A conversation with Chris Arguedas, Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College.
I met Chris Arguedas at the NetVUE regional gathering hosted by Occidental College in January 2020, where we started a conversation about tending to the well-being of student activists. Chris generously agreed to share some of his thoughts about the particular challenges faced by student activists, especially students from minoritized communities, and his own sense of calling in the work that he does with students.
Describe the work you do at Occidental and the students you encounter and support.
First, I am there to listen. I often meet with students on a one-on-one basis, and I take these opportunities to learn from them and to build trust. Relationships built on trust are what propel the work of an Intercultural Center forward. My work is also to make students feel seen, in particular students who are underrepresented and racially minoritized in higher education, who often move through the world without being treated with respect. And, more specifically, I conduct training to mitigate institutional barriers at the college; I act as a liaison (and translator sometimes) between faculty, staff and students as it relates to issues of equity and social justice; and I co-create programming with students that recognizes and honors their identities and helps them step into their greatness.
On June 17, 2020, the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) hosted a webinar on “Theological Responses to the Pandemic.” The goal of this event was to offer a range of theologically-grounded responses to the current public health crisis and to the deep social inequalities that it has laid bare. Four NetVUE scholars took on the task of thinking theologically and responding responsibly to these uncertain and sometimes terrifying times.
Wisdom counsels patience: with these times, with ourselves, with the general and inevitable difficulty of life. Wisdom calls us to love and learn of the complexity of our world, still deciding that in time we may learn a richer and truer path to simplicity than that of impatiently sacrificing ourselves for simplistic ideals.
In my previous posts on “Still Deciding,” I tried to describe this virtue as a kind of intellectual courage to keep oneself from sheer indecision on one hand and shameless dogmatism on another. Still deciding, then, is actually a positive excellence, that helps to integrate and enrich the value of a person’s style of life.
Like moral courage, to which I suppose it is strongly related, still deciding is a form of practice—far more so than either indecision or dogmatism, which are both ways of ceding oneself to circumstance. Thus, still deciding takes practice. If we want its form to in-form the shape of our daily decisions, we must exercise ourselves, cultivate in ourselves a capacity to hold alternatives in contrast, entertain various ways in which we might resolve the alternatives, estimate the relative worths of each resolution, and then decide, attentive to both what we are choosing and what not.
Cia Verschelden, author of Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization, turned her attention last week to the fact that many of our colleagues across the country are “not OK.”
There’s a good chance you have been feeling overwhelmed by the mounting stresses of COVID-19, the uncertainties of the next academic year, and the social unrest in the U.S. over the past few weeks. Perhaps you have said to yourself or to others, “I just don’t have the bandwidth for this.”
Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago…This particular tree has survived much in its short life.
The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.
Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.
In a week when thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest, two essays about the state of higher education used provocative, poster-worthy questions for their titles. The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can have the effect of smugly shutting down a conversation. These two essays, however, have the opposite effect: they open up the set of concerns and direct us to think carefully about how we want to proceed. Both, in their own way, call us back to a sense of institutional mission.
The coronavirus pandemic that has upended semester calendars, teaching practices and scholarly research schedules provides an important opportunity for us to reflect upon our vocational authenticity. In fact, it is exactly in such moments of dislocation that we are most challenged to reflect upon and make sense of our convictions as teachers and scholars and to renew our commitments to its meaning and purpose in our lives.
Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.
It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.