado College, Cornell College, and Monmouth College and has been deeply involved in international and interdisciplinary program development and administration, faculty development and mentoring, and international student outreach and support for many years.

Author: Bren Tooley

Dr. Bren Tooley is the Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and the Peace Corps Prep Program at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. Dr. Tooley was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria in 2010 and again in 2018; she participated in a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Brazil in 2001 and was an instructor in the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Bulgaria (2012 and 2014). Dr. Tooley has been a faculty member and administrator for many years, deeply involved in international program development, study abroad review and advocacy, faculty development and international student recruitment and support. She received her PhD from the University of Notre Dame in 1991. Her research has recently focused upon the use of English as creative medium by young writers within the former Eastern bloc, and her training and scholarship are in the field of eighteenth-century British literature and literary theory.

5 thoughts on “Exporting Vocation”

  1. One more thought: I wonder if (aka “suspect that”) American understandings of vocation are perhaps overly individualistic, at least compared to other cultural contexts. I’m a historian, so often think about how societies censor their histories to fit their myths, and of course a central myth of U.S. history is the rags-to-riches, self-made (wo)man. That necessarily colors our approach to vocation, at least on my own campus.Yes, we reference “the world’s greatest need,” but for the most part, our programs treat vocational discernment as an internal, individual process. I’m not advocating we give that up… but I am curious about if/how others engage the more communal (sacrificial???) aspects of vocational discernment i.e. discernment processes that start not with, “What do I love?” but rather, “What seems to be my world’s most pressing need?”

    1. Hi Kimberley – your question resonates with me. Quite a few international students I know speak about their career choices in the context of family, neighborhood, and national needs and priorities – they identify pressing needs they wish to address through future professional work in fields such as health and nutrition, computer science, psychology and engineering.

  2. Excellent questions, Bren! And some of the answers are nearly self-evident in areas of economic struggle: take a job you can get — any job that puts bread on the table and doesn’t compromise your ethics.

    Does that mean the idea of doing what we love disappears? No. But perhaps the language needs to change so that we don’t assume that students can choose among many options. And students may be able to imagine and/or create new options.

    The questions change too.

    1. If you find a job, what is it that you CAN love, even if it is not your true choice?
    2. Could that “serious hobby,” that art form that you love, become an Etsy site with at least some revenue potential? Could you eventually tap into a global market for what you love rather than be restricted to the local one?
    3. If revenue is inadequate, are there ways to cut costs? Along the same lines as the housing arrangement the former student already has.
    4. Do foundations and nonprofits have a role to play? I’m a fan of http://www.Kiva.org, for example. A cursory online search uncovered several others. Here’s an example. : http://www.colemanfoundation.org/blog/entrepreneurship.html.

    I hope it’s clear that I am not denying the grim realities in the former student’s life, nor the inadequacy of the language of vocation as we use it in American higher ed. to address the needs of students overwhelmed by debt or lack of available jobs or other systemic factors such as racism and sexism, etc.

    I look forward to reading your next post. Thanks for stimulating our thinking!

  3. I’ve fretted about this myself, and not only when thinking about the relative privilege most Americans enjoy. I’m keenly aware that I (raised with the basic assumption that both college & grad school were in my future) am not my typical student. Maybe it IS presumptuous to hope students will welcome the chance to dream big, pursue passions & take risks. Maybe my debt-laden, multiple-job-working students need to hear that there’s a lot of compromise & struggle in every adult life–and that in their own current efforts to negotiate a path between “best years of my life” and burdensome obligations, they are ALREADY DOING that work, while carrying whatever burdens their families, cultures, worlds impose.

    Picking a major isn’t a finish line .Nor is getting a job, paying off loans…or earning tenure. Too often, I treat these “milestones” as mile markers on the road of life: I see them, speed by, and wonder why the next one comes so disconcertingly quickly (or seems to take an eternity). Can we teach ourselves and maybe even our students to see them more as scenic overlooks? An invitation to stop, stretch, gaze back over whatever we’ve just traversed, and wonder what’s around the next bend? No, I don’t stop at all scenic overlooks. But when I do, I usually get a new perspective.

  4. I’m so glad to see people writing about this. I have an article under review on this very topic. I did ethnographic research among unemployed South Africans and I find the narratives we often use to talk about vocation can do more damage than good in settings where people are unlikely to find work at all, much less have a choice in their work. I just had a long conversation about this with a friend who is an ex-offender working with recently incarcerate black men looking for work, and he also pointed out ways that the dominant narratives of vocation miss their life experience. Thanks for writing this.

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