Lessons from Humanism: Mentoring that Fosters Vocational Discernment

Any relationship can be therapeutic, according to Carl Rogers (1902-1987). In psychology there are many theoretical approaches to counseling and various clinical techniques. The common factor among all effective therapies is the working relationship between the two parties. In higher education there are numerous opportunities for building rewarding relationships with students and colleagues. Humanism’s approach of emphasizing relationship, strengths, and human potential make it a particularly useful framework for undergraduate mentoring relationships that foster vocational discernment. 

Carl Rogers

In On Becoming a Person (1961), Rogers puts forth three essential ingredients for a productive, therapeutic relationship that can be applied to undergraduate mentoring relationships. First, mentors must be genuine and authentic in their approach to working with students. This requires being “congruent” and psychologically well-adjusted. Congruence occurs when our self-concept matches our lived experience. This is not to say that we must be perfect; but rather honest. Next, mentors must display empathy. Understanding students’ internal frame of reference is critical and encourages appreciating them as multicultural individuals. Last, mentors must foster a climate of acceptance. Allowing students to be themselves and share their hopes and fears without judgement helps them realize their God-given talents and gifts. These attitudes are necessary and sufficient for change and growth.

All individuals have the potential for change and growth, or according to humanists, self-actualization (see Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy, 1951). However, the process of self-actualization is not easy and must be nurtured and cultivated. One of the aims of vocational discernment is to explore who we are and how we can use our gifts and talents to reach our fullest potential, often for the greater good of our world. Offering an authentic, empathetic, and nonjudgmental relationship to mentees sets the stage for cultivating self-actualization and vocational discernment.

Unconditional acceptance supports students and nurtures their process of self-actualization. Yet, positive regard does not mean that mentors approve of all behaviors or that students should not experience consequences and take responsibility for their choices. Accepting students for who they are without judgement permits them to take risks and explore possible selves as they consider the multiple vocations God places before them. This attention to a strengths-based approach also makes a humanistic framework a helpful model for mentoring relationships. When students feel comfortable being themselves they are more likely to accurately acknowledge their weaknesses and strengths with a mentor. Capitalizing on strengths engages students in self-actualization using the qualities they already possess and develops congruence.

Like taking a strengths-based approach to vocational discernment, effective communication should also develop congruence, or an accurate self-concept, in students. Most of our communication takes an evaluative tone, which places judgement on the thoughts, feelings, or actions of others. Other responses might be made with the goal to be reassuring, which may actually minimize others’ feelings, or probing, which may feel intrusive. When mentors reflect the thoughts and feelings they hear from students back to them they are more likely to encourage elaboration and richer exploration (See Rogers & Roethlisberger, “Barriers and Gateways to Communication,” 1952). Reflection allows for student-directed discussion of vocational discernment and identity exploration.

Reflective communication with a focus on strengths has the potential to not only enable vocational discernment and identity exploration, but also character formation. In his essay “Good Teaching: Character Formation and Vocational Discernment” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (2017), Mark Schwehn reminds us that a liberal arts education has long included character formation as a part of its purposes. Certainly, vocational reflection and identity exploration require development of character. Human potential could not be realized without character formation.

Careful attention to the formation of their students’ character will motivate, enable, and inform faculty attention to their students’ reflections on their callings.

Mark Schwehn, Vocation Across the Academy, p. 313.

A humanistic approach to authentic, empathetic, and nonjudgmental mentoring relationships can create opportunity to integrate intellectual and moral virtues in the undergraduate educational context.

Rogers’s humanistic theory of person-centered therapy acknowledges the power of ordinary relationships to facilitate change and growth. In his work on Christian friendship, Paul Wadell also notes the transformative power relationships hold, in particular to lead us to lives of service. {For more on Wadell’s view of friendship and vocational mentoring, see “Mentoring for Friendship.”} One of the greatest joys I have experienced in mentoring undergraduate students is guiding them in vocational reflection to learn how they are called to serve others in the world with their talents and gifts. We should never underestimate the power of an authentic, empathetic, and nonjudgmental relationship in encouraging students to reach their potential through vocational discernment.


Rachel Pickett is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of First-Year Experience at Concordia University Wisconsin. She is also a licensed psychologist. Her academic interests include college student development and the role of vocational discernment. She was a member of the 2017 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocation Exploration seminar.

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