Recent NetVUE Gatherings Focus on Strategies for Student Success

Two recent NetVUE regional gatherings explored topics of great interest to colleges and universities: how campuses can foster vocational exploration among underserved students and how campuses can help students pursue their callings after college. NetVUE is the CIC-administered national network of colleges and universities that seek to support their undergraduate students in the work of vocational exploration and discernment. Both events were well attended and received strong evaluations from participants.

In January 2020, Occidental College (CA) hosted a gathering that explored the theme “Voices from the Margins: Supporting Vocational Exploration with Underserved Students.” Under the leadership of Susan Young, director of religious and spiritual life at Occidental, the program garnered a record number of participants for a NetVUE regional gathering: 78 registrants from 17 institutions. Keynote speaker Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, described his own vocational journey and emphasized the importance of mentoring, particularly for underserved students. “You cannot have a culture of equity and inclusion,” he remarked, “without a culture of mentoring.” Soni observed that institutions can often focus so strongly on helping students professionally—so that they can make a living—that another important goal is missed: helping them personally, so that they have a fulfilling life. He described the challenges that many of his students face today, noting that he spends much time counseling students who feel lonely and alienated. He called for talking with these students about their future lives in terms of vocation and purpose as this helps them connect to other people and groups. Focusing only on “the job,” he observed, perpetuates a sense of isolation.  

The gathering also included breakout sessions on challenges encountered by students who have experienced marginalization due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity, as well as challenges encountered by undocumented students and those facing illness and trauma. The closing panel featured a range of higher education professionals who work directly with students: Elena Jaloma, academic counselor in student support services at California Lutheran University; Lina Calderon-Morin, assistant director of student and community engagement at Occidental College; Aracely Torres, assistant director of diversity and inclusivity at University of La Verne (CA); and Erica Privott, assistant director of engineering, science, and technology professions at Loyola Marymount University. The panel offered some important takeaways as to how various campus sectors can help underserved students:

  • Faculty members can spend a small amount of class time highlighting student services on campus. This helps inform students about what is available and reduces the stigma of making use of these services.
  • Campus offices should consider how hiring decisions affect the entire range of students that they serve by becoming more aware of the specific difficulties that certain groups of students may be facing. New faculty and staff members need a more thorough orientation to the composition of a campus’s student body, including special needs of underserved students.
  • Campus employees should practice self-care as well. Students are in great need, and much of the turnover among student services personnel is due to the extraordinary demands of the work.

The diversity and range of the panelists provided a vivid illustration of the breadth and depth that conversations about vocation and calling can inspire.

Susan Young speaks to seated audience from podium
Susan Young, director of religious and spiritual life at Occidental College (CA), welcoming participants to the January 2020 NetVUE regional gathering.

One month later, at Huntingdon College (AL), representatives from 13 NetVUE institutions gathered to explore “Where the Campus Meets the World: Vocation and Post-College Transition.” Tom Perrin, interim vice president for academic affairs at Huntingdon, planned an event that examined challenges students face as they encounter the world beyond the institution—whether during their undergraduate years or after graduation. Panelists covered a range of themes and focused on barriers that students may face during their undergraduate years that can make their transition out of college more difficult. These include economic barriers, disabilities, and certain kinds of “service projects” that can end up doing more harm than good. Panelists discussed each theme, pointing to the obstacles that students encounter and ways that colleges might support students who are navigating these waters.

For example, a panel on “Non-Toxic Service” featured Celeste Eubanks, director of leadership strategies for the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church; Jeff Brown, professor of engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; and Heather Brady, associate professor of liberal arts at Grand View University (IA). The panelists agreed that undergraduate students do not always understand the point of the service projects in which they are encouraged (or required) to participate, which can lead to a mismatch in the expectations between the students and the people they are expected to serve. The panelists offered a number of suggestions—ranging from small nuances in language to large-scale revamping of programs—that could help address some of the difficulties. These included:
  • Community engagement projects may wish to avoid the typical language of “mentors” and “mentees,” which can make those who are being served feel inferior to the students (one group uses the language of “volunteers” and “participants” instead);
  • Staff may wish to provide students with examples of “service projects gone wrong,” so that they can recognize potentially harmful approaches to this kind of work and avoid them; and
  • Community engagement opportunities can be more actively “framed” by leaders, who can (for example) offer pre- and post-immersion seminars and conversations with participating students.
Keynote speaker Sondra Wheeler, Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, provided a wide-ranging account of the importance of vocational discernment as an essential element of higher education, drawing on diverse philosophical and theological sources. She reminded participants that for today’s undergraduates, vocational discernment can create a wonderful experience of freedom but also become a source of great anxiety. Although considering one’s future trajectory can seem overwhelming to anyone, many students today find themselves immersed in an increasingly “apocalyptic” cultural moment, in which any conversation about “the future” is quickly linked to potential doom. “Accepting that the challenges that face us as a nation and as a species are genuine,” Wheeler asked, “how do we speak in ways that acknowledge real risks without engendering either despair or escapism?”

To answer this question, she suggested three strategies. First, students need to hear from educators that it is perfectly acceptable to be uncertain, conflicted, and ambivalent about their future paths. “Students simply do not know enough about the emerging person they are in the process of becoming to identify with confidence what they have been put on the planet for.” Second, students need help recognizing the difference between finding one’s life and merely “deciding” on it. Too often, all the weight falls on the student, who must make difficult choices. In contrast, the language of vocation and calling provides a reminder that, if students are willing to listen to the insights of others, they may feel some of the burden of decision making taken off their shoulders. And third, even those students who do not profess a religious belief should allow for the possibility that they are being “called” into a particular way of life by something outside themselves. “One of the richest clues to a vocation,” said Wheeler, “is the work that gathers up and draws upon the widest constellation of someone’s knowledge and gifts, the biggest piece of who a person is, and makes the largest demands, calling on them to be their best selves.”

View more information about NetVUE regional gatherings, which are generously supported by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.