Many small, faith-based colleges have long embraced the centrality of their students’ vocational discernment but sometimes find it difficult to help prospective students connect with these significant goals. This challenge rings true for us at Bluffton University, a Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts college in northwest Ohio. Students often have important questions about their life’s direction, but they have been conditioned to have a clear, simple answer to the “what is your major” question.
To create space for students to reflect together on key vocational questions, we have developed the Bluffton Blueprint, a four-year sequence of courses taken by all students. We have made the Bluffton Blueprint a central part of our message to prospective students. The Blueprint allows us to engage students, most of whom know little about Mennonites, with vocational ideas from an Anabaptist perspective that resonate with a wide audience. As our vice president of enrollment and advancement described in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, we believe that foregrounding these key questions of meaning and purpose has resonated with prospective students.
Each course within the Bluffton Blueprint has a focusing question, as we seek to engage students, whatever their faith background, with foundational questions.
Who am I?
Becoming a Scholar, our first-year seminar, asks the question, Who am I? Along with important emphases on developing the habits of a successful college student, the course provides space for students to ask big questions about how they want to shape their journey through college and beyond. We have drawn on key elements of Designing Your Life programming, with training through Stanford University’s Life Design Lab, to guide a substantial revision of the course. The Life Design approaches, such as reflecting on what activities bring joy to your life and imagining multiple prototypes of your life’s direction, provide tangible steps for students to engage big questions about their lives without becoming overwhelmed. In our context, the general approach is easily adapted to our faith-inflected vocational questions.
A key element of Becoming a Scholar is The Great Adventure, an excursion originally planned to pilot in fall 2020 but delayed for a year because of the pandemic. In October, we will take our whole first-year class, along with the Becoming a Scholar instructors and upper-class mentors, to the Great Smoky Mountains. During this three day retreat, students will have a chance to bond with their fellow classmates and professors, enjoy the beauty of the location, and engage in significant vocational discernment. This experience connects directly to the curriculum of Becoming a Scholar, so students will have time during the retreat to use design thinking to imagine how their college journey reflects the possibilities of their prototypes.
Who am I in community?
The sophomore Learning in Community course addresses the question, Who am I in community? Development of this course was aided by a very helpful NetVUE Vocation Across the Academy grant. In this team-taught course, students spend about half their time in the campus classroom and the other half with the nearby small city of Lima as their classroom. We are partnering with agencies in Lima to help our students grapple with the opportunities and challenges of a rust-belt city. As they engage with groups such as Habitat for Humanity or Head Start, students will be able to reflect on their vocational goals, either reaffirming or redirecting the college journey they had imagined in their first year. We want this initial community immersion experience to be early enough in a student’s college career so that they could adjust planned majors, if they felt called in a new direction.
Who am I in the world?
For many years, Bluffton has had a junior cross-cultural experience, which has often been the highlight of students’ education. This May-term immersion helps students consider, Who am I in the world? Whether international or domestic, these experiences incorporate a focus on justice and service, helping students imagine themselves in a new light in the context of a culture much different from their own. Over the years, students have often reflected on the significant vocational direction that emerges from such an experience, though making any changes to a major may be challenging at this point the college career. We are hoping that some of these new directions may be discerned earlier within the sophomore Learning in Community course while students can better adjust their field of study.
What then shall we do?
Our senior capstone course, Christian Values in a Global Community, shifts the centering question from the personal to the communal: What then shall we do? Given all that we have learned together in college, how does Christ call us to live in the world? This year, we are revising this course to incorporate some of the Designing Your Life approaches that students encountered their first-year. As they prepare to leave Bluffton University, students will now have the opportunity to return to design thinking as they develop prototypes for their life after college.
Some years ago, a graduate came to me at a social event and said, “You know, Lamar, Bluffton University is sneaky.” This comment did not sound encouraging, so I asked him to explain more. He said that he came to Bluffton not knowing much about Mennonites, and he still considered himself committed to the denomination in which he had grown up. Yet he added that the questions and reflections he had encountered here had shaped how he sees and interacts with the world. As we walk through the Bluffton Blueprint with students from a whole variety of backgrounds, we look forward to engaging them in the great adventure of vocational discernment.
L. Lamar Nisly is vice president and dean of academic affairs at Bluffton University in Ohio. Before moving into academic administration, he served for many years on the English faculty and regularly taught the Becoming a Scholar first-year course.