Ribs and Lungs: What I’ve Learned about Vocation from Young Professionals of Color

Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This post is part of a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tells a story about his med-school days when he first tried to read an X-ray image.

At first, he says, he couldn’t see anything but the ribs. In desperation, he sidled up to some seasoned doctors and eavesdropped on their analysis. Oscillating between what they were saying and what they were seeing, Polanyi gradually stopped looking at the ribs and started seeing the lungs.

If you work as I do in a college community, you know the challenges of helping students see the lungs in the life of learning. Think of the ribs as the deadlines on the syllabus, the grade point averages at midterms, the multiple-choice questions on the final exam. The lungs are all the things that make you want to study something in the first place, all the insights and frameworks that enable laughter in the classroom and the smart hubbub of collaborative conversation.

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Strength and Vulnerability: The Vocation of a College President

As a young girl in Kittrell, North Carolina, Mary Dana Hinton never imagined she might one day become the president of a college. Driven by a life-long calling to educational equity, she became the 13th president of Hollins University in August 2020 after serving as president of the College of Saint Benedict for many years. In a new episode of the NetVUE podcast series, Callings, she shares that on some days her calling feels heavy. She goes on to describe how the inspiration of her hard-working mother, the encouragement from early mentors, and the uplifting teachings of the black church have kept her going over the years.

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The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

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Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

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Of Casseroles and Community

Suvi Korhonen, Creative Commons

This fall semester I am teaching a course on theology and suffering. The course is titled “Sin, Suffering, and the Silence of God.” It is a course I teach every few years, so it was on the schedule for this fall long before Covid-19 swept across the world. The students in this class are amazing–they always are. It is a seminar for upper-level Religious Studies majors and it is cross-listed for Counseling students. The students who take it want to be there; the class gives them a space to ask questions they want to wrestle with.

This year, as we have begun the fall semester in a hybrid format, meeting in small groups, once a week only, masked, and socially distanced, a course on suffering takes on a different level of meaning. We began the semester acknowledging our individual and collective losses. We have, in only a few short weeks, lamented and grieved together.

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Darshan: The Challenges of Seeing the Divine in All

Opening Convocation address delivered by Anantanand Rambachan at St. Olaf College in August, 2020. 

As we begin a new academic year, I want to offer a vision, a way of seeing each other, in Sanskrit, a darshan. I do so with the hope that this vision offers us some truth, some light, in these times of daunting challenges, fear and despair. This vision comes from the heart of the Hindu tradition, the tradition that I came to St. Olaf College, almost 35 years ago, to share with my students and my colleagues. (The story of my journey from a small rural village in Trinidad to Saint Olaf is one for another occasion).

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Institutional Vocation: Some Reflections from Nashville

The regional NetVUE gathering in November in Nashville was titled “Institutions Can Have Vocations, Too.” Organized by Richard Hughes and held at Lipscomb University, it was well attended and prompted rich discussions, but three threads emerged as especially salient to me: the usefulness of story in thinking about institutional vocation; tensions between institutional identity and diversity; and the significance of explicit vs. implicit stories and the stories that we do not tell.

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Building multicultural competency

Malcolm X sat across the desk from Mr. Ostrowski, his teacher and advisor. Despite being one of his top eighth grade students, Mr. Ostrowski told Malcolm he should be realistic and become a carpenter–not a lawyer–because he was Black. Little did either of the two know at that moment in time what greater vocation lay ahead for Malcolm X. As educators and student development staff in higher education we would like to think that this type of racist interaction is a thing of the past; however, unconscious and conscious biases shape our interactions with students. Building multicultural competency is not an easy task and is a life-long journey and yet taking on this charge is critical if we are to ethically serve all of our students.

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Vocation and Diversity: Some Institutional Considerations

Given the cost of higher education, it is not surprising that parents and many students see college’s purpose as providing students with the skills to make a good living. Colleges, especially colleges in NetVUE, see their vocation in wider terms: to allow students to reach their full potential, intellectually and personally, to become good citizens, to find a meaningful path in life.  I have long argued that given our globally interconnected world and pluralistic country, it is part of our vocation as educational institutions to give students the knowledge and experiences that would allow them to understand and navigate that world. The way difference is now being used to divide, this has only gotten more important.

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The Change a Difference Makes

Do you remember the Sesame Street tune, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…”? There would be some collection of objects displayed on the television screen—say a variety of fruits and a glass of milk—and children would intuit the unnamed category. This is how we learn; we make meaning by understanding difference. When we move from grouping foods or shapes to thinking about human beings, however, the phrase “one of these things does not belong” becomes problematic. Why do our brains see people who are different from us as if they don’t belong?

[Click here for the history and variations of this song from Sesame Street].

What if we were asked instead to examine a range of wildly different objects, and discern what binds them together, or imagine how they might be utilized creatively so that their cumulative capacities could accomplish something grand?

None of these things is quite like the other

Yet each of these things surely does belong

Can you figure out how they might work together

By the time I finish my song?

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