Why Colleges Are Now Leading Students to Find a Calling, Not Just a Job

For college students, career prospects after graduation top a long list of concerns. But at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and a quickly growing number of others across the country, thinking about a career in terms of vocation, or a “calling," rather than just a job leads students to more meaningful work.

David Cunningham, director of the Crossroads Project and professor of religion at Hope College, says that Hope has been successful in its experiment with using the language of vocation in conversations with students. In fact, the college is at the forefront of this trend.

“Vocation is thinking about the future not in terms of 'What job am I going to get?' or 'What career am I going to be in?’, but instead, 'What’s the whole shape of life that I’m being drawn to?’," says Cunningham.  

Hope is one of about 200 institutions asking this question today. The College’s work received a strong affirmation and boost when it received a grant from the Lilly Endowment that allowed more experimentation around the topic of vocation in higher education. At Hope, that grant was used to create the CrossRoads Project, which encourages students to discern their vocation, rather than trying to make decisions about their futures by themselves. 

Oftentimes, that means discerning a path within a larger field, says Cunningham, citing the medical field as one example. Students may know that they want to work in medicine, but without time for exploration and self-reflection, they may simply assume that they should become doctors, without considering exactly what career path within the larger field is right for them. 

Hope’s program is especially successful, in large part, because of the heavy faculty involvement, says Cunningham. It takes the form of reflective questions integrated into already required courses, field trips that allow students to dig deeper into a chosen career, and faculty members willing and able to provide guidance and support.

“I think the ground here at Hope was well prepared for a conversation about vocation and calling. These were questions that people here were already asking:  ‘Where can I go and have an impact?’ ‘Where can I meet a need in the world?’  ‘What makes for a flourishing life—a life well-lived?’,” says Cunningham. “Colleges need to make space for discernment and give students more opportunities to listen, to be open and to pay attention to whether they feel truly called to do the things they do."

Cunningham recently edited the book “At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education,” which explores vocational exploration in theory and practice. 

“A narrow focus on employment offers an incomplete picture of the ways that college students can and should think about their futures,” says Cunningham. “Work is certainly part of it, but it is hardly exhaustive of the concerns that students have as they look five, ten or twenty years down the road."  

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Hope College
Director of The CrossRoads Project and Professor of Religion