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.”
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.
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.
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.