In my senior year of high school I received a gift that brought transformative opportunities to my life as time went by. Senior year marked the beginning of my third year living in the United States after immigrating from Mexico at age 15. If being an adolescent can be confusing and stressful by itself, being transplanted from a place of comfort to an unknown, new environment complicated my sense of self even more. Like many immigrants experiencing culture shock, I felt like an outsider early on; like many newcomers, I tried to be seen and be listened to by others the best I could. To me this meant trying to excel socially, athletically, and academically. Lacking self-confidence and having to continue to work on my English language skills, I didn’t do too well in the first category. Instead, I tried to play sports and to focus on my studies. In my first try at sports sophomore year, I didn’t make it through the first try-out day for the soccer JV team. As a junior, I barely made the JV basketball team. To this day, I think the only reason I made the team was because the coach was also my History teacher. My good grades in his class more so than my athletic abilities had to have awoken his compassion to let me be on the team.
Senior year was a different story. With nothing to lose, I tried out for the tennis team. In those days, Pueblo High School on the South Side of Tucson was an underperforming school. Only a handful of students in each class had hopes of attending college, me being one of them. In my senior year, the school needed new tennis coaches for the boys’ and girls’ teams. That same year, two Pueblo High alumni who had been student-athletes in the early 1970s returned home after finishing their respective medical residencies. Their commitment to community not only gave them the vision to someday open a community health clinic, which one of them did years later, but to volunteer together as coaches of the tennis teams at their old high school. The dedication to community and education was the gift my teammates and I received from our coaches, Dr. Frank Gomez and Dr. Cecilia Rosales.
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, I was the youngest in a three-generation household. Perhaps this is what taught me to always be open to build relationships with people of all ages. In high school, my closest friendships were not with peers but with teachers, counselors, and coaches, several of whom became my mentors. My tennis coaches could read my athletic limitations a mile away, but instead, they chose to focus on my social and academic potentials. Together, Frank and Cecilia mentored me and helped me to discern my near future. After graduating from Pueblo High School in 1973, Frank had received a full scholarship to Carleton College in Northfield, MN. With Frank’s and Cecilia’s experience and support, and with my persistence and dedication for learning, a path appeared for me to have a similar opportunity to attend Carleton after graduating from high school. For a few more years, Frank and Cecilia continued to support several of my teammates to attend Carleton and other liberal arts colleges across the country.
Frank and Cecilia were able to offer young students like me the gift of intervention. By this I mean the solidaric engagement in the lives of outsiders—immigrants, refugees, and all other underrepresented students in our college and university campuses—to reciprocally support and transform lives. Intervention, from its Latin root intervenire meaning “to come between,” begins as an encounter and grows into a a relationship that triggers the possibility of reinvention, redemption, and belonging. Intervention enacts the kind of human reconciliation that Martin Luther King saw in agape love, “an overflowing love that seeks nothing in return,” and that Gustavo Gutiérrez described as God’s gratuitousness, which calls us “to make that same love central to our lives” as we serve and love those standing on the margins.
In the literature courses that I teach, I include works of fiction and non-fiction that represent transformative relationships of intervention. Works like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, and others, can inspire students to revisit their past lives in search of their own lived experiences of intervention, but also to imagine possible relationships in their present and future lives where bonds of companionship can flourish.
For example, in Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus, students read about Father Amadi, a Nigerian Catholic priest who incorporates Igbo cultural roots in his prayers and homilies, and who intervenes in the lives of poor children and the well-off protagonist, Kambili, a 15-year old girl. Although not financially poor like some of the boys with whom Father Amadi plays soccer, Kambili’s strict patriarchal upbringing crushes her sense of self-worth and freedom. Realizing Kambili’s lack of self-esteem and self-awareness, Father Amadi intervenes in Kambili’s life by introducing her to questions of self-exploration, and by encouraging her to discern her own ways of being and belonging in the world.
Stories of intervention can be found in many literary forms. An example of a non-fiction narrative is Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America. In this memoire, Vargas tells his personal and professional life story in the span of twenty-four years: from the day he immigrated to California from the Philippines to live with his maternal grandparents, to 2017 when as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist he joined the struggle for immigration policy reform in support of millions of undocumented immigrants like himself seeking freedom and justice. Vargas shares his story of self-discovery, which includes his quest to answer the two key vocational questions, “Who Am I?” and “Whose am I?” (See Parker Palmer, “Now I Become Myself”).
Vargas offers details of his relationships with those whom he calls his “American family” and his personal “Underground Railroad”: friends and mentors who since high school have helped guide and support him in his educational and professional aspirations. Read intentionally from the perspective of vocational engagement, Vargas’ life story is a journey of human reconciliation and redemption that shines light on the selfless and gratuitous love of the people who intervened in his life. They not only wanted the best for him, but through their love they helped Vargas find his own calling as a writer and advocate for the rights of all undocumented immigrants.
Adichie’s and Vargas’ texts are two examples of how reading stories of intervention can lead students to find meaning and purpose within and beyond themselves, in relationship with others.
I believe that we as professors can contribute to our students’ vocational flourishing by sharing our own stories of intervention. In her essay “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy (2017), Shirley Hershey Showalter encourages teachers to share their stories with students. The purpose of doing this, she states, is “not to create clones of the professor, but rather to make invisible influences more visible—and therefore to make one’s theoretical grounding more transparent” (73). As faculty committed to educating for vocation, the stories of intervention and gratuitous love we include in our syllabi, the personal stories that we choose to share, and the stories our students have to tell, can move us closer toward co-creating spaces of belonging and companionship with each other.
Other posts on related themes: See Marty Stortz, Vocation Virtually: Telling Your Story and Tim Lacy on “Telling Our Students’ Stories.” On student struggles and advice for mentors see Hannah Schell’s interview with Nimisha Barton and Younus Mirza’s Mentoring for Vocation: A Form of Friendship.
Esteban Loustaunau is professor of Spanish at Assumption University in Worcester, MA and director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the SOPHIA Program, which encourages students, particularly sophomores, to reflect on their lives in terms of vocation. He co-edited the collection Telling Migrant Stories: Latin American Diaspora in Documentary Film with Lauren Shaw (University of Florida Press, 2018). Esteban was a member of the NetVUE Faculty Seminar in 2017 and a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by NetVUE entitled “Courageous Text, Courageous Teaching.” For other posts by Esteban, click here.