Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Coming Out into Vocation

New York Pride March, June 2019

I love the celebrations of Pride Month in New York. Some are solemn in remembrance of the violence, both historical and recent, that has been perpetrated against queer-identifying persons. Some are political as they seek to push for legislations to protect LGBTIQ+ persons, especially trans persons, in this moment of backlash. Some are totally celebratory—perhaps best seen in the vibrant, raucous, joyful, and diverse affirmations of pride, dignity, and equality evident at the annual New York City Pride March. For Queer persons, the common theme of “pride” animates an energy to make visible and affirm an authentic sense of self and of community that transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, thereby creating a more inclusive understanding of humanity.

This drive for authenticity and visibility grounds the work of vocational discernment.  Indeed, for LGBTIQ+ persons coming out to a deeper understanding of our gender identity and sexuality centers the search for meaning and purpose in our embodied lived experience. Embracing our authenticity, even as it pushes us up against what is considered “normal,” illuminates the directions we must take for greater vocational clarity. We can make an impact in our LGBTIQ+ students’ lives when we help them embrace and celebrate their gender and sexuality as a strength and a resource to draw upon in the process of discerning their vocation. For students from marginalized communities this effort can make it possible for them to see beyond barriers put in their way because of systemic injustice. For students who are LGBTIQ+ this can literally be a lifeline to survival. As we seek to educate and advise students towards vocational development, we can partner with our LGBTIQ+ students in ways that help them to understand themselves more fully and assist their capacity to integrate that knowledge with their emerging sense of vocation. 

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The gift of intervention

In my senior year of high school I received a gift that brought transformative opportunities to my life as time went by. Senior year marked the beginning of my third year living in the United States after immigrating from Mexico at age 15. If being an adolescent can be confusing and stressful by itself, being transplanted from a place of comfort to an unknown, new environment complicated my sense of self even more. Like many immigrants experiencing culture shock, I felt like an outsider early on; like many newcomers, I tried to be seen and be listened to by others the best I could. To me this meant trying to excel socially, athletically, and academically. Lacking self-confidence and having to continue to work on my English language skills, I didn’t do too well in the first category. Instead, I tried to play sports and to focus on my studies. In my first try at sports sophomore year, I didn’t make it through the first try-out day for the soccer JV team. As a junior, I barely made the JV basketball team. To this day, I think the only reason I made the team was because the coach was also my History teacher. My good grades in his class more so than my athletic abilities had to have awoken his compassion to let me be on the team.  

Pueblo High School in Tucson, AZ

Senior year was a different story. With nothing to lose, I tried out for the tennis team. In those days, Pueblo High School on the South Side of Tucson was an underperforming school. Only a handful of students in each class had hopes of attending college, me being one of them. In my senior year, the school needed new tennis coaches for the boys’ and girls’ teams. That same year, two Pueblo High alumni who had been student-athletes in the early 1970s returned home after finishing their respective medical residencies. Their commitment to community not only gave them the vision to someday open a community health clinic, which one of them did years later, but to volunteer together as coaches of the tennis teams at their old high school. The dedication to community and education was the gift my teammates and I received from our coaches, Dr. Frank Gomez and Dr. Cecilia Rosales.  

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Digital Drag and Discerning What’s Real

A review of Chris Stedman’s IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives (Broadleaf Books, 2020).

I was travelling in Germany for three weeks with students while reading Jean Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. It seemed like a good idea to read about this generation while spending an extended amount of time living with twelve of them. Among other things, Twenge convinced me that “iGen” was a better name for this cohort than the commonly used moniker Generation Z, which is of course a derivative generational marking – remember when the now-named Millennials were Generation Y? This GenXer does. 

The name comes from the fact that “members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. … iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010” (Twenge 2017). They have the distinctive experience of being the first to navigate adolescence and now emerging adulthood with a smartphone nearly always in their pocket and social media an ever-present factor of life.

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Vocation Virtually: The Importance of People

Part 4 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, story, and people.

A fourth metaphor for vocation is people. Vocations are crowded, populated with individuals and communities that clarify our callings. This can happen negatively. “I never want to be like that!” More often, it happens positively. “I admire this person or those people.” Understanding this metaphor positively cultivates the sense that “If you’re with me, I can be my best self.”

The metaphor of people or relationships brings attention to the complex relationship between individual and community. What communities do I claim? And what communities claim me? I belong to my wild and crazy family, even if I didn’t choose them and they didn’t choose me. I belong differently to my university, my professional colleagues, my church community, the people in my neighborhood, my friends and fellow travelers. Again, I chose some of these people; others chose me. In a friendship or marriage, two people continue to choose each other day after day. Each of these relationships marks its members with certain values and certain practices or rituals of belonging. 

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To “Know Thyself” You Must “Know Thine History”

Many people today are invoking history—sometimes erroneously, sometimes prophetically—in arguments about our future. Historic elections, historic unrest, calls to honor this history or rewrite that one. We are reminded daily that we are literally making history every day. Perhaps more than ever fostering our students’ understanding of themselves as a part of history is crucial to our efforts to prepare them to pursue a fulfilled life.

When I ask my students to write a religious autobiography, contextualizing their personal story in US religious history, they struggle to recognize a context beyond their immediate family because they have not been taught to think of themselves as embedded in history. If students do not learn to understand themselves as not only a product of history, but potential makers of history, we have neither prepared them to fully understand who they are nor to authentically understand or make for themselves a place in this world.

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Vocation Virtually: The metaphor of perspective

Part 1 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story. 

In this post I will share an exercise inviting students to reflect on how they want to “show up” in the world, a phrase—thanks to Rev. Kristen Glass Perez at Muhlenberg College—that captures the dimension of vocation in this important part. The metaphor of perspective emphasizes identity or angle-of-vision. Understanding this dimension of vocation cultivates the sense that: “This is who I am; this is what I stand for; this is who I stand with.”

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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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Wendell Berry on Being More than a Consumer

Counterpoint Press, 2019

Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.

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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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