Catholic institutions spin vocation and identity in unique ways for their students. Many with a cursory knowledge of Catholic higher education are aware of its general missionary zeal for social justice. Some also may be aware that Jesuit-Catholic colleges operate, by mission, according to the Ignatian principle of cura personalis. Translated as “care for the whole person,” the idea behind cura personalis is to move beyond pure intellectual concerns to notice, learn about, and attend to the whole of a person’s life—the head, the heart, body, and soul.
How might these things come together to inform relations between staff, faculty, and students? How do they help foster a vocation? By sharing my perspective and experience I hope to provide a partial answer to these questions. I will recap how I came to weave cura personalis into my work and recount how it has remained an important part of my philosophy of education and professional life in secular institutions, beyond a formative period. Cura personalis offers an old way of seeing problems and issues that feels timeless, and highly relevant in today’s environment.
My own formation as an instructor, scholar, and student affairs staffer occurred in the context of my graduate education at a Jesuit institution, Loyola University Chicago. The time I spent in graduate school in the humanities (i.e., American history) shaped the way I conceive of meaning, values, and identity, in my job and for students. It fashioned my philosophy and feelings about identity, human flourishing, careers, and one’s vocation. I bring these commitments to my staff and classroom work.
These commitments are rooted in my graduate employment—an assistantship that changed entirely my career trajectory. The assignment began in 2000, and placed me as a part-time student services staffer in Loyola’s Mundelein College. The core task of my assistantship was parsing dean’s appeals. So, when I wasn’t reading the latest histories on the United States, I read appeal letters to discern how a student’s experience proverbially “went south.” (I have subsequently described it to colleagues as “advising in reverse.”)
Because I was working in a college with adult returning learners—i.e. students who were believed, then, to have more complicated lives, balancing jobs with kids—I had permission to be maximally sympathetic, more than one might be with an ordinary, term-by-term undergraduate. Institutional rules for scheduling, dropping courses, and obtaining refunds were often more flexible for these mature students with full-time jobs than they might be for regular undergraduates. Given this view of their lives, when an adult student’s letter told their story inadequately, I could inquire and suggest revisions before taking it to the deans. These revisions ranged over format, content, and perspective.
On helping with their stories and perspective, I was able to use humanistic lessons from history, especially those that address structural problems (race, gender, ideological), to help the appellant write a more appealing narrative. I absorbed their obstacles and circumstances, and they helped me, symbiotically, learn to be a better humanist, staffer, and instructor.
I was also able to utilize the rudiments of a Catholic educational philosophy learned from my staff colleagues. In Mundelein, this included helping disadvantaged Chicagoans—women (primarily) and men (a few)—find themselves through higher education. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) provided access for poor students to help them develop a calling. It was about social justice. Mundelein College’s affiliation with Loyola meant integrating that focus with the ideals of cura personalis. As a staffer, I was learning to think holistically (like a Jesuit) with an eye toward social justice (like a BVM) in my work. As a person who was reeducating himself and learning a new vocation, these ideals sensitized me to particulars I had missed as a science and career-focused undergraduate.
This new philosophy of education, from my perspective, meant both “going there” and “being there.” Caring for the whole person involved going to where they congregate—student group meetings, classes, and other gatherings explicitly offered to, or by, students. It required sharing lunches with them and showing a sense of humor. You can’t grow into being a trusted advisor or mentor without being a presence. If they don’t see you, they won’t respect your advice or nudges. They need to get a feel for the whole you, as a staffer, before trusting your voice and perspective.
In terms of “being there,” I began to draw out my students in the Socratic sense. This necessitated asking hard questions about distractions, time management, family pressures, part-time jobs, etc. I began to pull out their thoughts and answers (i.e. working maieutically). This entails both emotional and academic labor. Being available, by their preferred routes of communication, and in their preferred registers of speech, helped me maximize my service to them. Both “going there” and “being there” aided me in identifying with my students, as I assisted them in finding their true identities.
One important thing cura personalis does not address is boundaries. How do you care for the whole person while also protecting yourself as a professional and your students? How do you provide care while enabling sustainability, self-assurance, and confidence?
The answer, for me, has arrived through experience. I communicate boundaries to them, saying for instance when I am both available and unavailable. I explain when I can and cannot go, or be, there. I foster respect for boundaries when I make referrals. When the objects of concern move beyond my expertise, whether legally or psychologically, I offer other venues and colleagues. Being maieutic means turning questions into new questions for my conversation partner, which can mean finding new areas of strength or affirmation. The goal is to get the student to see their resources and use their community. Offering a holistic view of one’s situation means emphasizing that one is not alone, and that I am not alone as an ally. Having a holistic view of care benefits us both.
There is no one way to care, but there are different registers and emphases. We all need comfort, sounding boards, and redirection. We need people who will go there and be there for us. Because faculty are busy delivering content and researching, the staff apparatus has grown, since the 1970s, to round out how higher education orients its students toward careers and their vocations.
That brings me to a final point: The idea of cura personalis demands that I think with the student beyond a mere career. The term “career” has, to me, a practical, professional focus that divorces us from all the factors in our life that might bring joy and fulfillment. We want our careers to be fulfilling, but they will never be holistic for us in the way that a Medieval commitment to a holy order might consume one’s entire being. Our careers may constitute some percentage of our identities, but never all of it. My Jesuit brothers and BVM sisters in higher education taught, or at least reminded, me to acknowledge how work on one’s academic and professional goals will not bring total fulfillment. We have to harmonize, the best we can, all aspects of our lives—finding and keeping balance when possible.
I end with these questions: How do you care for the whole person? What enables holistic work for you?
Tim Lacy is a student services professional and historian. He currently works for the University of Illinois as the Director of the Office of Medical Student Learning Environment, and teaches history courses at Loyola University Chicago. He has worked in student services for most of his career, assisting students with their academic, personal, and career aspirations, including when plans go awry. He is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), as well as several contributions to edited collections and academic journals.