Embracing Uncertainty: Parallels Between the Scientific Method and Vocational Discernment

(Austin) I recently hosted a career panel for our science majors at my college. During this panel, students had the opportunity to hear from fantastic individuals who were doing exciting and fulfilling work in careers like healthcare diagnostics, pharmaceutical management, and biotech research and development. The students heard compelling stories about the winding and fortuitous journeys that led the panelists to their current vocations. Since the panelists were alumni of the college and had been in the same position as my students a decade ago, I was excited about how current students might gain confidence in pursuit of their own unique and creative paths.

After the panel, I held a feedback session for my students. I anticipated their excitement about potential careers and where they might be called. However, they seemed more nervously overwhelmed than awestruck. The sentiment in the room was summarized by a student who said,

Continue reading

Sometimes It’s the Small Things: The Power of Chats

David Crowley talks with student Maria Gaughan about the formative power of small conversations as part of a series in which faculty members interview students about vocational exploration.
David Crowley

Last summer I accompanied a group of 20 college students on a vocation-focused overseas trip. Compounding my fear of losing either the students themselves or their voluminous documentation (so many COVID test results, health forms, and printed itineraries!) was the fact that I did not know most of these students; they were members of two COVID-disrupted cohorts of Assumption University’s SOPHIA program, a yearlong vocational discernment experience for sophomores that culminates in a trip to Rome. I had not served as a SOPHIA mentor for these students, and I had never met most of them through advising or a class, so they were strangers to me…and I was a stranger to them.

Maria Gaughan

One student whose reputation had preceded her was rising senior Maria Gaughan. I had heard that Maria was an excellent student who was doing impressive research with one of my colleagues in the biology department. I was looking for allies on this trip and jumped at the chance to speak with Maria on the bus ride to the airport. This became the first of many fruitful conversations for us, but, as I have come to discover, I was just the latest of Maria’s formative conversation partners. Last fall, I invited her to join a student panel at our NetVUE regional gathering on mentoring in the sciences. At this event, she caught the attention of many participants, including the editor of this blog. What follows are excerpts of Maria’s reflections on seemingly small mentoring moments with big vocational impacts–what she calls “chats.”

Continue reading

I Was Once in Their Shoes: Exploring Vocation in the Health Professions

A series of posts about a collaborative project at the University of Dayton to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for undergraduate vocational discernment in the health professions, including a first-year course, “Discover Health and Medicine.”

 “I’ve always wanted to help people” or “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor” are common student responses when I ask them why they are interested in pursuing a career in the health professions. This is true particularly among those students who were not initially accepted into a health professions major or who are struggling in classes and second-guessing themselves. Each time I hear one of these statements, it takes me back to my own experience as a teenager and as a first-year college student. I, too, was that student who decided at age twelve that I wanted to be a doctor. I was that student who excelled in science classes in high school but for whom first-year chemistry and biology were unexpected, anxiety-provoking struggles.

Continue reading

The Problem with Colorblind Mentoring

Malcolm X described an early encounter with an English teacher as marking one of the major turning points in his life. In response to Mr. Ostrowski’s inquiry about what the young man was considering as a possible career, young Malcolm surprised himself by saying, “I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” The “reddish white man” with the thick moustache told him that he needed to be realistic and suggested Malcolm go into carpentry.

This excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X is included in the first edition of Leading Lives That Matter in a section that addresses the influence of advice from others when considering vocation (“To Whom Should I Listen?”). The scene makes a reader cringe to imagine the situation and its implications, and the take-away seems clear. Thankfully, young Malcolm did not listen to the advice.

The strategy of “colorblindness” arose in part as a way to deal with the racist attitudes of the Mr. Ostrowskis of the world. In a “colorblind” society, as Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States put the point, “racial inequality, racial politics, and race-consciousness itself would be greatly diminished in importance, and indeed relegated to the benighted past when discrimination and prejudice rules” (p. 22). But this imagined remedy often perpetuates racism by giving it a cover and does not sufficiently address the fact that racist attitudes are part of a larger racial system, a situation that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “Racism without Racists.” In this post, I want to briefly consider some recent work about how colorblindness negatively impacts mentoring.

Continue reading

Belonging and retention: it’s not rocket science

A recent article in the Chronicle offers what may be a needed reminder about the importance of advising and the role it plays in fostering a sense of belonging for students. Aaron Basko, who previously worked at Salisbury University and is now assistant assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, wonders whether we have gotten student success “completely backward.” In our efforts to apply “complex technocratic approaches” to the problem of student retention, Basko writes, we forget to consider what makes students stay.

Continue reading

Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit.  I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)
Continue reading

Vocation Revisited, Part 3: Interfaith Engagement and Relationships

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here, and for Part II, click here.

Can “vocation” work in interfaith contexts, or does it just sound too Christian?

Stacy Davis: Vocation suggests a path in life that God has called one to take. I think such language can be problematic for religious and non-religious people. For those who are religious, I think it can create a great deal of anxiety. What if I don’t know what that path is? What if I pick the wrong one? For non-religious people, the language may be too religious to be useful. With growing numbers of young adults having no religious affiliation, the term itself may not make sense to them, even if the idea of living a meaningful life does. This is not to say that students cannot and should not learn from multiple religious perspectives, but for non-religious students, I’m not sure “vocation” can ever work as a completely secular term… Young people want their lives to have meaning, and I agree with you that meaning should not be limited to how you make money. I just think that the word “vocation” carries some baggage that may take too long to unpack at this point.

Continue reading

Vocation Revisited, Part 2: Vocation and Privilege

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve said that vocation-talk is a privilege. Would you be willing to say more about that?

Stacy: I was thinking about vocation-talk as privilege because, for better and for worse, I think it is class-based. This year is a case in point. So many folks have delayed college because of covid-related financial issues. And the reality is that delaying college makes it less likely that you will go. These are young people whose idea of the good life may have to completely shift, because they need to work to take care of their families. I think one of my main complaints when I was younger about vocation is its connection to work. Sometimes we do not take a job because we want it (so many summers as a secretary) but because we need to eat. Hitting closer to home, even though I’m now in whatever the middle class is supposed to be, I was raised working-class and still strongly associate with that. It almost seems decadent to talk about vocation, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to do so.

Continue reading

Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

Continue reading

Called to Advocacy

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, which is headquartered on Capitol Hill and advocates for religious freedom for all. “From a very early age, I felt a calling to law and politics – I wanted to be a public servant in some way,” she shared during a recent conversation captured in the latest episode on the NetVUE podcast series, Callings. The episode is called “The Next Move.”

In 2019, Amanda was named “Baptist of the Year” for her leadership in the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. We talked about this aspect of her work during our conversation, and she described how we are called to walk a line between fidelity to the past and stewardship for the future. (Amanda was recently interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on the topic of Christian Nationalism).

Continue reading