Advising for Vocation: Ten Touchstones

Carter Aikin offers ten touchstones about advising and vocational reflection based on his many years of experience working with NetVUE campuses.

In March 2018, Hannah Schell discussed the great promise and deep challenges of incorporating vocational exploration into the fabric of academic advising. In this current post, I will pick up where she left off. Many of our NetVUE member institutions have seen the potential for vocational reflection in student advising that Schell discusses. Many, too, are exploring effective frameworks for sustaining programs which do this consistently and effectively. Lots of us are trying to figure out how to do this well. Here I want to address both the promises and the challenges of incorporating vocation into student advising by offering a list of touchstones.

These observations emerged over the last few years through close work with dedicated educators in the NetVUE network, and through my role as campus consultant to campuses striving to innovate their advising. While this is only an initial list based on my own limited experiences, I hope these touchstones can serve as a starting point for more of us to think with depth about vocation and advising.

Here are some touchstones to get us started:

In considering and designing a program incorporating vocation into advising, engage in early, campus-wide conversations around what, where, and why. What student-centered concerns are you trying to address through this program? Why should various constituents care about it? What hopes does your community have for students through a program on vocation? Why is this worth doing now? Is advising the right place to address these concerns and hopes? If so, what does advising need to look like? What, ideally, should advising accomplish, aside from the usual? Campus-wide conversation is a must in building a program with sufficient long-term buy-in.

Vocational reflection in advising should draw attention to the entirety of student formation–not classroom learning only. We cannot assume that God’s calling will come to our student at only one time in their four-year progression, one campus setting, or one part of student formation. This is about listening for providence, and we must listen widely. We attend to (more than try to corner) providence. {For more on this idea, see Carter Aikin’s “Chasing the Tail of Providence” – ed.}

For gathering a pool of mentors, tap and train good institutional citizens across campus: faculty, staff, coaches, student life folks, and administrators. Guidance for student formation and devoted attention to calling happens in lots of settings for our students, and campus is full of a range of expertise for that journey. There is no reason to alter the regular structure of academic advising in the process, however. Rather than trying to wedge vocational reflection into the importantwork of academic advising, a second group of student advocates or a parallel second-track group of advisors carefully selected from caring mentors across campus seems most effective. Advising loads must be kept low, and communities should carefully and intentionally select individuals who would be effective in this role. Blanket invitations or self-selection of mentors will not prove as effective as intentional selection and training of community members particularly gifted as mentors.

Establish a regular and intentionally shaped set of advising conversations, entirely separate from the regular utility of academic advising. Again, a parallel program–a second track of student advocacy and advising–may be ideal. This cannot simply supplement the necessary academic advising agenda. In her post, Schell notes that “effective advising has always been holistic in the sense that it involves attending to the student as a person—their aptitudes and interests, motivation and aspirations, values and commitments. The reality of advising, however, is that it often dwells in the domain of solving problems.” I have found that the overwhelming pressure of this reality will (very often sooner than later) crowd out vocational exploration. The utility, time-sensitivity, and problem-solving orientation of academic advising is a real barrier to vocational reflection. An entirely different group of student advocates, or at least purely additional, intentional advising meetings with agendas separate from the usual activities is a must.Place particular emphasis on the second and third years of student education (or even focus on them exclusively). Just as you would for a Gen Ed learning goal, it might be important to reflect on the learning and reflection particular to each of those two years in a student’s education.

Another absolute must is to address short and long-term motivation questions. Why will students want to do this, and why will advisors want to participate? Not for one session but for many? Not for one year, but for ten? What will make room for this slow reflection with students on the full plate of educators? What will keep mentors coming back with the drive and joy to engage their students on calling again and again? Motivation from the students is a real concern, too. Why will students want to participate in the slow listening and sometimes stumbling conversation of vocational discernment with a mentor? What will keep students coming back?

A way to lighten the workload for these student advocates across a busy semester is to arrange for some small group advising sessions for students in which vocational reflection is prompted and attended to with a skilled leader. In a given semester, mentors/advocates might start by holding individual meetings with students, but then ask them to gather in groups with other mentees for self-knowledge exercises, reflectivequestions with quick-write responses, service opportunities, or vocational reflection. The semester ends with a closing set of reflective one-on-one conversations to help students processwhat they have learned.

Consider using the stability of curricular structures (cohorts within certain courses always taken by students in a certain year, or one-credit courses which meet in different formats includingone on one and/or small groups). Vocational reflection through advising as a mere requirement (either a graduation requirement or a requirement before a student can register for a given semester) is not enough. Regular assignments and regular meetings will move vocation forward, not semester or year-end deadlines.

Consider utilizing career services, service learning, and your alumni network to help this progression. Integrating reflection on service, internship/practicum experiences, and/or evening conversations with meaning-oriented alumni (primed for vocation questions) can prove effective if introduced at the right times.

Require annual training for this new set of second-track advisors/advocates. Clearly spell out the reason you’re doing this, the learning outcomes you have discerned, and the tools for achieving them. Schell writes that, “Carving out time and space to do this work with students can feel impossible, and very nearly is so, because it runs counter to the logic of just about every other activity taking place on campus.” Without intentional, annual training vocational exploration in the context of advising will simply fall to the larger task-oriented culture of nearly everything else we do. For consistency across campus in vocational reflection, running as it does against the logic of most other campus activities, regular training is a must. In designing training, seek advice from non-NetVUE advising experts. Good advising programs are often doing pieces of vocational reflection and don’t even know it!

The Center for Vocational Reflection at Furman University offers support for faculty and staff

One final thought. Vocational discernment involves a skill set that can be cultivated in more than one way among mentors. Each of us has our own vocation among the students we serve, and those vocations are every bit as much an engagement with mystery as the vocational reflection we do with our students. Many campuses find that facilitating gatherings of faculty/staff mentors, providing meals, readings and space to discuss their own vocations not only proves pleasant and hope-giving to participants, but helps advance the skills of mentoring for the vocation of students as well. Campus communities might do well to consider providing space and funding for vocational reflection among faculty and staff mentors.

This list is the product of merely one invested observer drawing together the consistent activities of effective programs. One of the reasons I love NetVUE is its generously cooperative and collaborative ethos. We relish the chance to talk best practices and share them eagerly when they emerge. In that same spirit, I have offered a summary of what I have heard and observed as best practices for forming and sustaining an advising program which makes room for vocational exploration from those institutions working successfully on this integration. This list condenses some of the good instincts and practices of several of our member institutions who are working on this problem. Yet I know there is additional wisdom on this topic within our network. I hope readers feel encouraged to use the comments section to offer their insights on vocation and advising so that NetVUE can move more rapidly to a reliable list of best practices for this type of programming.

Carter Aikin is the Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Blackburn College in Carlinville, IL, where he oversees a “Vocation” General Education Program requirement that integrates Blackburn’s liberal arts curriculum with its religious heritage. Carter has worked with vocational exploration programs at CIC colleges since 2006, and has been a campus consultant for NetVUE since 2010. In teaching Blackburn courses like “Happiness,” “Being Human,” and “God’s Grace and Human Suffering,” he blends different academic disciplines to help students reflect on and discern calling.

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