Our students will likely live and work in a world even more interconnected and interdependent than we do now. The complex issues that face us spill across national borders, oceans and continents, involve communities with varying histories, cultures, beliefs, languages, political structures and forms of creative expression. These complex global issues and this interconnectedness shape the work-world our students enter. Students seek to discern vocation, not just once, but again and yet again, within this context.
We deepen and enrich our students’ understanding of vocational discernment, and we better understand it ourselves, when we situate the practice of reflection, anticipation and choice of life path within this global frame, when we consider how best to mentor students who are not privileged in their citizenship, circumstances and freedom or range of choice.
Here are four components of the intersection of vocational discernment and globalization that seem pressing to me. These are not the only components, and readers are likely to identify additional significant, complex global issues affecting the work world our students enter. We live in a dynamic, constantly changing, highly interdependent world: by calling out these four major intersections of vocational discernment and globalization my hope is to initiate an open-ended conversation, to encourage reflection and dialogue.
The connection between global mobility and the hope of finding fulfilling work. The decision to migrate to another country for work—that is, economic migration, whether legal or not, is a decision to act upon one’s sense of one’s best opportunity to pursue a meaningful vocation. We celebrate the courage of students to act upon their discernment of calling when it is a matter of a U.S. citizen pursuing work in her community, or starting up an international initiative in association with a completed Peace Corps experience, or partnering with alumni peers to build a new multi-national company after graduation. How best can we respond when someone risks life, savings, and social and familial networks to seek work in, for example, Western Europe or the United States, severing ties with home and friends to build a new life in a new country?
Technological innovation, vocational discernment and the availability of jobs in the future. As our students seek meaningful work in the future, they will need to grapple with the technological disruption that has already begun to occur and will likely accelerate in its displacement of actual living people from jobs around the world. The loss of jobs to automation is already altering patterns of employment just as an earlier shift in manufacturing jobs from countries with high wages, environmental regulations and social safety networks to countries with cheap labor and fewer environmental and social regulations disrupted earlier patterns, earlier certainties. How do we think about vocation when there are fewer jobs available worldwide? Is there a possible intersection here for critical, reflective and advocacy work for a living wage for all? For ways of thinking about vocation as a calling outside of employment (in retirement, in situations of adjunctivity and partial or under-employment)?
Environmental change and global mobility. Environmental changes have transformed living and working conditions for people in regions around the world; environmental transformation consequent upon climate change will likely increase in scope and severity of impact in the future. People are already on the move because their homes are devastated by drought or floods, by conflicts resulting from scarcity of resources or unequal distribution of power and resources. Global warming, environmental pollution and shifting microclimates are unsettling communities in many regions—leading people to leave home to seek employment elsewhere. These are deeply unsettling trends as we think with young people about vocational discernment. What parts of the world may become unlivable? Can desertification be halted? Can the rise in ocean levels be mitigated within the lifetimes of the next generations? How do we help young people discern vocation when patterns of human settlement and the viability of established means of employment are shifting with increasing rapidity? One may be called, for example, to be a farmer in a high plains state, but that’s a risky proposition when aquifers suffer from over-extraction because of decades of irrigation use, to which climate change adds its challenges; and if one is called to be a fisherwoman in the Gulf, one may want to be concerned about mitigating over-harvesting before the industry triggers radical species population decline.
The globalization of education as a field of endeavor. I experience tension within my own sense of vocational calling as I celebrate and work to advance the presence of international students at U.S. colleges and universities while at the same time hearing (and understanding, feeling empathy for) the concerns of colleagues at universities in countries from which those students depart and whose institutions are under stress because of demographic crises, because of dramatic decreases in domestic student university attendance and the departure to other countries of fellow scientists, scholars and artists. The loss of promising students to universities in other countries is an effect—one of the most salient effects—of the globalization of education. The work I do, and that I love, the field of international education in which I am engaged, directly affects university communities in other countries. It’s great to work with international students when you are working within a desirable destination country such as the United States. It’s another thing to ponder the effects of globalization on higher education when you work within a crumbling university setting with ever fewer students and colleagues because they are all going elsewhere—to pursue their best opportunities for fulfilling vocations.
When we encourage our students to reflect upon the intersection of interests, abilities, social needs and employment opportunities, we must also encourage them to anticipate the changing shape of their society; we must try to help them envision and prepare for an opaque future beyond the horizon. Their passionate commitment to the life paths that most nurture them is their best resource in the face of change. When we set vocational discernment within its global context, we can help foster critical analysis, deep reflection, resilience and creativity—qualities and habits of mind that will help (may help) us make positive change in the face of global challenges.
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.