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?
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.
Students’ work study can be a meaningful part of their vocation in multiple ways: a calling for them right now; a means to develop professional skills, habits, and confidence; and a part of their reflective process of vocational discernment. When designing curriculum for our weekly training meetings, I try to balance these three goals.
As the director of a Writing Center that is staffed entirely by undergraduate tutors, I believe my first priority is to mentor and support my tutors. While every student on campus can benefit from the Writing Center, the students whose undergraduate experiences are most transformed are the tutors themselves. I have a unique relationship with tutors as both a professor and supervisor, at the intersection of their academic growth and their working lives. Hiring them as first- or second-year students, spending a semester together in training, and then mentoring their work as tutors for two or three years, I have the privilege to form meaningful relationships with tutors that contribute deeply to my own sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Empathy is a curious thing. As a scholar of historical literature, I often point to it as a justification for the existence of my field. Studying Jane Austen’s novels is hardly a practical area of study, even in the best of times, and can seem downright frivolous in a year marked by the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic, and an historic election. But literature also cultivates, in elusive and remarkable ways, the kind of empathy our world so deeply needs right now.
Let me share one example. This spring, I was scheduled to lead a Jane Austen Book Club at our local public library. With Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of Emmascheduled for its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in April, and a new film adaptation also set for release this spring, we planned group outings to see both following weekly discussions on each volume of Austen’s novel. The spirited group of mostly retirees—some of whom collectively researched forgotten women in history together to satiate their curiosity between book clubs—adapted to the online discussions gracefully. I pulled out my tried-and-true discussion guides and thought only of the change in style of our conversation, not anticipating one of substance. But for me, after reading this book many times and settling into an easy familiarity with it, Emma suddenly felt new again.
Doug Schuurman’s vision of vocation is particularly timely for me in its “reevaluation of [the] mundane.” As someone who has spent the past four months trying to simultaneously change diapers AND work for an employer, his reminder of this deeper meaning was such a gift.
A reflection on the legacy of Doug Schuurman
Do you know the kind of person who has a calming presence—they may not talk much, but their simply being in the room has a quiet effect on people, making them feel more comfortable in the group, curious about the people around them, eager to see the best in each other, willing to be vulnerable?
One of the delights of returning a few years ago to my alma mater, St. Olaf College, has been reconnecting with my faculty members. The ones who inspired me as a student still inspire me as a colleague; the ones who intimidated me still intimidate me. But that quiet presence is something that holds me more in awe now than it did then.