“Purpose exploration” can produce determination, grounded idealism, and graduates that don’t flounder

The Winter 2014 issue of the AACU’s Liberal Education includes a piece by Tim Clydesdale, author of the forthcoming volume Calling on Purpose: The Conversation Every Campus Must Have with Students (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Clydesdale’s essay, “Holy Grit! The Effects of Purpose Exploration Programming on Undergraduate Engagement and Life Trajectories,” emphasizes the effects of programs that challenges and support students to discover, examine, and embrace a sense of purpose or vocation (in the broadest sense of “vocation”). Clydesdale has conducted original research on such programs.

What has he found?

Participants in purpose exploration were not semi-satisfied with their lives, they were broadly satisfied with them—they were, in short, flourishing. They were independent, responsible, broadly engaged, and pursuing positive life goals.

So how should we make sense of this, and what might it mean for higher education? The takeaway lesson is that purpose exploration produces a pattern of examined living and positive engagement with others, thereby increasing the odds that emerging adults will flourish after they graduate from college.

The programs tend to cultivate “grit,” a grounded idealism and dogged determination to achieve goals despite setbacks and challenges. Students in the programs researched by Clydesdale tended to choose goals related to serving “God and humanity.” So Clydesdale calls this “holy grit." 

All of this is helpful both within and beyond/after the context of higher education. In other words, as Clydesdale says, such programs put "the ‘higher’ in higher education.”

One interesting aspect of Clydesdale’s findings is the benefit to faculty and staff who participate in “purpose exploration programming.” Though the programming is targeted for the students, the faculty, staff, and their institutions seem to reap some reward, as well:

Eighty-six percent of faculty respondents, for example, agreed or strongly agreed that their campus’s exploration programs had “positively impacted my own work at [this school]”; 75 percent agreed that their participation “helped me hone my own sense of ‘vocation,’ ‘calling,’ or ‘purpose,’” and 85 percent said that participation “deepened my appreciation for the mission of [this school.]” The percentages were even higher among staff participants—90 percent, 84 percent, and 93 percent, respectively. Purpose exploration programs have the remarkable effect of refreshing the good citizens one finds on every campus, of strengthening support for institutional mission, and of helping to launch pro-exploration communities dedicated to the holistic flourishing of students, faculty, and staff and to the service of others near and far.

As a regular participant in Wheaton College’s first-year transition program, Passage (and as coordinator of the Urban Track of that program), I can attest that I’ve experienced these benefits. Passage is meant to get Wheaton students off on the right foot by exploring themes that will help them to discover, examine, and embrace their purpose and calling as students. As my colleagues have heard me say many times, the biggest reason that I participate in that August program–right before classes start, which is decidedly not the easiest thing to do, timing-wise–is because I myself am reminded of a certain sense of individual purpose and calling, and I benefit from a renewed resonance with institutional mission, when I challenge and support students as they consider these matters.

One question that needs to be asked about such programming is whether it must stand alone or whether “purpose and vocation exploration” can and should be more clearly integrated into the activities of other programs, offices, and departments. For example, Wheaton in Chicago, one of the programs I direct, includes elements of “purpose exploration” and vocational discernment. I think it works well even though the “purpose exploration” doesn’t stand alone.

In fact, I wonder if “purpose exploration” and vocational discernment might actually work best when they are embedded in programs that express a number of other core values, including academic rigor, and achieve various outcomes aside from discerning calling. That kind of bundling, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, may actually be the best of what we have to offer.

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