Liberal Education

Practicing a Good Life: Three Case Studies from the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation

The evening was cold, and the path to the house was already dark. We walked into the warmth and light of a small house, welcomed by three people on their way to the kitchen. The kitchen table was loaded with two kinds of chili, just-baked bread, sautéed kale, a homemade apple pie, and other dishes fit for Thanksgiving the following week. After about twenty of us had gathered, balancing our plates on our laps, one of the hosts suggested we begin with a moment of silence. As we started to eat, another host asked us to introduce ourselves with our names and to tell the group about something for which we felt grateful. We heard about singing in a choir, a paper finished, and several students relished the food they ate rather than the dining hall fare. A potluck around the end of the semester is hardly a rare event at many small liberal arts colleges, though one with home-grown kale and carefully prepared food may be more unusual. What was noteworthy is why we were there. The meal preceded a meeting of the Quaker Fellows, a group of first-year students at Earlham College who were engaged in a program to help them discern their vocations.

The potluck and meeting of the Quaker Fellows on that cold November evening is one answer to the call to arms issued separately by authors Andrew Delbanco, Anthony Kronman, and Mark Roche.1 They urge their colleagues in higher education to find ways to help students identify what is important in their lives and then to help them figure out how to live accordingly. Delbanco, Kronman, and Roche bemoan the losses to society when faculty members do not help students find meaning and purpose in their education. They also point out the challenges faculty face, notably how overspecialization in disciplines—especially in the humanities—militates against such
an approach.

These authors’ concerns highlight another fundamental challenge in higher education: how to educate the “whole” student. How can we help students make sense of their whole lives, when schools expect them to parse their lives? A student is a history major for her advisor, an athlete for her coach, and a volunteer at the food pantry for her college chaplain. Yet this student is changed by her experiences in each of these endeavors, and she learns in each arena, often simultaneously. This student might be lucky enough to have a faculty member, coach, or chaplain who helps her make sense of these experiences as a means for her to decide who she may want to be. She might find such an adult, one who knows her as a whole person and who alternately offers advice, provides her with insight about herself, or simply listens to her as she makes connections about her choices in college. This person might be with her as she reflects on her experiences before college and as she moves through her courses to stretch her imagination of what her life might be. The call to arms from Delbanco, Kronman, and Roche speaks to the needs of those students who do not have opportunities for such guided reflection on the meaning and purpose of their undergraduate experience.

The Lilly Endowment’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation offered a range of educational activities and opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to reflect on and discern their values, beliefs, and goals across a wide spectrum of collegiate life. Tim Clydesdale has found that these opportunities were of much value to those who participated in them, as well as to the schools that created them.2 The success of these programs raises the question of how others might create similar opportunities, including at schools that are not faith based.

Earlham College, Wake Forest University, and Butler University tailored programs to meet the needs of their students, staff, and faculty according to their institutional missions. As well, in the cases of Earlham College and Wake Forest University, the programs were consistent with the schools’ respective denominations (Butler University does not have a religious affiliation). Although the programs looked very different at each school, common to the three were the ample opportunities they provided for students to reflect, discern, and practice living a vocation. Common as well were the experiences of those students who do not follow a neat line from reflection through discernment to living their vocations. Instead, students at each school reflected and discerned simultaneously, iteratively, in fits and starts, sometimes solo, and at other times in groups. The three schools also provide a glimpse of how individuals with responsibilities in different domains of a campus—the staff of a center for religious life, a university leader and head of a career center, and faculty members—can contribute to the theological exploration of vocation.

A fellowship for reflection and discernment

Students entering Earlham may apply to be Quaker Fellows, if they have belonged to a meeting or attended Quaker schools. Those chosen are awarded a scholarship for four years of commitment, which includes weekly meetings, retreats, and the responsibility to write about their experience for about thirty minutes per week. Emma Churchman and Trish Eckert, who serve as staff leaders for the Quaker Fellows, are housed in the Newlin Quaker Center (formerly the Newlin Center for Quaker Thought and Practice). They meet with students, read their journal entries, act as a sounding board, and, for some, provide spiritual direction. The program is designed to engage “the whole person”; as Eckert puts it, “I look at [the Quaker Fellows program] as concentric rings, as we are talking about their own individual spiritual formation [and] as we look at how they want to be leaders in the world.” She notes that the program defines leadership broadly to include, for example, helping students define what they mean by social justice as well as helping them organize an event in order to raise money to meet a need in their community. She says that, for students, leadership means “you take some kind of conviction that you have and bring it to the world” and that the program helps students “navigate that.”

The program encourages the fellows to consider what it means to be a Quaker living in this world. As Eckert sees it, the program offers students opportunities to see the world through a Quaker lens by learning about the history and practices of the Society of Friends as well as religious practices more generally. For many, the latter is novel. She gives the example of several fellows who attended a conference on monasticism, where they met a young man from an intentional community who shared with the students the high standards he set for living his life according to his Christian beliefs. Eckert relates that because of this man’s example, one of the Quaker Fellows was astonished to realize, “Oh my gosh, I might be a Christian.” A goal Eckert sets is to help students learn “actual God language,” or to give them words to use in expressing what they are thinking, feeling, and believing.

The Quaker Fellows program provides students with different ways to engage with ideas, concepts, and values associated with Quaker theology. As part of that engagement, each student is required to write in a journal for thirty minutes each week, in addition to attending courses, activities, and meetings. The fellows’ meetings are where, according to Eckert, students learn “a way to articulate what’s important to them” with a common language. Along with the meetings of the fellows, the required writing allows students to use theological language to reflect on their lives. The journal entries serve as instruments of witness and discernment. The writing commitment helps students narrate their lives and gain confidence that staff leaders will respond to them nonjudgmentally and in depth. In their own responses to the weekly writing assignments, the staff leaders model for the Quaker Fellows what others who gathered for the potluck meal also experience: members of a group encouraging each other, providing hospitality and care, and listening attentively to and talking with each other about what is important to them.

The program also challenges students to make choices about how they live out their values. For two fellows, this means they have a pact not to censure others aloud. If they are tempted to say something negative about another person, they instead use the phrase “wild grapes.” As one student mused after the potluck, the meetings of Quaker Fellows are a specified time in their busy schedules for each to consider his or her beliefs, what is important, and how to live. Other students are clear that the Quaker Fellows program has changed them by deepening their faith and helping them reflect on their values, articulate their beliefs, discern how they want to live in the world, and live according to their values and beliefs.

Courses for reflection and discernment

The Quaker Fellows program at Earlham is designed to develop a close-knit cohort of students who reflect over the course of their undergraduate lives, as they pursue their majors, take courses together on Quaker thought and history, and discern their vocations. Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University, leads an approach that looks very different, though what he and colleagues from the Office of Personal and Career Development have created also provides students with opportunities to reflect on their values and discern their vocations.

The idea of establishing the Office of Personal and Career Development grew out of Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch’s consideration of both the mission of the school and, more generally, the liberal arts. In Hatch’s view, it has never been harder in higher education to help students discern their vocations and find ways to live with meaning and purpose. As he put it, faculty do not necessarily see it “as their place” or know how to help students discern a vocation. For Wake Forest, a school dedicated to the liberal arts and to a collegiate ideal, he sees the challenge of vocational discernment as “mission central.” However, as President Hatch was refining Wake Forest’s mission, the Great Recession began, lending new urgency to the question of how Wake Forest can help students discern a vocation as they pursue a rigorous liberal arts education and find ways to earn a living. He found his answer in Andy Chan.

Soon after he arrived from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Andy Chan built a new office for personal and career development that offers open spaces for conversation, clearly delineated areas for research on careers, and spaces for quiet, private conversations. The layout is a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of the overall approach the office takes: optimistic exploration of possibilities for living one’s life, measured research for how to achieve one’s goals, and the development of reflective practices. Similarly, the office’s website offers a path for the undergraduate’s career, with signposts and benchmarks for students to follow.

The layout of the office aligns with the learning goals of four courses offered through the academic Department of Counseling that are designed to prompt reflection through dialogue. The college-to-career courses offer students a path that is marked by distinct rhythms of individual and group reflection. The courses are designed to help students explore their values, learn about their personal attributes, make decisions about their majors, and discern what kind of lives they might lead after they graduate. The first course in the series asks students to consider happiness and meaning, both abstractly and in their lives. In light of this, they discuss what their majors might be. The second course asks students to consider how they might want to live their lives after college and what career options might be available. In the third course, students learn the skills and strategies of career planning and job search, including how to research and evaluate options. The fourth course helps students realize and articulate the value of their liberal arts education and the professional competencies that they have learned to begin and sustain flourishing lives and careers after college.

Overall, the sequence of courses challenges students first to learn about themselves, to discover what a liberal arts education offers them, and to develop and articulate the skills needed to help them align who they are with how they want to live in the world. The courses lead students from reflection on their lives and values through the process of discerning a vocation that will enable them to live according their hopes, goals, and values.

Slow reflection and discernment

Like President Hatch, former Butler University President Bobby Fong holds that the academy has a duty to help students grapple with important, difficult moral questions. He believes the academy also has a duty to develop the habits of the mind and heart that will enable graduates to live well, both by making a living and by living a life with purpose. To meet this duty, Butler offers students various opportunities through formal programs hosted by the Center for Faith and Vocation, a series of public seminars, and courses offered through the Department of Religion. As director of the Center for Faith and Vocation, Judith Cebula is largely responsible for steering these programs and seminars. Through engagement with a small number of faculty, students also have informal and unplanned opportunities for reflection and discernment over the course of their undergraduate lives.

One set of planned opportunities is available through the service-learning projects sponsored by the Center for Faith and Vocation. After engaging with them in a project or volunteer activity, a moderator asks students to reflect on their experiences and beliefs, also providing opportunities for self-critique. One student found her experiences of volunteering through the Center for Faith and Vocation to be unlike any previous volunteer work she had done. In the past, she had volunteered for her church, and when she and her fellow parishioners finished at a soup kitchen they left with an unambiguous sense that they were then better people. At the Center for Faith and Vocation, she found that it was not taken for granted that she was a better person, and she was asked to reflect on the ambiguities inherent to charity. She explained how she understood herself better because of such discussions and her reading of Don Quixote, a text in one of the PTEV courses.

At the heart of Butler’s program is a strong, though small and informal, network of individuals who are willing to engage with students and who make themselves available to discuss questions of vocation, choices in students’ lives, and their beliefs. One student narrated the process of how such conversations with two faculty members, Paul Valliere and Chad Bauman, changed him. Soon after this student started at Butler, he fell into a funk; he felt his world to be dark and cold. He mourned the deaths of several people close to him, he hated Indianapolis, he detested his roommate, and he decided to transfer from Butler. He was also taking Paul Valliere’s class Faith, Doubt, and Reason, where his spirits lifted when he and his fellow students engaged in discussions about a ballet performance the class had attended. The readings for this class, especially Crime and Punishment, stand out as light in his darkness. In addition to his class assignments, he read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and emailed Paul Valliere, who invited him for tea to talk about it. Their conversation about the book was casual, without hurry or pressure.

Two years later, this student proudly announced to another faculty member, Chad Bauman, that he had decided to spend his junior year in New Zealand. Bauman’s response was not what the student expected. Why go to a place, Bauman asked him, where everyone speaks English and where study abroad students while away their time hopping from pub to pub? You can do better. Why not go to a country where few people speak English—Cambodia, say, or Nepal—and do something unexpected and important? With help from the religion department and the Center for Faith and Vocation, the student applied for and received a scholarship for study in India, where he participated in a program on sustainable development and social change. He left the experience convinced that he had found what he wanted to do. He applied to the Peace Corps, was accepted, and plans eventually to attend graduate school in order to study international development. This student contends that the conversations about ideas, beliefs, and values and the questions faculty posed to him were particularly important to the subtle shift from feeling untethered to being able to be challenged, change his plans, and finally articulate his values and a vocation.

What makes these programs successful?

Whether they drew on a liberal arts or religious tradition, PTEV schools borrowed from each other and from a rich variety of practices common in higher education—including study abroad programs, experiential or service-learning programs, and special programs offered through chaplains’ offices—and tailored them to suit their own particular needs. In general, schools took one of three approaches for engaging faculty, students, and staff in the exploration of vocation. In their design of new programs, or their expansion of already existing programs, schools such as Earlham drew directly and explicitly on a religious tradition in order to find practices and stances for living well. Several Jesuit schools offered student retreats or other opportunities to undertake the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. Others drew on secular traditions rooted in liberal education, as Butler did. These included modified “great books” course sequences or year-long seminars. The choice to draw on practices from a faith tradition or from a liberal arts tradition did not seem to depend upon the position of faith in the school. Gordon College, where the life of faith is central to the mission, instituted an honor’s seminar that would be at home at any liberal arts college.

Although there are more differences than similarities among Earlham College, Wake Forest University, and Butler University in terms of size, student demographics, location, faculty composition, religious tradition, and other factors, each program offers (and some require) students the opportunity to complete credit-bearing courses rooted in the school’s liberal arts curriculum. The vignettes sketched above hint at the variety of approaches and individuals who may lead such programs as well as the range of places on campus where programs can be offered.

Earlham demonstrates how program leaders from a center for religious life can work directly with students to develop a cohort and to challenge each as an individual. As a small, residential college with a faint faith tradition and a fierce dedication to upholding high academic and personal standards for students, Earlham found an approach that resonates with its faculty, staff, and students. Wake Forest provides opportunities for students to reflect on their values from the moment they start college. Andy Chan has been able to establish a career and personal development office that offers students many chances at various points in their development as college students. By way of measured steps, students learn about themselves, articulate their values, and discern what is most important to them as they explore their career options. At Butler, Paul Valliere, Chad Bauman, and other faculty members make themselves available to students, get to know them, and challenge them to reflect and discern a vocation for a life of meaning and purpose.


1. See Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

2. See Tim Clydesdale, Calling on Purpose: The Conversation Every Campus Must Have with Students (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Molly Sutphen is associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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