Answering the Call: Vocational Discernment in Student Internships
Joy A. York, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
[Note: this article appears in a special edition on Service Learning in Christian Higher Education. Special thanks to Kristen Sipper, Azusa Pacific University, for recommending this special edition]
The integration of faith into the higher ed classroom and workplace requires intentional consideration of how our faith and values are both present in and relevant to the work we do. A challenge of integrating faith into these spaces is that we may not all share the same faith perspectives and values. Yet despite these differences, our faith and values remain foundational to the ways we learn, live, and work. This case study is the product of my goal to meld faith with inclusive teaching practice through a reflective activity for student interns that invites them to evaluate how their faith and values, their purpose and passion, and skills and convictions relate to their professional experiences. I first describe this assignment, the Vocation and Values Paper, then examine how this assignment integrates personal faith with professional experience. Finally, I provide a reflective assessment of the impact of this assignment and conclude with recommendations for faculty who would like to incorporate this activity in their courses.
Keywords: discernment, inclusive teaching, reflective learning, vocation, assessment
When Christ was asked about which commandment in the Law was the greatest, He replied that the first and greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love others (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV). With this response, Christ lays out not only a relational foundation, but a trajectory of life purpose. The sacred calling to love God and others reflects the fundamental relational nature of God. Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr noted that “God is relationship”. Additionally, humans are hard-wired for relationships with each other, with nature, and with God.
This relational focus guides my work as a Communication Studies professor at Whitworth University. In the discipline of Communication Studies, we accept that reality is co-created with the other through symbols; the words we say and write have an impact. My purpose as a professor is to lead students to examine their communicative influence in their relationships, groups, organizations, and communities. In this way, my beliefs align with my vocation of teaching and are the basis of the content I teach.
C.S. Lewis offered this compelling metaphor: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts”. The metaphor of cultivating a learning space to produce growth identifies that the instructor not only nurtures the potential skills and knowledge that students already possess, but intentionally guides students to make connections to the content. The ways that I infuse faith into my teaching have evolved from this perspective; my pedagogical approach should invite all students to integrate their values and beliefs with their learning.
This presents unique challenges in a religious-affiliated university such as Whitworth University where the mission is “to honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity”. The challenges I have found with faith and learning integration emerge from balancing the Christian identity and mission of the university, my own Christian identity, and pedagogical practices that are inclusive of students of diverse faith perspectives. For example, I once assigned an internship journal assignment with a prompt that asked students to discuss what they believed God’s will was for their life. I immediately was contacted by several students asking how they could complete the assignment if they weren’t Christian or did not believe in God. Thus, my primary concerns about integrating faith with learning revolve around how to include one while enhancing the other. How do I create inclusive pedagogical objectives and practices that include a faith perspective? How can faith be relevant to the learning process? What role does faith play in my teaching?
Fortunately, the Weyerhaeuser Center for Faith and Learning at Whitworth University provides The Vocation of the Christian Professor (VCP) workshops that allow faculty to engage in discussion and readings on how to combine their faith with their teaching and scholarship. My experience in these workshops has accomplished several things: it has clarified that my vocation as a professor emerges from my faith and values, led me to thoughtfully consider how the content I teach in my classes could be an extension of my faith journey, and challenged me to create inclusive pedagogical approaches that are intentionally informed by faith.
This case study is the product of my goal to meld faith with inclusive teaching practice. I developed a reflective activity for student interns that invites them to evaluate how their internship work experiences and learning objectives are informed by their personal calling (vocation) and values. I will first describe this assignment, the Vocation and Values Paper, then examine how this assignment integrates personal faith with professional experience. Then, I will provide a reflective assessment of the impact of this assignment and conclude with recommendations for faculty who would like to incorporate this activity in their courses.
Service Project Description
Communication Studies Internships are off-campus service learning experiences designed to provide students with opportunities to make connections between the theory and practice of their academic study and the practical application of that study to a professional work environment. Students often complete internships in their junior and senior year under the guidance of a site supervisor and a faculty adviser who, in collaboration with the student, develop the job description and learning goals of the internship.
The Vocation and Values paper is assigned immediately after the student has secured an internship at a specific organization and before they begin logging hours at the internship. The intentional timing of this assignment encourages students to identify their personal vocation and values and to discuss how these can guide their professional and personal choices. This assignment is particularly relevant for student interns for three reasons: 1) they have likely had some engagement with core courses that examine the ideas of vocation and teleological and axiological assumptions; 2) they tend to have a clearer sense of the professions and fields they want to work in; and 3) they will be actively engaged through the internship with different people and experiences that refine their sense of purpose and perspective of personal vocation.
The first part of this assignment is for students to read the following excerpts from books and articles: The Will of God as a Way of Life by Jerry Sittser , Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer , “Living Your Values at Work” by Louise Altman, “Determining Your True Life Values” (excerpt from The Soul at Work) , and “The Top 10 Work Values Employers Look For” by Penny Loretto . The second part of this assignment is for the student to write a five-page paper that addresses the following prompts:
1) Discuss your vocation by identifying your gifts, passions, skills, purpose, and convictions. Provide a brief discussion of your perspective of Sittser’s ideas of personal calling, Palmer’s ideas of vocation, and what it means to “listen to your life.”
2) Identify your top 5 values and prioritize these. Discuss how the values you identified guide your work as an intern and as a student.
3) Finally, discuss the fit of this internship to your vocation and values. Explain your five learning objectives for your internship and the value of accomplishing these objectives for your future career.
Students submit this paper prior to meetings with the faculty adviser and with the site supervisor to set up their internship. Their reflections in this paper are the basis for the discussion of the purpose and goals of this internship, how it is connected to their faith and values, and how it aligns with their vocational calling. In some cases, students choose internships in fields outside of their professional choice. This occurs when students are driven to complete the credits for graduation and subsequently settle for the first internship they get. In these cases, this assignment still provides an opportunity for them to clarify their objectives for the internship, engage in a process of reflection about their professional experience, and gain a deeper insight into their beliefs, values, and personal purpose.
I have several learning objectives for this assignment and initial meeting discussion. First, I want them to identify their vocation through identifying their talents, passion(s), perspectives, and personal purpose. Second, I would like them to articulate in writing and discussion how the work they do is impacted by their personal beliefs and how this can have a greater impact on the organizations they are part of. Finally, I would like for them to engage in a process of personal awareness and consideration of how their work experiences are informed by their faith journey and how this is communicated in the work they do. This assignment models thoughtful and intentional engagement and evaluation of one’s vocation for students.
Integration of Faith and Learning
Vocation is derived from the word “vocare” meaning calling. In the 16th century, the word vocation primarily had a sacred connotation; it was God’s exclusive call of an individual to enter service to the church. Martin Luther challenged the dichotomy of the sacred and secular work of vocation, extending God’s calling to all individuals in all professions. According to Luther, God equipped all individuals with passions, talents, skills and experiences that served others both in and out of the church; this was their “calling” or vocation.
By the 21st century the connotation of vocation moved from a sacred meaning of divine calling toward a focus on professional career. Vocational trade schools now train students for specific industries, and the pursuit of a career or profession has become a primary focus for higher education. Universities advertise undergraduate majors highlighting the employment opportunities available to students upon graduation, departments incorporate curriculum requirements that prepare students to enter the job market, and alumni relations publications identify alumni who are successful in their respective careers. Students can get caught up in this culturally-accepted view of vocation as career in the push to complete their courses and graduate with a degree that leads to employment.
Luther’s definition of vocation bridges the connotative divide between an exclusive focus on career and an exclusive sacred, church-based “calling”; vocation becomes the integration of personal faith with professional practice. This definition combines “career” with “calling”—“what I do” is connected to “who I am”. Students can benefit from a reflective examination of their vocation by identifying their unique talents, passions, beliefs and purpose, and identifying how these inform their professional pursuits. The internship experience offers faculty a unique opportunity to guide students through this redefining process of vocation.
Additionally, the Vocation and Values paper is a natural fit for faith and learning integration for several reasons. First, this assignment can be done by all students of diverse faith and beliefs. The readings and discussion prompts invite students to identify their vocation as applied to the professional setting from their personal experiences, beliefs, and perspectives. This addresses a challenge I noted earlier about integrating faith and learning through course assignments that are inclusive of all students with diverse faith perspectives. Second, an awareness of personal vocation helps students craft relevant learning objectives and job descriptions with their internship site supervisor that create a growth plan for their skills and passion. This addresses the challenge of how to make faith relevant to the learning process.
Finally, this assignment allows the faculty adviser to have a focused discussion about students’ vocation in one-on-one meetings before students start the internship. This meeting provides an intentional space to examine the connections of faith and values to learning objectives and enables the faculty adviser to partner with students as they make these meaningful connections. I have found that this relational teaching strategy is a way that my faith is expressed in my teaching; building relationships with students and investing in their growth is an expression of my vocation.
Project Evaluation and Recommendations
The reflection and discussion of the Vocation and Values paper is beneficial for student interns in three ways. First, this assignment allows students to examine and articulate their skills, beliefs and values, and personal purpose and connect these to their professional experiences. This connected foundation helps clarify the connection that the work they do can be an extension of who they are; this can provide the needed meaning and purpose that can motivate them in their work.
Second, this reflective process helps students bridge the gap between who they are and the mission and vision of the organization they are working with. Organizations are strong cultures built on shared norms, values and assumptions; it is important for students to have a firm hold on what they value and believe as they will inevitably be influenced by the norms and values of the organizational culture.
Finally, this assignment clarifies for students their personal fit to the internship. Students first meet with their site supervisor to design their learning goals and objectives according to the internship job description. This assignment is an important initial step that prepares students to create meaningful learning objectives with their site supervisor that aligns with their vocation and develops needed skills.
Two of my departmental colleagues reviewed and provided feedback on the rubric of this assignment and the student papers when they completed an assessment of the Communication Studies departmental objectives of faith and learning integration during Spring 2018. Dr. Kevin Grieves noted that this assignment allowed for students of diverse faith experiences to engage in thoughtful consideration of their vocation:
As part of our recurring departmental assessment of faith and learning integration, I was able to review the results of this assignment in the papers that students produced under Dr. York’s direction. The structure of the assignment is well designed, and it elicited thoughtful reflection on the part of the students. The readings are well suited to address different aspects of vocation, and they formed a framework for students – both Christian and non-Christian – to contemplate and apply ideas about vocation to their individual circumstances. I was impressed by the depth of the reflections that students expressed in their papers. It seems to me that this Vocation and Values paper assignment very effectively generates reflection and discernment about understanding one’s calling in life.
Additionally, Dr. Mike Ingram noted that this assignment meets the Communication Studies departmental goal of faith and learning integration:
The Vocation and Values Paper 1 requires students to read materials about vocation and work values and engage in deliberate reflection on their sense of calling. Last semester I read several of these papers as part of our department’s ongoing assessment of our educational goals. It was clear to me that these papers go a long way toward helping students meet our departmental goal to “be aware of the relationships between the theory and practice of journalism or speech communication and the student’s faith or worldview.” The assignment requires engagement with quality material about vocation, and asks for honest reflection and identification of how students have, or could live out their callings.
This assignment meets the learning objectives for students and addresses the greater departmental goals of faith and learning integration. Furthermore, this assignment was reviewed in May 2018 by the Weyerhaeuser Center for Faith and Learning and received the 2018 Vocational Integration Award.
I have two suggestions for faculty who wish to use the Vocation and Values paper assignment. First, as previously mentioned, the timing of this assignment at the start of the internship was important because it provided a vocational foundation for students as they entered the internship; additionally, it could be insightful for students to revisit their perspective of vocation after they completed the internship. I recommend that the faculty adviser ask students to articulate in writing and discussion how their internship affected their perspective of vocation, and offer examples of how their beliefs, purpose, and skill set were expressed (or not) in the internship experience. This reflective hindsight could solidify their foundation moving forward and model a process of vocation evaluation of their professional experiences.
Second, I recommend to faculty advisers who use this assignment and discussion to engage in a similar process of personal reflection on their own vocation and values as applied to their teaching and scholarship. This process of vocational discernment for faculty can lead toward a deeper understanding of how personal faith and values can be integrated into teaching and research, and bring purpose and motivation to live out our personal calling in higher education.
The integration of faith into the higher ed classroom and workplace requires intentional consideration of how our faith and values are both present in and relevant to the work we do. A challenge of integrating faith into these spaces is that we may not all share the same faith perspectives and values. Yet despite these differences, our faith and values remain foundational to the ways we learn, live, and work. The Vocation and Values Assignment for student interns provides an activity and discussion for all students to be able to thoughtfully consider how their faith and values, their purpose and passion, and skills and convictions relate to their professional experiences. I encourage faculty to implement this assignment in their courses and to consider how they answer their calling to teach and connect with students.
 Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 156.
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools (San Francisco: Harper), e-book.
 “Mission and Heritage,” Whitworth University, accessed August 17, 2018. https://www.whitworth.edu/cms/mind-and-heart/mission-and-heritage/
 Jerry Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 157-168.
 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 9-16.
 Louise Altman, “Living Your Values at Work,” Intentional Workplace (blog), November 18, 2010, https://intentionalworkplace.com/2010/11/18/living-your-values-at-work/
 Nicholas W. Weiler, in collaboration with Stephen C. Schoonover, “Determining Your True Life Values” (excerpt from Your Soul at Work), YourSoulAtWork.com, 2001, http://www.yoursoulatwork.com/values.htm
 Penny Loretto, “The Top 10 Work Values Employers Look For,” The balancecareers (blog), March 15, 2018, https://www.thebalancecareers.com/top-work-values-employers-look-for-1986763
 Palmer, Listen to Your Life, 9.
 David S. Cunningham, Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 7.
 Douglas J. Schuurman, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 143.
 Cunningham, Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, 7-8.
 Cynthia A. Wells, “Finding the Center as Things Fly Apart,” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 56-57.
 Jerome M. Organ, “Of Doing and Being: Broadening Our Understanding of Vocation,” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 225-247.
 Joann Keyton, Communication and Organizational Culture 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), 21-29.