I remembered my own struggles with that very question when I read a recent article on the Missio blog of the Washington Institute for Faith, Culture, and Vocation. Author Drew Moser of Taylor University wrote about a student whose search for a major sounded all too familiar:
Ethan was an exemplary Taylor University student—winsome, well known, a leader. He was respected by the student body and faculty alike. He had a vibrant, authentic faith to match his outgoing personality, spending time mentoring underclassmen and encouraging them in their spiritual growth and studies. As I became more acquainted with Ethan during his college experience, I soon realized that one thing in his life didn’t seem to add up with everything else. Amidst all of the leadership and confidence there was a pattern of confusion and anxiety. Ethan was unable to pick a major field of study. In fact, by the fall of his senior year, he had changed his college major four times.
This, says Drew, is part of a larger problem that colleges have in helping their students to think about what they are doing with the rest of their lives:
At first glance, Ethan is, by most measures, indicative of what colleges would hope for in the development of their students. Yet Ethan was rudderless in his process of vocational discernment. Despite a devout faith and a motivation to excel in the classroom, Ethan agonized over his future plans. Having worked with college students my entire career, Ethan is not an outlier. College students, even those who thrive in many areas of life, often lack the framework and understanding to explore vocation in a way that shapes them and serves as a hopeful compass for their present and future.
This is not a new problem (your humble scribe was in college, and changing majors, in the 1980s) but it’s particularly crucial in the current economic climate:
Ethan’s story matters because of some significant cultural and economic factors present on the college campus. Rising costs amid a struggling economy results in increased scrutiny of colleges, and come with an intense pressure to prove a “return on investment.” Combine this with the push to make college available to a broader socio-economic range of students, and the pressure increases. Students from lower income backgrounds often lack the freedom (due to working one or more jobs) to take time to leisurely reflect and think deeply on vocation. Current studies show that this generation of college students will change careers three to six times over the course of their working lives. This mobility leads students to restlessness, even paralysis at the endless feast of options before them. Gone are the days when you stayed at the same job for your entire life.
(By the way, you can read some great advice from Steve Garber of the Washington Institute on how to cope spiritually with the fact that you may not stay at the same job for your entire life here.)
Simply talking about God’s call in general terms seems only to confuse college students even more. This is not an issue we can “talk” our way out of.
So…what’s the point? Drew and his colleagues at Taylor have decided to stop talking and start doing, and are going to begin seriously researching ways in which they can help students:
At Taylor, we have decided that this too much as stake to simply “acknowledge” this issue. There are too many unanswered questions—for college leaders and for students. In order to gain some perspective, we are embarking on a research project that will help us explore this issue more deeply. This project is called “The Vocation in College Project,” a four-year study that will ask two crucial questions of college students:
- What is your understanding of vocation?
- What factors influence your understanding of vocation?
For those that work with college students, what have you learned? How do college students understand their vocation? What factors influence their vocation? We would love to develop a community of people who work with college students and are interested and invested in this research. Please comment and contribute to the conversation.
If you feel led to help out with this project in any way, you can get in touch with Drew through his website Higher Ed Reconsidered. You can also catch up with him on Twitter (@drewmoser). Don’t hesitate to help him think about this; you have the potential to help change a generation.