As Douglas V. Henry notes in the first line of his contribution to At This Time and In This Place, “Vocation has a narrative quality.” It comes as no surprise, then, that hearing the stories of others can play a helpful role in vocation exploration. In my experience, students love to hear the stories of faculty, staff, and other older adults in their lives. They enjoy hearing about how we came to where we find ourselves today, taking comfort in our stories’ winding paths and the rebounds from setbacks.
While there are many ways to create opportunities for such storytelling, we can also look to stories outside of our own communities. I don’t mean the stories of calling from larger-than-life figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi. Such stories are important and have their place, but they can be a bit daunting to the average college student. For vocational stories of everyday people, I look to the treasure trove of archived interviews collected by StoryCorps.
Founded by David Isay in 2003, StoryCorps has now recorded stories and interviews from a quarter of a million Americans. These stories highlight our shared humanity in what their website calls “the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.” Every Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition, one of these stories is shared. This is where I first encountered the collection and thought to begin using them in my vocation work with students.
In the spirit of resource sharing, I have created a short list of my favorite stories with the relevant vocation themes. Many can be found in David Isay’s book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Audio versions can all be found archived on StoryCorps’ website.
Angelo Bruno and Eddie Nieves: NYC Sanitation Workers
Themes: An introduction to vocation; our call to relationship
As I introduce students to the concept of vocation, I often use this delightful interview between two New York City sanitation workers as one prepares to retire. Through their work, Angelo and Eddie have clearly lived a broader vocation to help and love others. With the guidance of a thoughtful supervisor and through relationships built along their route, they see how their work addresses needs around them and learn the importance of connecting with others. Collecting garbage may seem like an unusual place to find meaning, but these two men show how our everyday experiences provide continuous opportunities to live a called life. Click here for their story. I especially recommend taking a look at the animated version of the interview:
Sharon Long: A Forensic Artist
Themes: Changing nature of callings; cultivating a passion
Sharon Long has a fascinating story of spending many years working multiple jobs to support her children as a single mother before enrolling in college at the age of 40 alongside her daughter. A required course in science led her down an unexpected path to forensic art, which sparked interests she didn’t even know she had. Her story is a wonderful example of discovering and living into vocations over time. It can also help students consider the opportunity waiting within required core courses—you never know what will spark your interest and where it will take you. Click here for her story.
Burnell Cotlon: A grocer in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward
Themes: Responding to the needs around us; the role of community in vocation exploration
Burnell Cotlon’s home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Ten years later, he saw that fellow community members were taking three buses to the closest Walmart since there was not a single grocery store in the Ninth Ward. In the expanded version of the story included in Isay’s book, we learn that it was Burnell’s mother who suggested he think about getting out of managing fast food restaurants and start a business of his own. Burnell looked to the needs of his community and tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit to open the first and only grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward as of 2015. His story supports the work of encouraging students to look for those places where their gifts and interests are needed in the world. His mother also exemplifies the importance of discovering our calls within community and helping one another to see our giftedness. Click here for his story.
A Few More Favorites
- Sam Reed: A mortician
- Barb Abelhauser: A Bridgetender
- Brian Peterson and Matt Faris: Artists
- Kristi Sollars and Marci Ebberts: Intensive Care Unit Nurses and Educators
Stories shed light on the lived experience of vocation. I hope you’ll share your own favorite stories and resources that can help students build a vocabulary of vocation and learn to tell their own story.
Rebecca Lahti is the Assistant Director of the Emmaus Center for Spiritual Life & Vocation at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. She works primarily with student programming around vocation exploration. She is especially energized by her work coordinating Navigate, a yearlong small group reading and discussion program for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Rebecca also enjoys working with faculty and staff through retreats and study groups.