Vocation without the “V” word

What do we do when the word “vocation” itself is a problem? Vocation, NetVUE contends, is a powerful lens for undergraduate education. But what’s to be done when our students or our faculty/staff communities don’t much like the word?

For some institutions, an older history with the V-word with a much different meaning proves unhelpful as a platform for new programming. For others, it points to an approach for education which is entirely too theological for the climate of the campus. I work on a campus where care for the student journey of meaning, purpose, and well-being is extremely high. So much so, in fact, that “vocation” stands as one of our General Education Student Learning Outcomes. Our students look to faculty and staff for very holistic formation and we excel in providing it.

And yet, on our campus, if you openly use the word “vocation” or “calling” in a classroom, the conversation stumbles or stagnates. At times, in one-on-one conversations my students may be warm to the notion of a calling, but discussing that with peers in a class setting seems to violate some unspoken social taboo with students at Blackburn College. The V-word just does not fly here. So how do we educate through vocation without the V-word?    Continue reading

Who mentors? New data on mentoring

The results of a new poll show that faculty members play a primary role when it comes to mentoring most students. The new study was conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup, drawing from a survey of over 5,100 U.S. college graduates in 2018. Among the key findings includes this fact:

Professors are the predominant source of undergraduate mentorship. Nearly two-thirds of recent graduates who agree or strongly agree that they had a mentor during college say that mentor was a professor (64%). 

However, important caveats to that also came to light, revealing disparities in the experiences among students, depending upon ethnicity and background:

First-generation college student (FGCS) and minority graduates who had a mentor are less likely than their counterparts to identify their mentor as a professor, though professors still remain the primary source of mentorship for both groups. While nearly three-quarters of white graduates say their mentor was a professor (72%), less than half of minority graduates say the same (47%). Two-thirds of non-FGCS graduates say their mentor was a professor, compared with 61% of FGCS graduates.

Who is doing the mentoring?

Graduates’ professor mentors were most likely to come from an arts and humanities field: 43% of those who had a professor mentor during college say their mentor taught a subject in arts and humanities, followed by science and engineering professors (28%), social sciences professors (20%), and business professors (9%).

We know from previous surveys that a close relationship with a mentor was one of the strongest factors related to engagement and well-being after graduation. According to the 2014 study:

The three most potent elements linked to long-term success for college grads relate to emotional support: feeling that they had a professor who made them excited about learning, that the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person, and that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. If graduates strongly agree with these three things, it doubles the odds they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.

So what might these new results mean for institutions that are committed to fostering a culture of vocational discernment for their students? Some initial thoughts:

  • Colleges and universities should think carefully about where vocation programs are housed on campus.
  • Given the prominent role that faculty play in mentoring for many(but not all) students, they might use their influence to encourage students to seek out mentoring from other sources as well.
  • We cannot assume that faculty-to-student mentoring is occurring; we should not assume that all students are getting the support they need.
  • We must diversify the faculty if we care about mentoring all of our students.

For a short summation of the findings of the poll, see this week’s Chronicle coverage – the article includes helpful graphics to convey some of the key points. Insider Higher Ed has an even briefer “quick take” on the survey. To download the full report, see the 2018 Strada Gallup Alumni Survey.

The Winding Road: Discerning Vocation Late in Life

Photo by the author.

I’ve been thinking recently about how many different points there are at which one pauses to consider what comes next and what one is called to do. Vocational discernment isn’t just for the young! We tend to focus on the paths students take through their undergraduate years as they weigh possibilities, confirm values, assess habits, commitments and preferences, and make choices about majors, graduate school and career. We seek to foster our students’ meaningful journey through college to successful engagement with the next steps in their journeys.

But this is not the end of the story, and it is good for our students to hear our stories, so that they can see beyond the first set of choices, beyond the first turns in the road. This essay is about the costs of choosing paths, of selecting one option over another, and thus also about the fact that opting for one’s most meaningful calling may come best after the midpoint in one’s career or even upon retirement.  Continue reading

Chasing the Tail of Providence

My title, “Chasing the Tail of Providence,” is a phrase which has emerged in the past few years as my best touchstone for work with students and with NetVUE member schools in guiding the process of vocational discernment and exploration. It has become a reminder for me of what we are doing, and especially what we are not doing, in educating our students through the lens of vocation.

The phrase is a reminder that we engage with the deep mystery of immanently present transcendence in our work, and that as soon as we name “calling” as our project with students, we connect our efforts with the lofty heritage of Abraham, of Jeremiah, of Paul, of Muhammad, of Ignatius, of Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few. This is a heritage in which callings would barely be touched by career counseling or personality inventories, but rather where calling means a deeply relational connection with providence, going far beyond knowledge–lived, in fact, much more than known. We claim an engagement with a larger wisdom, a wider pattern, and a deeper grace when we call what we do with our students “the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation” (NetVUE’s stated mission is to foster this). And yet, it is our great honor boldly to wrestle with the mystery of calling with those students under our care.

Whether it’s one-on-one conversation with a student (an irreplaceable setting for vocational reflection, though it runs a bulldozer through our weekly appointment calendars) or whether it’s designing a campus-wide initiative for helping an entire academic community better engage questions of calling, it’s important to remember both the promise and the limit of our enterprise. Continue reading

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