Insights and Conversations from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE)
Author: Bren Tooley
Dr. Bren Tooley is the Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and the Peace Corps Prep Program at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. Dr. Tooley was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria in 2010 and again in 2018; she participated in a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Brazil in 2001 and was an instructor in the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Bulgaria (2012 and 2014). Dr. Tooley has been a faculty member and administrator for many years, deeply involved in international program development, study abroad review and advocacy, faculty development and international student recruitment and support. She received her PhD from the University of Notre Dame in 1991. Her research has recently focused upon the use of English as creative medium by young writers within the former Eastern bloc, and her training and scholarship are in the field of eighteenth-century British literature and literary theory.
In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.
And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.
Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?
It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.
I’ve been thinking recently about how many different points there are at which one pauses to consider what comes next and what one is called to do. Vocational discernment isn’t just for the young! We tend to focus on the paths students take through their undergraduate years as they weigh possibilities, confirm values, assess habits, commitments and preferences, and make choices about majors, graduate school and career. We seek to foster our students’ meaningful journey through college to successful engagement with the next steps in their journeys.
Our students will likely live and work in a world even more interconnected and interdependent than we do now. The complex issues that face us spill across national borders, oceans and continents, involve communities with varying histories, cultures, beliefs, languages, political structures and forms of creative expression. These complex global issues and this interconnectedness shape the work-world our students enter. Students seek to discern vocation, not just once, but again and yet again, within this context.
Here are four components of the intersection of vocational discernment and globalization that seem pressing to me. These are not the only components, and readers are likely to identify additional significant, complex global issues affecting the work world our students enter. We live in a dynamic, constantly changing, highly interdependent world: by calling out these four major intersections of vocational discernment and globalization my hope is to initiate an open-ended conversation, to encourage reflection and dialogue.Continue reading “Vocation in a Global Frame: Four Considerations”
In an earlier post, I wrote about the unsettling experience of learning from a former student that, while she was inspired by my example of good vocational ‘fit’ (a happy convergence of interests, abilities and profession) – she was demoralized by not being able to find the same in her own life. I tried to highlight some of the complexities of talking about vocation in teaching contexts outside the United States, particularly in countries or regions experiencing economic fragility, currency instability, declining populations, political corruption, or other circumstances such as civil conflict, that make employment chancy. The background to that essay was my experience living and teaching in Bulgaria, a country with a post-socialist-transition pattern of out-migration to Western Europe and the United States – primarily of young people, college-age and young professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars), seeking satisfying work in better social and economic settings. This is what I want to unpack a bit further here.
Several months ago I had lunch with a former student who was in the process of looking for work, having been downsized out of a position as content-creator for an online journal. She was weighing the merits of moving to a larger city against staying in the mid-sized town she loves, while saving costs by splitting her time (and living arrangements) between her parents’ home and a friend’s apartment where she helped with utility bills. As it happens, we were sitting in a small restaurant in a beautiful, economically fragile, small city in Eastern Europe, but our conversation could have occurred in the United States. In fact, it could have occurred anywhere that a country or a region of a country (the Midwest of the United States, let’s say) has been hit by the Great Recession and a weak recovery, by the loss of jobs, by the departure of college-age and professional people for better work opportunities and social infrastructure elsewhere, and by a sense among those who remain that the past was better than the present and that opportunities for meaningful work are rare. Opportunities for work, meaningful or not, were, in fact, what my friend was seeking.
And this leads me to the conversation that sits at the heart of this post. My young friend, who had kindly met me at a little restaurant near my hostel before catching a bus to her family home, told me that she had been moved by my enthusiasm and obvious love for teaching when we had shared a classroom years earlier, she as a student and I as a Fulbright Scholar. At that time, I had expressed gratitude for and joy in the work I did in a way that so struck her that it remained a memory when the particulars of our classroom discussions had faded. She said to me over our hot and staggeringly intense coffees, “I want to find work that means as much to me as your work does to you.” Continue reading “Exporting Vocation”