Why 'Vocation' Isn't a Dirty Word

Author of new book on "purposeful graduates" says colleges must talk to students about the importance of creating and living meaningful lives.

June 24, 2015
 

Some 15 years ago, the Lilly Endowment funded a massive experiment to see what happened when colleges asked students to think critically about how they might lead meaningful lives. Such purposeful exploration programs, as they were called, popped up on 88 campuses, at a few million dollars each. More than a decade later, and long after the initial Lilly funds ran out, many of these programs still exist. Why? Because institutions and students raved about them, reporting various spiritual and professional gains: students finding work they felt mattered, creating strong partnerships with friends and family, and a maintaining a desire to do good. Vocation, many participating colleges and universities determined, was much more than its common application: that is, not merely a job but a calling.

Self-admittedly predisposed to meditations on living a meaningful life, Tim Clydesdale -- a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey and author of the 2007 book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School (University of Chicago Press) -- wanted to get a closer look at the Lilly data. He had a hunch they might illuminate current national conversations about vocation -- and they did, judging by his newest book, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation (University of Chicago Press). Through careful examination of the Lilly grants and follow-up research, including personal interviews, Clydesdale now makes the case for all colleges -- not just those religiously affiliated ones that were part of the Lilly experiment -- to talk to their students about living meaningful lives.

What follows is a written Q and A with Clydesdale about The Purposeful Graduate. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you define “vocation,” and what is the current national conversation about the purpose of college missing?

A: In The Purposeful Graduate, I define vocation as the broadest possible exploration of the ideas of purpose, meaning and calling, including these ideas’ religious underpinnings. To some, exploring vocation means listening to the voice within. To others, it means hearing humanity’s call to compassion and justice. And to still others, it means devoting one’s resources and skills to the service of God and humankind. The Purposeful Graduate is not a theological treatise, however. It is an empirical evaluation of a grant initiative begun in 2000 by the Lilly Endowment that invited religiously affiliated campuses to engage their students with the idea of vocation, for which some 400 colleges and universities applied and 88 received grants. These creative programs had a positive and lasting effect on their participants -- be they students, faculty or staff -- and benefited those of varied and no religious commitments. Thus, learning about these programs has transferrable value to educators on any campus who want more of their students to be deeply engaged in, and intentional about, their studies and postcollege lives.

What the national conversation about the value of college is missing is the very purpose of college itself: to educate and graduate thoughtful, purposeful and globally aware citizen leaders. We are not job training centers, and even our professional schools -- which have the closest relationship to the workforce -- seek to prepare leaders for tomorrow’s professions, not applicants for this month’s job openings. But if the national conversation was to shift to our true purposes, we would not fare much better. The supply-side model of citizenship-leadership development that we practice (i.e., spend four years in our intellectually rich environment and somehow depart a citizen leader) is predicated upon student demand, and save for a few exceptions, that demand does not exist. Nurturing citizen leaders requires more than the content mastery that professors prioritize and more than the self-confidence that student professionals encourage. It requires engaging students in a wide and thoughtful conversation about what matters to them and why, helping them explore these things during their college years, and mentoring them as they translate these deep values and interests into a purposeful life trajectory. We could have purposeful graduates streaming out of our campuses, but won’t if we continue the status quo.

Q: What made the Lilly grants for purpose exploration programs a right fit for further examining the idea of vocation?

A: First, campuses designed programs themselves that fit with their institutional histories and organizational cultures; these were not top-down, external programs that campuses had to implement. Second, these were programs designed for exploration and conversation, creating safe places for students to share their deepest stories and find community; they were not at all dogmatic. Third, they encouraged participants to generate a constructive and proactive story about their lives and what they might be able to contribute to the world; they countered the critical deconstruction that can feel oppressive to students. Fourth, they provided a host of exploratory opportunities, from service trips to mentored internships to certificate programs in social justice; they did not offer theoretical or futuristic ideas only.

Q: Is there any continuum between First Year Out and The Purposeful Graduate? If so, what are some parallels or similarities?

A: First Year Out was, with some notable exceptions, a sobering portrait of American teens. The primacy of daily life management helps most teens successfully navigate the first year after high school, but at the cost of neglecting deeper identities and the wider world. I was dubious in First Year Out if much would change in the second, third or fourth years after high school. What my research for The Purposeful Graduate revealed was an important opening for engagement of deeper issues that came in the second year after high school -- at least among traditional-age students attending the primarily residential colleges and universities of this grant initiative (though these students and institutions comprise a shrinking proportion of American higher education, their stories are nonetheless insightful and can aid conversations in other contexts).

Once settled into the college student role, and anchored by the relative stability of enrollment at a four-year college, many sophomore and junior students will ask bigger questions about themselves and the world. It isn’t all sophomores or juniors, to be sure, and the majority remain focused on the pragmatic concerns of meeting degree requirements and enjoying their social lives. But a sizable minority of sophomores and juniors will ask questions like “Am I in the right major?” “Am I at the right college?” or “Do I really want to go to graduate school?” which are but the tip of the iceberg questions, with “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?” floating below the surface.

So one of the things I did in this book was flesh out my two-category typology of students from First Year Out to a six-category and more helpful typology (Obsessive-Compulsive Achievers, Utilitarians, Minimalists, Future Intelligentsia, Reforming Activists and Rebels). Purpose exploration programs were very popular with the Future Intelligentsia and Reforming Activists, because they affirmed the passionate core of these two types. But they were also appreciated by anxious Obsessive-Compulsive Achievers and Utilitarians for the space they provided to think through and possibly reconsider their high aspirations, and these programs became invaluable to quite a few Minimalists who, waking up in jail or hospital beds, realized they had to positively redirect their lives -- and fast.

Q: Describe your study methodology and some key findings.

A: I supervised a research team that studied 26 college and university campuses, out of the 88 that received vocational exploration grants. We assembled dossiers for these campuses before our multiday visits, met with dozens of people on each campus and wrote extensive field notes, conducted formal interviews with 284 students and alumni and 274 faculty and staff, did one-year-postgraduation interviews with 60 student participants (and with 65 students from campuses without these programs, for comparison purposes), and did a follow-up web survey of participants on 9 campuses that netted 2,111 respondents.

The effects on student participants fell into four broad categories: retention (participants stayed at their schools and completed their degrees), life trajectory calibration (participants proactively explored ideas and reflected on experiences to forge plans for their college years and afterward), pro-exploration communities (participants formed groups that encouraged skill development, interest identification and service, and countered the partying and materialist norms of student cultures in general), and maturity (showing greater life satisfaction, resilience and intentionality after college than those who had not participated in these programs).

The effects on faculty and staff included revitalization of careers, more rewarding teaching experiences, greater appreciation for college or university mission, new scholarly research programs, more satisfying mentoring conversations with students and broader connections to the campus community, including more friendships across the faculty/staff divide.

And the effects on campuses as a whole? More than 80 percent continued to fund these programs more than three years after grant funds expired. And this despite the brutal budgetary challenges faced by private colleges and universities in the U.S. beginning in 2008 (when the grants expired). Why? In short, the answer I heard was that these programs had become central to the identities and mission of these campuses, and powerful in their impact on students and employees alike.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about Melody and Katie, and how their stories speak to your research as a whole?

A: I begin with the story of Melody and Katie because these two students were so similar in upbringing, activities and interests when they entered university, yet so different by the time they graduated and launched their postcollege lives. And the chief difference was the opportunity Melody had (and took) to participate in her college’s purpose exploration program -- an opportunity that Katie did not have and could not take because her college did not offer such a program. Melody’s course work opened her eyes to a world of gross inequality and the place of privilege from which she engaged it; her service experiences put her face to face with injustice, both locally and abroad; and her mentors helped her apply and successfully enroll at an Ivy League university for a master's in international development.

Katie earned good grades, but her course work was not particularly memorable, her service involvement was limited to sorority fund-raisers and her career was in her father’s insurance company after she set aside both her dream and training in journalism. Had Katie had the opportunity to participate in a purpose exploration program, and taken it, her life story -- as well as her satisfaction with it -- might have been quite different. She might have also been a flourishing, resilient and intentional global citizen like Melody.

I write this not to critique Katie, nor careers in insurance, but to express a wish that Katie had had the same opportunity to participate in purpose exploration programming as Melody. National surveys reveal that one out of two entering first-year students indicates “finding my purpose in life” is a “very important” reason why they are attending college (see Astin, Astin and Lindholm, 2011). Every student, therefore, should be invited to reflect on and explore ideas of purpose and calling, to do so among supportive peers, with service opportunities to tangibly explore their emerging interests, and with faculty and staff mentors who share a desire to live meaningfully and compassionately. The unexamined life has not gained any value in the two millennia since Socrates first cautioned us against living it; there are many ways to examine life, of course, but campus-based purpose exploration programs have shown themselves to be effective among many and diverse participants.

Q. The Lilly grants all went to religiously affiliated colleges. How might secular institutions adopt similar programs?

A: More than a dozen campuses that received these awards considered themselves resolutely nonsectarian; their affiliations with religion were historic only. Much of the programming effort on these campuses went into introducing the idea of purpose and vocation, including their religious or spiritual underpinnings, as valid, public topics of conversation on campus. Sadly, there is a common misconception that to be secular means banishing any and all mention of religious or spiritual topics from the public square. This is not only outdated philosophically, it is dangerous, as it smothers religious expression and can antagonize some devout individuals. The only thing banishment of religious and spiritual speech on campuses has accomplished has been to make us less able to talk civilly with each other about honest differences. We will undoubtedly need ground rules for discussing potentially divisive issues, and there are various strategies for how to do so (Eboo Patel’s books and his Interfaith Youth Core are especially helpful in this regard). But the really interesting thing about a purpose exploration conversation is that it almost always assumes a narrative form, and narrative tends to elicit additional narratives, facilitating conversation and understanding.

So the first thing secular institutions can do is green-light this conversation. And when they do, they’ll discover three things. First, there are a goodly number of faculty and staff who would be happy to participate in this conversation, and to share their own stories. Some of these faculty and staff will be devout adherents of traditional religions. Some will be spiritually open and seeking. Some will be humanists and areligious.

Second, students are eager to talk about these things -- and more than just those who actively follow a religion. Beneath the silence that students widely observe on matters of religion lies a fount of questions, observations, frustrations and more. In the sociology of religion class I teach at my state college, I begin with a few ground rules for civil discussion, ask students to relay their religious autobiographies after sharing my own and by the end of the class students are thrilled to be talking with their peers about religion and spirituality, and doing so with honesty and respect.

Third, there will be some outspoken opponents of any public conversation along these lines. These opponents, or secular hawks, as I label them in the book, will insist there is no place for this conversation on a university campus or in a classroom. But a university that banishes public exploration of ideas, or silences conversations it does not like, does not merit the name university. Observing either a formal or informal silence about matters of purpose or vocation or faith is a disservice to students, leaving them unprepared to discuss religion civilly or to understand matters that are of vital importance to billions of the world’s inhabitants.

Additional things that secular campuses can do is read together. Some of the virtually unaffiliated campuses read widely on topics of “work and meaning.” Some read about “lives of character.” Some created courses on these topics, and invited students in them to speak freely about these matters. Some put concerted effort into developing their internship offerings, especially in the area of nonprofit organizations and international justice organizations, and some linked these internships to credit-bearing seminars where faculty with expertise in philosophy or ethics assigned texts, fostered discussion and nudged thoughtful reflection. All of the virtually unaffiliated campuses did much to recognize and affirm the role of their religious, residential and student life staff -- as these educators contribute much to the citizen-leadership goals of the college or university. And all of these campuses did much to identify purposeful alumni and bring them back to campus to share their stories -- whatever those stories involved.

Q: What has the feedback on this research been so far?

A: Audiences have been very receptive. Many in higher education feel beleaguered and more than a few feel defeated. Those who have done some vocational exploration work tell me it has been most rewarding and important work they have ever done. Those who hear about it for the first time tell me they have long wanted to have such conversations with students but did not know how or where to start. And those whose children are either in or recently graduated from college tell me there’s no more important conversation for colleges to have with young adults, and then they ask me for advice about how to help their twenty-something find a direction and become independent.

I try to tell them that the global economic and macrocultural change are chiefly responsible for the lengthening pathway to adulthood, and they seem to understand that -- but they nonetheless wish that colleges did more to broadly prepare their students for such a transformed economy and world. And on that point, I could not agree more.

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