Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

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Student Activism and Belonging

A conversation with Chris Arguedas, Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College.  

Chris Arguedas

I met Chris Arguedas at the NetVUE regional gathering hosted by Occidental College in January 2020, where we started a conversation about tending to the well-being of student activists. Chris generously agreed to share some of his thoughts about the particular challenges faced by student activists, especially students from minoritized communities, and his own sense of calling in the work that he does with students.

Describe the work you do at Occidental and the students you encounter and support. 

First, I am there to listen. I often meet with students on a one-on-one basis, and I take these opportunities to learn from them and to build trust. Relationships built on trust are what propel the work of an Intercultural Center forward. My work is also to make students feel seen, in particular students who are underrepresented and racially minoritized in higher education, who often move through the world without being treated with respect. And, more specifically, I conduct training to mitigate institutional barriers at the college; I act as a liaison (and translator sometimes) between faculty, staff and students as it relates to issues of equity and social justice; and I co-create programming with students that recognizes and honors their identities and helps them step into their greatness. 

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Clarity of mission

In a week when thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest, two essays about the state of higher education used provocative, poster-worthy questions for their titles. The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can have the effect of smugly shutting down a conversation. These two essays, however, have the opposite effect: they open up the set of concerns and direct us to think carefully about how we want to proceed. Both, in their own way, call us back to a sense of institutional mission.

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A paradox at the heart of Christian Higher Education

In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”

Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.

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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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In Defense of School Spirit

Working with traditional aged college students one almost immediately encounters FOMO—fear of missing out. It manifests in anxiety over daily matters of whether they are included in friends’ social media exploits all the way to big-picture fears about picking the “right” major to end up with the “right” career twenty years later. {For more on FOMO and vocation, see Daniel Meyers’ “Making Hard Choices.”}

Writing in the NetVUE volume At This Time and In This Place, William T. Cavanaugh has pointed out how this obsession with maximizing choice usually just works to obscure potential inputs and inspiration for determining one’s most satisfying life path. I want to suggest here a somewhat sneaky way to get students to focus on more immediate goals, helping them learn how to identify noble goals in the future and thereby chart a course for a meaningful life: start by cheering on your mascot and wearing school colors.

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