Elaine Bernius, associate professor of Biblical Studies, Indiana Wesleyan University
An exploration of God’s calling on everyone’s life was at the center of a bold new initiative at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) this academic year. In fall 2014, over 750 first-time undergraduates arrived on campus nine days before classes began, significantly extending the former three-day orientation. During that extra week, incoming freshmen engaged in a First Year Experience (FYE) orientation that challenged and began to equip them to seek and accept the calling God has for them. This engagement was continued throughout the semester, and an adapted version of the experience has been provided for new students arriving in the spring.
Discussions about calling have taken place at IWU for many years. Under the direction of Bill Millard, the Center for Life Calling and Leadership first developed and taught a curriculum that helped students begin to understand and follow the particular calling God had on their lives. Life coaches and life calling instructors sought to guide students on a path of self-discovery as they explored – with faith at the core – the intersection of their foundational values, their own unique design, and their sense of personal vision and responsibility in this world. The ultimate goal, according to Millard, was to help each student gain a “confidence in a higher purpose for your life that draws and guides you in all aspects of your life … and then living your life consistent with that purpose” (emphasis his).
Over the past few years, IWU experienced a growing awareness that full-time faculty had almost no involvement with students on this topic. While individual professors might counsel students in their own majors about career paths during advising sessions, there was no comprehensive faculty guidance or input in equipping students in the area of life calling.
During the new intensive orientation, students met daily in plenary sessions with their 750 classmates and in smaller “FYE groups” led by a full-time professor. In the former, students were introduced to the following topics: institutional mission; liberal arts and general education; life calling and vocation; unique design and strengths; and service. Students then divided into FYE groups to more fully explore these topics with their professors. Faculty members had attended development sessions that were focused, in part, on fostering discussions about calling and vocation.
Rich discussions with new students did not end there. The FYE groups met throughout the semester in FYE-designated courses with the same professors and students. Most of these courses were general education courses in various subjects. One major offered a section of its introductory course as an FYE course. Each FYE syllabus included the following as one of its student learning outcomes: “Describe the concept of Life Calling and its role in shaping our understanding of our unique roles as citizens of and servant leaders within God’s kingdom.”
Throughout the semester, professors helped students achieve this outcome by incorporating life calling into the disciplinary content of their courses. This interweaving uniquely enriched the conversations with students, most of whom were attending courses not directly related to their majors or vocational goals. Students were able to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the many ways that we fulfill our role in God’s plan for restoring humanity to his image and to relationship with him.
In addition, the integration of FYE with general education courses modeled a sound theology of work for students. General education courses are often misguidedly viewed by students (and parents) as repeats of high school content that need to be “gotten out of the way” before engaging in the “real” learning related to the major. This attitude often produces unmotivated, disengaged students who take little interest or pride in the quality of their work in these courses. These are precisely the attitudes and actions that a proper theology of work seeks to correct. As noted by IWU President David Wright, students exposed to sound theology began to learn that “instead of being captives to a drudgery whose only purpose is an instrumental one, we must try to live in the place where work becomes the natural and normal expression of the persons God has made us to be” (“How God Makes the World a Better Place,” p. 122).
The results were very encouraging. Students were more engaged, and because they were given a greater sense of purpose, they produced a better product and reported higher levels of personal satisfaction. Grades in FYE sections of general education courses were higher than those in other sections. In fact, 37 percent of faculty teaching general education courses felt that this year’s freshman class was more engaged than in previous years. I wish I could tell you that every first-year student at IWU can now clearly articulate a deep appreciation for and engagement in all of their schoolwork, but that’s probably not the case. Nevertheless, the results of this FYE were dramatic.
It is our prayer that the experience of that feeling of purpose, along with meaningful discussions of life calling, vocation, and unique design, will build a lasting foundation upon which students will build their lives of service in the Kingdom of God.