College students are feeling the call of God. There is a quiet trend among Presbyterian-related colleges and universities that is, in part, a response to current conditions in higher education but that also marks a return to the theological tradition out of which our colleges were established. It is a renewed emphasis on vocation, the notion that we are called by God to employ our talents, regardless of our field of endeavor, for the betterment of the world around us.
This emphasis on our campuses can take a variety of forms, from structured conversations with students about where they find meaning in life, to opportunities to engage in volunteer service, to internships in both churches and nonreligious settings. At a growing number of Presbyterian colleges, programs that emphasize vocation are becoming the bridge between faith and learning.
Some colleges have targeted vocation for a decade or more. Their efforts have been institutionalized in, for example, Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning, Maryville College’s Center for Calling and Career and Alma College’s Center for Student Opportunity. Other schools that have a historic relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are just beginning to explore how vocational discernment can enhance the education they offer.
Recently some 70 administrators, faculty members and chaplains from 23 Presbyterian colleges attended the second national conference of the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). They explored subjects ranging from how to nurture spiritual development among college students — helping them find their calling in life — to how to use vocation to measure educational outcomes. The latter is particularly timely as colleges have come under increasing pressure from parents, politicians and others to demonstrate the value of a college education, especially one steeped in the liberal arts, compared to the cost.
“What evidence do we have that (vocational exploration) actually enables higher education communities to flourish?” asks Shirley Roels, NetVUE’s senior advisor. “What evidence do we have that such efforts actually contribute to the bottom line of our educational missions and outcomes?”
It is a burgeoning field from a research standpoint, but evidence is emerging. Roels cites a five-year study at the University of California, Los Angeles that looked at the role college plays in helping students develop spiritual qualities. The study, reported in the book “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives,” found that while students’ religious engagement tends to decline during college, at the same time they become more caring, tolerant, connected with others and actively engaged in a spiritual quest.
“Providing students with opportunities to connect with their inner selves,” Roels says, “improves academic performance and leadership skills, contributes to their psychological well-being and leads to greater satisfaction with all aspects of college.” Those who participate in the theological exploration of vocation during college, she adds, also express satisfaction with significantly more areas of life after college than those who do not.
Getting a holistic education — emotional, spiritual and intellectual — is one reason many students choose to attend a church-related college, rather than an Ivy League school or a much larger public institution, Roels says.
A focus on vocation can have a positive impact on college administrators and faculty as well, she adds. “Vocation enhances a sense of calling in the work of senior administrative leaders, while faculty value mentorship as a key dimension of their work.”
Vocation programs enhance the liberal arts foundation of Presbyterian colleges, which in turn reflects the schools’ Reformed roots. As one college says in its faith and learning statement: “The church ‘Reformed and always reforming’ encourages the sort of ongoing openness to revisiting the questions and revising the answers that a true liberal arts education invites.”
Gary Luhr is executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.