Stories for the Undecided

Some lucky students enter college knowing exactly what they want to do and go on to pursue a career that feels like a calling.  But many enter with several possibilities or only vague notions.  To encourage students to examine their choices, my college lists all entering students as “Undecided.”  However, for understandable reasons, being undecided is profoundly stressful for many students, especially if their initial choices have led to failure and they are still trying to decide on a major late in their sophomore year and even more so, if they are approaching graduation with no clear career direction.  Higher education is expensive and to many Americans occupation “counts” so students want to make the right choice. 

Ironically, the focus on vocation at some colleges can contribute to this anxiety.  Frederick Buechner’s oft quoted definition of calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” and tag lines like my own college’s “Make your life count” have often led students to feel they should become activists, particularly because of our college’s social justice emphasis.  As advisors and mentors, what can we do?

Of course, we need to help students identify their gifts and I think it is important to give students a place where they can voice their anxieties.  But advisors can also provide reassurance born of their experiences and wider perspectives.   Studies have documented that over their lifetimes, people change jobs and even careers many times.  In today’s ever evolving employment landscape, developing transferable skills like communication skills, strategic thinking, and the ability to both take initiative and work as part of a team are more important than one’s major.  For some students, such facts may be enough, but being an English professor, not surprisingly, I like stories.  Stories can reassure students that plenty of now successful people have stood in their shoes.  But stories can also inspire them and help them see vocation as a journey and creation rather than a single choice or discovery.

As our Career Centers remind us, most people fall into their careers and I would add vocations.  A recipient of our Decade award several years ago was a Communications Studies major who was living at home after her first job out of college—teaching at a charter school—disappeared.  Captivated by a concert given by young South African musicians at her church, she eventually traveled to Cape Town and was asked to start an after-school program for the public schools to help with student retention.  The program was tremendously successful and she eventually founded Africa Jam, a nonprofit dedicated to youth and community empowerment in Cape Town.  A political science major tried Teach for America and discovered a passion for teaching and helping the underprivileged. Tapped to start a Teaching for America program in Minneapolis, he eventually became the Executive Director for a non-profit that focuses on educational policy and advocacy. 

But what if you don’t find a calling like those?  This is why I like telling my sister’s story.  My sister graduated with a psychology degree but no idea of what she wanted to do with her life.  Looking for secretarial jobs that would allow her to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, she got a call from Clorox asking her if she would be interested in becoming a buyer trainee.  She left Clorox after a few years realizing she would be happier working for a smaller company. She tried out working for a real estate agent, but eventually found a job as a secretary for the Marketing Department for the small business arm of the largest emergency physician partnership in California.  Noticing they had no internal newsletter, she volunteered to produce one; then she proposed running a spouses’ program at their annual meeting; then she proposed giving a workshop to improve the doctors’ patient relating skills.  When the quality control position came open, the doctors campaigned for her although that position had up to that point always gone to a nurse. My sister continued to be tapped for new positions as the partnership expanded.  Eventually, she was lured away to be the COO of a small partnership of emergency room physicians in Hawaii by a doctor she met on a cruise.  My sister’s story underlines that one’s career is an evolving journey.  She succeeded because she was a strategic and critical thinker and good communicator, hardworking, responsible, and easy to work with.  Her career shows the importance of taking the initiative but also shows how doors open unexpectedly.  She liked working in the health provider sector, and in her last job, she was especially proud of safeguarding the jobs and work conditions of the office staff and making sure their value was recognized by the physicians who ran the partnership.  One does not need to start a non-profit or be an activist to make the world a better place.

Sometimes doors open unexpectedly. (Source of image).

But living a calling may be less a matter of what you do than how you do it.  One of my favorite vocational stories told by a friend was of a man who worked for a moving company who saw his job not as moving possessions, but as helping people through what he knew was often a difficult, sometimes even traumatic, event.  He paid attention to their emotional needs by being thoughtful and kind, a calming and reassuring presence as well as a careful worker.  As Erin Van Laningham reminded us in her wonderful post, George Eliot ended her great novel Middlemarch by reminding us how much better life is because of such “hidden” lives.

In fact, I like reminding our students that there are many ways of living a life of service.  One of the advantages of teaching at a Lutheran college is I can point to Luther’s assertion that vocation is not limited to our job.  At a time when people generally followed their parents’ career path and vocation was more narrowly applied to religious callings, Luther argued that people have multiple callings as worker, child, spouse, parent, neighbor, citizen.   So I’d like to end by returning to Middlemarch.  In the Preface we see Dorothea fired by a child’s idealism aspiring to be a Teresa of Avila, but that idealism leads her into a disastrous first marriage, which she is saved from only by her husband’s fortuitous death.  The novel ends with her remarriage, settling into a quiet domestic life, and with that wonderful final line about how much we owe to such hidden lives.  Indeed, Dorothea’s generous spirit has already changed several lives, including that of the man she marries.  It is Will Ladislaw’s love for Dorothea and the example of her care for her neighbors that have transformed him from an artistic dilettante with no real purpose in life into a man who now wants to help improve the lives of his community as a local politician. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to inspire our students to tackle the world’s pressing problems.  We should—the world needs them.  But I think it is also important to support our students’ exploration of who they are and how they can best develop their gifts.  We all are not cut out to be direct activists, but we all can find ways to make the world a better place.  I know my stories have comforted my Undecideds, but I hope they have also inspired them to explore the many possibilities to serve others wherever they go in the world.

Florence Amamoto retired last spring from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota where she was an Associate Professor in English and held the Sponberg Chair in Ethics.  She was also affiliated with the Japanese Studies, the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and the Three Crowns programs, with a long-time involvement with diversity, church-related higher education, and vocation initiatives. Her essay, “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships,” is included in the latest collection of essays published by David Cunningham, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford, 2019).

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