Exploring Vocation in First-Year Programs

Most people recognize that it takes more than just “smarts” to make it through college. Clearly academic skills and a certain level of intelligence are essential to earning a college degree. However, having a successful, meaningful, and enjoyable college experience includes more than just the academic encounters of our students. Higher education also provides opportunity for students to learn about themselves, develop healthy habits, and make meaning out of life.

Exploring vocation is an important component of the first year of college and can be used to develop psychosocial skills that will set students up for success during their 4+ years at the university. Learning how to use God-given gifts to make a positive impact in a complex, demanding world requires the development of the whole person.

For nearly two decades psychologists and student development researchers (e.g., Robbins et al., 2004) have been studying critical non-cognitive factors, or psychosocial skills, tied to college success. While the terms and definitions vary slightly, most agree on the core set of skills that make the greatest positive impact. As it is important to address success and retention as soon as students matriculate, Krumrei-Mancuso, Newton, Kim, and Wilcox (2013) examined the following six psychosocial factors in first-year students:

  1. Academic self-efficacy is confidence in academic ability and expectation of being successful.
  2. Organization and attention to study includes being conscientious, setting goals, and following through on them.
  3. Stress and time management speaks to resiliency and meeting time demands.
  4. College activity is campus engagement and sense of belonging.
  5. Emotional satisfaction with academics involves interest in academic life.
  6. Finally, classroom communication is verbal and non-verbal engagement in class.

These six psychosocial factors make up a model that predicted GPA and life satisfaction for first-year students. Specifically, academic self-efficacy was the greatest predictor of GPA, which is in line with previous research. Organization and attention to study predicted first-semester GPA. Stress and time management as well as involvement with college activity were the strongest predictors of life satisfaction. Emotional satisfaction with academics also predicted life satisfaction. Classroom communication was not statistically significant when linked to either GPA or life satisfaction, but it has practical significance as it can promote academic self-efficacy. {The article by Krumrei-Mancuso, et al. is available here.}

In addition to addressing psychosocial skills immediately in the first-year of college, there are a number of high-impact practices that are recommended for first-year seminars, which has been shown to be a high impact practice for post-secondary institutions (see Kuh and O’Donnell, 2013).

In What Makes the First-year Seminar High Impact?: An Exploration of Effective Educational Practices, published in 2017 by the National Resource Center for the first-year experience and students in transition at the University of South Carolina, Tracy L. Skipper outlined the following eight practices after a national review of successful first-year seminars:

  1. Periodic and structured opportunities to reflect on and integrate learning;
  2. Faculty and peer interactions on substantive matters;
  3. Frequent, timely, constructive feedback;
  4. Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications;
  5. Public demonstration of competence;
  6. Experiences with diversity;
  7. Significant investment of time and effort by students; and
  8. Performance expectations set at appropriately high levels.

Just as the skills and practices listed above are central to effective student success programs, so is focusing on vocation in the first-year of college. In The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation (University of Chicago, 2015), Tim Clydesdale suggests introducing students to vocation as soon as they arrive on campus, featuring it in recruitment materials, and utilizing it to foster holistic student development. John Bechtold, Professor of Psychology at Messiah College described how he used the first-year seminar theme of Christian vocation to create community, common intellectual experiences, and active service in this 2017 essay published in Christian Higher Education. Indeed, exploration of vocation can contribute to psychosocial skill development and be used to facilitate high-impact practices.

Engaging students in vocational exploration during their first-year can foster psychosocial skill development. Christian vocation is not solely about what we do but who we are in our many life roles. Vocational discernment involves using our talents to find our place in the world and make a positive impact. Part of building academic self-efficacy involves finding role models and receiving encouragement and support from others. Vocational investigation often incorporates hearing others’ stories and telling your own which may contribute to bolstering students’ confidence. Furthermore, it’s important to help students to see that one of their immediate vocations is that of a student which calls them to develop the skill of organization and attention to study. Exploring vocation can assist them in setting academic goals, too. Vocation can also be used to develop college activity and foster a sense of belonging by encouraging students to participate in service and/or co-curricular groups that match their values and talents. By identifying talents and interests and connecting those to academic life, students will be more interested in coursework and be able to make personal connections that were not obvious before.

Incorporating vocation into a first-year seminar can facilitate high-impact practices. At my own institution, Concordia University, first-year seminar students regularly engage in written personal reflection by integrating Christian vocation with learning through course readings and discussion. Vocational discernment requires intrapersonal awareness and meaningful interpersonal engagement with faculty and peers. Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of vocational exploration in a first-year seminar is its ability to provide opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications. Lastly, the course readings, classroom activities, and personal reflection on vocation expose students to diverse perspectives and rigorous critical thinking. Using vocational exploration as a means to develop psychosocial skills in a first-year seminar can set students down the right path for a successful, meaningful, and enjoyable college experience.


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. For other posts at Vocation Matters by Rachel Pickett, click here.

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