As published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Nathan O. Hatch
The current economic turmoil is taking a toll on jobs and psyches on Wall Street and in other corridors of power. People who once felt invincible now feel vulnerable. They’re questioning whether the time and effort they’ve put into their careers will produce the returns they expected.
Many of these people in their 20s and 30s graduated from America’s elite universities. Success has been a condition of life, but what about when success ends, even if temporarily? Have universities prepared graduates for the soul-searching that follows failure?
I think we’re about to find that the answer is no. Too often, colleges and graduate programs have accepted outstanding students and, rather than help them develop as more complete individuals ready to step into a diverse, complicated, and challenging world, have emphasized measures of achievement such as salary or the prestige of employers.
Until now, we haven’t seen the negative effects of this process. But now we’re left with the question: What happens when the rewards aren’t there? When the applause stops and the checks shrivel?
The youngest people in our work force — those at the bottom of the ladder — are being forced to reassess what’s at their core. What are their values? Have they found the deeper meaning in what they’re doing? I suspect that many career choices are rooted in a paycheck and a craving for accolades and esteem, rather than a passion for a particular type of work.
The good news is that students, like those at Wake Forest, are beginning to question this mind-set. They want to connect to something larger. They want to do good, and do well, as they lead an examined and purposeful life.
College-age engagement in the presidential election and inauguration is unprecedented. And being on campus, I can feel the excitement that students express about larger issues such as a sustainable environment, the development of alternative energy, and the potential of micro-finance in the developing world.
Universities must do more to capture students’ youthful excitement and help them turn it into a lifelong quest for discovering what motivates and challenges them — what gives them meaning and deeper purpose. To be clear, our efforts shouldn’t dictate values to students, but rather emphasize the importance of building a core of personal values and helping students discover how values can give meaning to their lives and careers — even in difficult times.
We need curricular and extra-curricular courses that enable students to examine their own definitions of success, determine what is most important to them, and understand the forces at work in the contemporary world of business and the professions. At Harvard, psychologist Howard Gardner and others are teaching noncredit seminars for first-year students: Meaningful Work for a Meaningful Life.
Universities should enhance career development programs to go beyond mere job placement, as important as that is. What students today need — and many yearn for — is more fundamental advice about choosing a profession. What are my gifts and talents and my passions and commitments? How do they square with a full spectrum of professional opportunities?
And campus chaplains should be more active in helping students chart their professional path. For the past decade, the Lilly Endowment has given grants to more than 80 colleges and universities through the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation. This initiative has led to dynamic programs and serious thinking and writing about the subject. Drawing on such resources, campus chaplains from a wide variety of religious traditions can challenge students to relate life and work.
In 1841, the young Abraham Lincoln, doubting whether his life would amount to anything, confessed to a friend, “I would be more than willing to die, except that I have done nothing to make any human remember that I have lived.” All of us aspire to use our talents to do something for which others will remember that we have lived. In a time of economic tumult and professional uncertainty, we can give students no greater gift than to discover what their memorable contribution might be.
“It is very rare that college presidents express concerns about the wellbeing of their students beyond the institution’s gates. Wake Forest works hard to create programs to assist students in developing into better people, and not simply into better students. It was through my work at the Children’s Law Center (a Lilly Grant sponsored internship) that I learned that real success is not based on the amount of dollars you earn, or the praises of your colleagues, but rather the lives that you change and the people you empower. I no longer struggle with whether I want a life of purpose or a paycheck. The answer is clear and I want purpose.”
Trayonna Floyd (’09)
“I try to give every student with whom I interact the benefit of my life experiences in how to deal with problems, challenges and opportunities and how not to be overwhelmed by life. I encourage them to seek a career path that they can embrace, not one that simply offers the largest paycheck. It is hard enough to get up each day to do something you love; it is hell getting up to do something that you hate.”
Herman Eure (Ph.D. ’71)
Associate Dean of the College and Professor of Biology
“As a Lilly Grant recipient, I spent a summer as an intern at Ronald McDonald House in Winston-Salem. There I realized that it is possible to combine the passion to live a meaningful life of serving others with the desire to be financially stable. I developed a skill set, realized my strengths and weaknesses, and grew both personally and professionally by engaging in meaningful dialogue.”
Devin Cowens (’09)
“Helping students look beyond the paycheck is not new to those of us in the religion department. Interested students and their concerned parents are quick to ask: ‘What can one do with a religion major?’ It is an important question, but I often think it is asked too early. Students must, as President Hatch writes, ‘discover what motivates and challenges them.’ This requires time as well as exposure to various ideas and fields of study. Our classroom studies don’t answer questions about jobs or paychecks, instead they equip students with a better vision of themselves and the world around them.”
Assistant Professor of Religion
“I spent seven weeks in Recife, Brazil, researching the importance of community health care agents on the early diagnosis of childhood cancer…. Never before in my life had I felt so proud of the work I had done and also felt I was making a contribution to society.”
Christina Chauvenet (’08)
“In philosophy class, we cover some of the deepest and most important questions in life. Outside of the classroom, we take students who are majors and minors on a weekend retreat. There we let them wrestle with important philosophical questions in the context of activities such as nature hikes, campfire debates, group discussions of important articles and movie viewings. In these and other ways, we hope to capture students’ youthful excitement and help them turn it into a lifelong quest for discovering what motivates and challenges them – what gives them meaning and deeper purpose.”
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
As a senior, Beth Fearon spent two weeks in Calcutta, India, through Wake Forest’s annual “City of Joy” service project, working with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to provide care to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. “Pro Humanitate is not only Wake Forest’s motto, but it is a motto by which to model one’s life,” she says. “Humanitate encompasses the poor, the ostracized, the oppressed; it includes not only people of Calcutta, but people in your own community.”
Beth Fearon (’06)