Stephanie Hart, Administrative Director for Pathways to Purpose
College is a time of discovery and exploration. It’s the very first time many of our students are on their own living independent lives. The classroom provides a space and opportunity to examine longstanding beliefs and ideas about the world by exposing students to new perspectives and opinions. For many students, the first year of college is the first time they’ve been able to ask themselves what they truly care about and what gives their life a sense of meaning and purpose.
Spring Hill College aims to create a culture on campus where students can ask and explore big questions of meaning and purpose by engaging students in vocational discernment. Vocation, rooted in the Latin vocare, meaning “to call,” has historically been associated with the call to religious life. However, more recently the idea that everybody has a vocation, a sacred calling to use their gifts to heal their communities, has become more common.
Discernment is a distinctly Ignatian concept that asks us to listen deeply to how we are called to be in the world. The discernment of vocation invites everyone to listen to their internal longings in tandem with the external needs around them and live in such a way that uses their unique gifts and graces to benefit the world. Vocation expands beyond a career and encourages us to look at how we share our talents across our lives, in our friendships, our partnerships, in our neighborhoods. Vocation asks us to discern who we are in the world and what we can give.
Discernment is a life-long process. The context of our world is constantly changing as are our skills and interests. By having a deep understanding of who you are and what matters to you, you are able to pivot your commitments based on changing needs and developing talents. Discernment is not something we do once, but a way to live in the world. College is just the beginning of a life filled with meaningful and fulfilling commitments to making the world a better place.
Pathways to Purpose, Spring Hill College’s Quality Enhancement Plan, asks students to explore big questions as they begin the life-long process of vocational discernment. While there are many ways to reflect on one’s potential vocation, one way to start is to consider the ways our communities need healing. While we must know ourselves to know our vocations, we must also be aware of the problems of the world, of where our skills and talents are most needed.
Start with a wicked problem of the world
The world is ripe with problems that need attention. We see heartbreaking problems affecting our communities, seemingly unsolvable problems affecting our nation and deeply complex problems affecting the global human family. As you discern who you are called to be, start with one of these problems. As individuals, we can’t solve every problem in our lifetime, in fact it’s likely we will only have a small effect on any wicked problem we work toward during our lives. Global problems like climate change, overpopulation, poverty and gender equality don’t have clear solutions but that doesn’t mean they should be collectively ignored. Consider which problems get you really worked up, particularly emotionally or passionately angry. When is the last time you got upset at the evening news? What types of stories give you the chills or ignite some deep emotion within you? Identify the underlying problem that is igniting a fire inside you and start there. The world needs a lot of healing but as individuals we cannot focus on everything. By listening to emotional reactions, you can discern which problem you feel most called to address.
Consider the gifts and graces you bring to the world
You’re not going to solve complex global issues on your own, but you still have gifts and graces that can positively impact symptoms or causes of the problem. Identify these symptoms and causes and then consider how your own competencies may address them. Think beyond the obvious. Maybe you are passionate about ending childhood cancer, but you have limited scientific knowledge or experience. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to help discover a new cancer drug. But maybe you are an expert motivator, someone who excels at getting people together and getting them excited about something. You’re never going to find a potential cure for cancer, but you can coordinate fundraising efforts to support cancer research; you can gather people and motivate them to participate in walks and virtual give days. You can also create support groups and food preparation plans for affected families. You can volunteer your time to entertain or inspire children who are affected. No matter what the problem is, there is something tangible to which you can commit that can have a positive impact.
Vocation is where your skills intersect with the needs around you
Your life will have many callings. You will encounter many problems you want to help solve. Some problems will be big and unsolvable; such as equal access to education or healthcare. Other problems might be small but equally as significant; raising a kind and loving son or providing comfort to a friend after the death of a parent. By examining all of the calls in your life you are able to prioritize and discern what is most important at any given time. The problems of our world will change, the needs of your communities will shift and your skills will develop and your talents will adapt. Listening deeply to where the needs of the world intersect with your skills and passion is how discernment is a life-long process, one that never truly ends.
College exposes students to the problems of the world and offers possible solutions. For some, the exposure to new issues and challenges facing our world feels overwhelming. So many of the problems plaguing our world are complex with no proven solution. The challenge then, for those of us seeking a purposeful life, is to discern which problems are most pressing to our individual passions and to understand which solutions are most compelling and feasible for our individual gifts and graces. This is what we mean when we talk about vocational discernment on campus. Spring Hill College offers opportunities to engage in the big questions of our time, to consider what wicked problems are affecting our world and to develop the skills needed to make some positive influence on those problems.
We want students to engage in vocational discernment while they’re on campus, but more importantly we want students to develop the tools necessary for a lifetime of vocational discernment. College is a time where the world opens up to students and their possibilities for finding a place in the world feel almost endless. Discernment will continue for a lifetime, but college can be the perfect opportunity to discover what is truly important and commit to making some sort of positive impact in the world.