Vocation and the Future of Higher Education

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 2.07.31 PMHigher education is facing a number of structural challenges, from a change in demographics to the rising costs of retaining full-time faculty. These challenges are particularly acute in small colleges and universities that offer a mentor-intensive liberal arts education but face strong competition and financial challenges. I sat down with Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education at Georgetown University, to talk about his new book (co-authored with Bret Eynon) “Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem” (AACU, 2016) which addresses many of the challenges facing higher education. Randy is part of Georgetown’s “Designing the Future(s)” initiative and has become a thought leader in the realm of the future of higher education, thinking critically about what a liberal arts education will look like in the years ahead.  While Randy works at Georgetown, he has helped many small colleges and universities strategize about how to build innovative and sustainable futures. Continue reading

Exploring Vocation in Honors Education

It’s fair to say that most faculty are honors students. We climbed the hill of academic success, garnered several complicated degrees and certificates, sat through terrifying and difficult exams, and embarked on various research projects.

Our identities as scholars and teachers are often still conflicted, responding to the demands of a product oriented higher education landscape and the liberal arts education many of us cherish. So, too, do our students who seek academic achievement find themselves conflicted when they arrive in an honors program.

Honors programs vary in nature and scope—some emphasizing an enriched liberal arts curriculum, some prizing individual research projects and some asking students to apply research in their communities and through civic engagement. The programs attempt to add depth or breadth to student experience, as well as platforms for innovative teaching and learning. Continue reading

Exporting Vocation

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What messages are we exporting?

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

Mentoring for Vocation: A Form of Friendship

 

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Members of this year’s faculty development workshop on Teaching Vocational Exploration

At NetVUE’s Faculty Development Workshop on Teaching Vocational Exploration in June, Paul Wadell presented a paper entitled “Mentoring for Vocation – Befriending Those Entrusted to Us.”  The paper was well-received because it spoke to mentorship as an essential part of vocation. The article is published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, yet is relevant to those who may not be Catholic.  As Wadell explains, the language of “friendship” may be more “inviting, understandable, and relatable” to those who may not have explicit religious commitments and are increasingly part of a diverse academy.  “Friendship” can help us better understand “mentorship” even though the concepts are distinct and have unique traits.  Wadell then proceeds to list three specific ways in which the metaphor of “friendship” can give us insights into who a mentor can potentially be.

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Paul Waddell

First, “a friend is someone who seeks another’s good and finds joy in doing so.” A friend is someone who genuinely cares about their friend and “sets aside [their] own concerns and preoccupations in order to attend to them and help them come to a clearer understanding of what is truly good for them.”  College students pursue friendships, especially those of their peers and fellow students from whom they seek approval and counsel.  However, many students are specifically looking for an adult who genuinely cares for them and is interested in them flourishing in the world.  These adults play an essential role in helping students find their “home” or their place in contributing to the global common good.

Second, true friendship demands that one “make space” for their friend within one’s life.  This “space” develops out of making the friend a priority such as finding time within one’s schedule.  Friendship is thus an “eloquent act of hospitality” where one brings a “stranger” into one’s life because they ultimately see something good in them and worth engaging.  This good is something that the student may not have necessarily seen within themselves but is recognized and brought out by the mentor.

Third, friends work to get to know one another and understand their specific stories.  Friendship is a “form of love” and requires a recognition of who the other person is and “what it would mean for them to thrive and flourish.”  Giving time to students implies that there is a genuine “respect for the students who come to us.”  Respecting students necessitates listening to their stories and learning about the pivotal moments of their upbringing and formative memories.  To be invited into a student’s story is “a sacred trust” because “their story is their truth and they need to speak it.”

However, a true mentor does not simply listen to their student’s stories but responds to them and potentially directs them to better ones.  Nonetheless, the best way for a mentor to help develop their student’s stories is to “embody in their own lives the virtues, dispositions, and practices they are encouraging students to adopt.”  As Wadell poetically states, “Nothing convinces students more than authenticity.  And perhaps nothing disillusions them more than hypocrisy.”

Waddell acknowledges that while the metaphor of friendship may be helpful, there are some key differences between it and that of mentorship.  For instance, friendship is defined by “mutuality” while a mentorship relationship is focused primarily on the mentee.  The mentor is focused on the student’s success and is not requiring the same in return.  Moreover, the mentorship relationship usually has an imbalance of power and authority.  Mentors can use their power to help students succeed but they could also use it to abuse, an important reminder in our cultural moment and in the backdrops of the #Metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements.  It is therefore essential to define boundaries within a mentorship relationship and to point students to other experts when necessary.  If a student is wrestling with depression or anxiety, for instance, then they should be directed to a counselor or mental health professional.

The metaphor of friendship allows readers to better understand the profound role that a mentor can play within their student’s life.  Wadell’s various writings emphasize hope, empathy and mentors “embodying what they call their students to be.”  I highly recommend his work for courses, faculty development programs and reading groups on vocation and mentorship.

Bibliography:

Paul Wadell, “Mentoring for Vocation: Befriending Those Entrusted to Us,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education 36, no. 2 (2007):103-120.

Paul Wadell, “An Itinerary of Hope: Called to Magnanimous Way,” in At this Time and in This Place: Vocation in Higher Education, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2015).

Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He is the author of “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To learn more about his scholarship and teaching, please check out his website at http://dryounusmirza.com

The invisible challenges of international students

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Younus Mirza (center, front row) with his students from Allegheny College.

College and Universities frequently espouse educating the “whole person” or the physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects of their students.  However, educating the “whole person” for international students may look very different than for domestic students since they face various obstacles and structural challenges that may be invisible to us.  These challenges may include their visa status, speaking American English or understanding the cultural norms of their peers. Continue reading