Can Theology-Based Reflection Create a Conduit to Employment with Purpose?


The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation, by Timothy Clydesdale
Reviewed by Marc Thomas, University of New Orleans
No. 7, May 2016, Global Studies Literature Review

The mission of mindfulness is sometimes overlooked as we guide college students toward the culmination of their academic careers and beyond. Timothy Clydesdale’s The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation (2015) critically examines the development of students’ sense of purpose as they make the transition from college to career. This work takes on a path to purpose that is not always considered in higher education: the infusion of religion.

The Purposeful Graduate reviews the results of an initiative by the Lilly Endowment that funds programs at religiously affiliated institutions to help students explore the role of purpose as they embark on a path toward vocation. Grant-funded schools designed a variety of programs that fit their campus culture, from introducing vocational purpose topics into their curricula to establishing service-learning efforts and offering stipends that helped facilitate student internships. Clydesdale undertook to determine the extent to which these efforts to instill purposeful reflection into students during their college experience translates into actual vocational purpose after graduation. Through in-depth interviews and surveys, the author follows the trajectories of students in and out of these programs of purpose.

Clydesdale begins by recounting the stories of two seemingly similar middle-class students, neither of whom is overly “devout.” One student took part in a Lilly Endowment campus initiative and one did not. Program participant Melody graduates from college, completes service-learning in Uganda, and soon begins graduate coursework in international policy. Katie, meanwhile, takes the summer after graduation off, begins an ill-fated job search in journalism, and ends up in an entry-level sales position at her father’s insurance firm, later earning a promotion to a good-paying position. These qualitative vignettes do not, of course, offer statistically significant findings of purpose over non-purpose. Rather, as the author suggests, they offer opportunities for more thought and action on our part.

The book is an evaluation of the Lilly Endowment’s efforts to help colleges and universities develop programming that is deliberate about fostering conversations on life’s meaning and purpose, especially in relation to religion. The Endowment initiative comprised 88 campuses, all with some religious affiliation, spanning from Chicago’s Jesuit Loyola to Methodist- and Quaker-founded Duke University. The study included nearly 300 students who participated in Endowment programs across 26 institutions, along with a control group of more than 60 students who did not take part in the programs of vocational purpose. Study participants were selected using purposeful sampling, not randomly assigned to participant and non-participant groups, so the results should be thought of as suggestive rather than statistically significant, as acknowledged by the author. The author’s research uncovered an aggregate reported three-point improvement (on a five-point scale) in life satisfaction among Endowment program participants over non-participants.

This exploration of how education can engage the heart as well as the mind for tangible education and career success can offer important insight into our mission to foster an engaged and global citizenry. International educators should take note of this book’s mission to have us seriously consider how student reflection during college can be transformed into vocational purpose after graduation. We are fast realizing that simply immersing students into a culture strikingly different from their own is not enough. To transform lives—to nurture intercultural competence—we must help students process their new experiences through guided reflection and meaningful feedback. We should help students articulate their global experiences in ways that will help them gain meaningful employment and be effective global citizens.

The book’s programmatic examples, from curriculum revision to student internship incentives, are intriguing. The potential to apply the lessons of a broad initiative inspired by varying degrees of theology to a secular global academic enterprise should not be discounted. The deeper degree of student purpose reported should make global educators stand up and take action. The lessons from Clydesdale’s The Purposeful Graduate, when applied to the international educator’s toolbox, could result in a multitude of benefits, from greater stakeholder support to enlightened improvement in student competency.

Clydesdale, Timothy. 2015. The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.