How To Make Your Passion Your Vocation

I met recently with a team of analysts from a credit rating agency, because the institution I lead, Smith College, was preparing to issue bonds to finance a major building project. In order for the agency to conduct due diligence on Smith’s finances and market outlook, a group of analysts—young, polished, and whip-smart—visited campus to meet with me. They asked insightful and probing questions. As the meeting drew to a close, I turned the tables and asked them a few questions about their college experience. I began with: What did you study in college? A young woman who had particularly impressed me had majored in classics; none of them had majored in economics.

Nearly one-third of today’s higher education students are the first in their families to go to college. First-generation and low-income students are often pressured by family and friends, as well as by the cultural expectations they have internalized, to focus their college studies in purely pragmatic directions. When I entered Tufts University in 1973, the first in my family to pursue higher education, I felt no particular calling toward applied science but persevered through three engineering courses, thinking I needed to graduate college with a “trade.” Thankfully, a mentor’s guidance helped me see that my passion— psychology and child development—could also be my vocation.

Last fall, I hosted a talk at Smith by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni on the topic of his latest book, “Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” Bruni’s point is that what matters in college is what a student makes of it, inside and outside the classroom.

Good colleges should provide opportunities through the curriculum and the co-curriculum for students to experiment in order to find their passions.

Student leadership programs, funded internships, business competitions, athletics and student government can help students learn valuable lessons about leadership, teamwork, success, failure—and life.

As high-quality academic content becomes increasingly available online, and as the cost of college forces questions about return on investment, the colleges that continue to thrive will be those that foster exploration both inside and outside the classroom. An English major who is captain of a sports team might graduate to run a construction company or manage a team of engineers; a psychology major who interned in a museum might become a creative director for an advertising company; a chemistry major who took a summer course in entrepreneurship might become a school principal. These paths reflect the fact that colleges prepare students with the hard and soft skills to succeed in myriad careers, both after college and beyond. One of the greatest transformations I see as a college president is that of the students who come to college planning to pursue a particular profession and, when exposed to a world of alternatives, embark on careers they never imagined.

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