New book details how college students find purpose

By Roderick Macioch                                                                           Correspondent

Students, faculty and staff recently came together in celebration of a newly published book detailing the life and struggles of college students as they discover who they wish to become.

Clydesdale discusses his recent book, ‘The Purposeful Graduate,’ alongside three student panelists.
Clydesdale discusses his recent book, ‘The Purposeful Graduate,’ alongside three student panelists.

Tim Clydesdale, a professor of sociology at the College, celebrated the recent publication of his book, “The Purposeful Graduate,” by participating in a student-author panel discussion in the library auditorium on Friday, Sept. 11.

Along with three student panelists, Clydesdale discussed his book, which emphasizes the importance of college students finding a true sense of purpose on an educational, spiritual and personal level, as well as the means by which this self-discovery can be achieved.

The book details programs that colleges have adopted in order to encourage students to reach an understanding of their purpose, both before and after graduation. Clydesdale’s research has shown that participation in such activities empowers students to learn who and what they truly are as well as what they want to become. In doing this, they find their vocation and gain the persistence to pursue it, whatever this calling might be in the future.

Between research and writing, “The Purposeful Graduate” is the product of seven years of work and dedication from Clydesdale, who has been at the College since 1996. Specifically, Clydesdale examined the effects of self-exploration programs on 88 campuses around the country, which were funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc.

The panel was introduced by Elizabeth Borland, chair of sociology and anthropology, who acknowledged her department and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences for presenting the event, as well as the cooperation of Sociology Program Assistant Karen Dubrule. As the event was held on the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Borland used the anniversary as an example of an event that makes people think deeply about their true purpose in life.

“(Such events have the power to) renew our commitment to finding a way to build a better world,” Borland said. This commitment, achieved by direct, systematic and creative programs for exploration of purpose and thoughtful community engagement, is a major topic discussed in “The Purposeful Graduate.”    

The first of the three student panelists, junior special education and sociology double major Abbi Anker, then discussed her impressions of Clydesdale’s book. She discussed how Clydesdale emphasized the concept of education with a higher purpose, because college is not merely four years spent earning a degree. Social institutions, such as colleges, have the power to serve as environments where people can discover who they are and devote themselves to a vocation based on this self-discovery.

Anker explained the “garden metaphor” used throughout Clydesdale’s book, which serves to explain why a program’s setting will be a factor in its effectiveness. Every college is unique, so the programs introduced to nourish self-discovery must be unique as well.

The second panelist, junior sociology major Jennifer Teets, discussed how becoming a “purposeful graduate” allows a student to achieve both “self-knowledge” and “self-transcendence.” Self-knowledge means realizing and learning how to utilize one’s unique combination of skills and talents, while self-transcendence highlights gaining a desire and ability to use self-knowledge for the betterment of the community, not just for oneself. These elements of self-discovery give a long-term perspective to the purpose and goals of a graduate’s career and life. When these are realized, a vocation is found. Quoting Clydesdale’s book, she said, “a job is just a job. A vocation is who you are.”

The third and final student panelist, junior sociology major Moses Yasin, who is on a pre-med track, then discussed his personal experiences that first ignited his desire to discover his purpose and vocation.

After receiving a bad grade during the second semester of his freshman year, Yasin began to doubt that his aspirations were truly worth pursuing.  However, through meaningful service as a Bonner Scholar, Yasin stopped stressing and found a sense of purpose. Community service is an example of the meaningful experiences emphasized by Clydesdale in “The Purposeful Graduate.” These experiences achieve the dual effect of positively impacting the community and, on a more personal level, reducing stress and giving participants an increased sense of purpose.

Clydesdale, who spoke next, described his book as “an invitation to conversation” to encourage college students to “take a step back and think more widely” — both on a local and global level.

Clydesdale admits that it can be difficult to get college students to start thinking and talking about what they truly want out of their education, but has found that anxiety can be a “hook” to unite students and start them thinking and talking about self-purpose.

It takes about a year for students to fully adjust to college life (the subject of Clydesdale’s previous book, “The First Year Out”), but after this first year, students may begin to think about the bigger picture, as they find themselves wondering, doubting, second guessing and saying things like, “I don’t know for sure who I want to be,” according to Clydesdale.

At this stage, a student may begin to gain interest in religious activities, which Clydesdale says can improve an individual’s resilience to setbacks and lead to an increased sense of purpose. This sense of religiously-inspired motivation, combined with a realization of one’s role in the community and self-transcendence, leads to what Clydesdale calls “holy grit:” a determination to lead a life lived for God and/or humankind, and the persistence to overcome obstacles that threaten to block this aspiration from being realized.

Though religious conversation is often stifled in public institutions, Clydesdale believes that people should put aside this reluctance because avoiding the subject does much more harm than embracing it.        

If a college is willing to foster students’ self-discovery, it can make college a truly life-changing experience, where students can not only choose a career but, on an even higher level, learn more about who they are, and devote themselves to a vocation, explained Clydesdale.

“I’d rather see higher education steer us into the future than see it steered into the future by others,” Clydesdale said. “Higher education needs to sets its own agenda, rather than have its agenda set by politicians or customers whose only concern is cost and speed of the education, and not the quality, breadth or depth of its impact.”