Vocation and the First-Year Seminar

Should we be talking about vocation with first year students?

This fall, St. Olaf received a NetVUE grant that supported faculty and staff to participate in communities of practice, exploring ways we can be more intentional about how we integrate vocation into our equity and inclusion efforts, our new general education curriculum, co-curricular activities, and other moments in our students’ academic lives. I signed up for the Vocation and the First Year Seminar group, partly out of curiosity to learn: How can we have meaningful conversations about vocation with students in their first year of college?

Reflecting on readings from Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-faith Academy (ed. David S. Cunningham 2019), my colleagues shared ways that they mentor students to think about what they don’t want to do as a way to find a path for themselves; ways that encountering difference can help students clarify their values; and ways of cultivating affective ways of knowing. 

But one colleague interrupted the conversation about how to integrate vocation in FYS to ask why: “Should we be talking about vocation with first-year students?” Is cultivating curiosity to explore new subjects and ideas more important than adding pressure to eighteen year olds to choose a track for a major and career? Does vocation really need to be one more thing in the bucket, along with how to find a book in the library, how to get a tutor, and how to get involved in a club? The question is a fair one. 

But of course, his question was also one of vocation: asking us to step back and think about not only our approaches to teaching vocation but our larger purpose in teaching it at all. And in fact, talking with students about vocation is making the same rhetorical move of shifting from how to why: Why should you learn how to do academic research? Why should you seek out support you may not have needed in high school? Why should you get involved on campus? Integrating vocation in First Year Seminar, I think, is not so much adding one more thing to the lengthy list of to-do items as it is about giving the list itself meaning: asking students to think about their purpose for pursuing higher education in the first place. Who are they? Why are they here? What motivates them to learn? What do they value? How can they create a college experience for themselves that will be purposeful and meaningful? 

With my first year students, I don’t actually use the term vocation. But the more I think about it, vocation is a part of how I frame everything we do. While St. Olaf is a predominantly white institution, most students in my courses are generally first gen, low income, BIPOC students. With so many students struggling to see themselves represented at St. Olaf, in my first-year classes we talk about what it means to them to be a college student. As Jason Stevens so thoughtfully argued, drawing on the work of C.S. Lewis, it’s valuable to shift the concept of vocation from what you do “after” college to what you do “during” college–in your classes, your work study, your living in community. Why am I asking you to write this paper? Why am I asking you to read this article? I want to give them transferable skills, certainly, but I also want to give them opportunities to reflect on larger questions of identity and purpose and truth. Making transparent my own purpose is part of helping students find theirs. And finding direction for your college career, a meaning and purpose in their educational journey, I think, is the whole point of First Year Seminar. 

One thing I particularly appreciated about our Community of Practice was the ways in which my colleagues recognized that not all students experience vocation in the same way. For international students, for example, their major needs to match their career if they want to stay in the U.S., and choosing a major earlier and more pragmatically is a hard truth that can interrupt the deeper conversations of purpose. 

For more on vocation and the first year experience, see Rachel Pickett’s “Exploring Vocation in First Year Programs.” For more on vocation and international students, see Bren Tooley’s “Exporting Vocation” and “Vocation in an Interconnected and Interdependent World.”

The tension between students seeking good-paying jobs and students seeking a higher purpose through their college education is one that strikes me as especially relevant to first generation students, for example, who sometimes tend to have a more material understanding of the value of a college degree. It’s sometimes easy to dismiss this perspective as narrow-minded or money-grubbing, but for many of my students, the more philosophical understanding of vocation as related to personal fulfillment just doesn’t resonate, and even smacks of white/middle class/male privilege. 

At the same time, familial and community ties can sometimes better equip these students to think about the “world’s deep need” half of Buechner’s definition of vocation. Their pragmatism is not value neutral. The students I teach are often very aware of the obligations and expectations (financial and otherwise) they owe to families and communities, in their being here, in their choice of major, and in their choice of career. In some cases these expectations are a gift, and in others they’re a burden. In any case, their understanding of vocation is not better or worse, but certainly different from that of many St. Olaf students. I want to recognize that individual-focused vocational discernment is, essentially, a mark of privilege. 

This fall, I’m planning to assign my students a literacy narrativean autobiography of their identity as a writer-for their first assignment. It will, I hope, challenge them to reflect on their identity, their purpose, and their goals as they start their college career. In asking them to take on an identity as a writer, the assignment should set them up to think more holistically about their lifelong learning. It will promote the idea that college is not a means to an end, to get the degree and the job, but that their work and calling as a student right now is an end unto itself. It will cultivate affective ways of knowing, allow them to compare their experiences with their peers’, and turn a series of events into a meaningful narrative. I might not mention vocation at all, but in shifting the question from how they write to why they write, it will plant the seeds for four years of vocational discernment.  

Bridget Draxler teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Originally trained in eighteenth-century British literature, Bridget’s current teaching and research focus on public humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Bridget co-authored, with Danielle Spratt, Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Humanities in Practice (University of Iowa Press, 2018), which includes an essay on Jane Austen reading groups. For more posts by Bridget, click here.

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