Fighting Foreclosure

When I advised pre-health undergraduates, my office regularly warned students about the problem of “foreclosure.” For you readers with mortgages: no, not that kind. Advisors are not normally in the business of repossessing property when mortgagors got behind on their payments! Rather, because pre-health students are particularly driven and focused, often from an early age, they do not dedicate mature time and energy to exploring other possibilities. They are in a sense “foreclosed” regarding other vocational options because they are committed to one—the field of medicine, for instance.

This issue is prominent enough that advisors designate the problematic group as a type: “foreclosure students.” In a 2011 article often cited by student advisors, Shaffer and Zalewski posit that such students “have prematurely committed themselves to academic majors and future careers, but present themselves to academic advisors as very decided.” They are “confident and committed” to their future plans.

Why might one avoid foreclosure? Is there something wrong with being lucky enough to have an early sense of what you want to do with your life? How can advisors and mentors help this particular constituency of students?

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Vocational Image: Inner Identity and Outward Expression

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education touched on a point that has lurked in the back of my mind for some time. The author, Allison Vaillancourt, considered the roles of charm, sparkle, magnetism, energy, and charisma in assessing job candidates. Vaillancourt points to the fact that confidence is valued over competence when interviewers evaluate new candidates for a career.

A career is not a vocation, but there can be little doubt that one’s image and outward self-expression play a key role in whether a person is considered a good fit, or has the right temperament, for a line of work. Charisma and sparkle in one candidate may get the nod for a job, or access to an important opportunity, when another person is actually better suited for it vocationally.

How do we maximize the consistency between our inner identity and its outward expression? How do we talk about this with our students? If landing in the desired place depends on other people’s impressions of our deepest vocational desires, how do we make the “right” impression while also being true to our inner self? How do we help students navigate this minefield of image and authenticity?  

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Telling our Students’ Stories

One of my favorite moments in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (An American Musical) comes in Act I when General George Washington and friends reflect on the momentousness and frailty of leading people at war, in a song titled “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Sing along if you know the tune:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, Who tells your story?

I know that greatness lies in you / But remember from here on in / History has its / Eyes on you.

Then at the end of Act 2 in the production’s finale, various members (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, etc.) sing a song titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Therein Washington’s refrain enters again (“When I was young and…”). Others add:

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?

And when my time is up / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?

As a historian and mentor, these moments cause me to wonder about the question, who gets to tell your story? Or, for our students, who gets to tell their story? The answer to the latter question is, in part: We do.

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Care for the Whole Person

St. Ignatius of Loyola
(Painting by Francisco Zurbaran)

Catholic institutions spin vocation and identity in unique ways for their students. Many with a cursory knowledge of Catholic higher education are aware of its general missionary zeal for social justice. Some also may be aware that Jesuit-Catholic colleges operate, by mission, according to the Ignatian principle of cura personalis. Translated as “care for the whole person,” the idea behind cura personalis is to move beyond pure intellectual concerns to notice, learn about, and attend to the whole of a person’s life—the head, the heart, body, and soul.

How might these things come together to inform relations between staff, faculty, and students? How do they help foster a vocation? By sharing my perspective and experience I hope to provide a partial answer to these questions. I will recap how I came to weave cura personalis into my work and recount how it has remained an important part of my philosophy of education and professional life in secular institutions, beyond a formative period. Cura personalis offers an old way of seeing problems and issues that feels timeless, and highly relevant in today’s environment.

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