• The Idea of Vocation

    Discussing intelligent computers and their theological impact? Helping faculty renew their academic calling through reading The Divine Comedy or Plato? Enabling engineering students to invent a breadfruit shredder for Haiti? In many ways, career is more than employment. The life of the mind is a connected, not an isolated, existence.

    In 2001 St. Thomas received a generous five-year, almost $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. as part of a nationwide effort to stimulate a theological exploration of the idea of vocation on college campuses. As Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, commented when the grant was announced, this initiative “will allow members of our university to consider deeply the meaning and mission of their lives.”

    So far “Beyond Career to Calling,” as St. Thomas’ Lilly program is titled, has funded more than 30 different projects on campus in a wide variety of departments and disciplines. They include the vocation of professional women, life values in medicine, law students serving the marginalized, team-teaching theology “bridge courses” such as Theology and Politics, and engaging first-year students in St. Thomas’ urban mission.

    “Beyond Career to Calling” differs from similarly funded Lilly programs at other campuses because its framework is decentralized, that is, faculty and staff propose, then direct, individual projects tailored to their department or discipline. “Beyond Career to Calling” is coordinated by Dr. Mary Reichardt, Catholic Studies and English departments. Here are three recently funded projects.

    Vocation in Action: Design of a Breadfruit Shredder for Haiti

    By Dr. Camille George, engineering, and Dr. Ashley Shams, Classical Languages

    One interdisciplinary project, funded by the Ireland Grant for New Initiatives (one part of the Lilly Grant), involved St. Thomas’ engineering and French students in helping women’s cooperatives in Haiti harvest breadfruit for use as a flour substitute in making breakfast bars for school children.

    Breadfruit, a naturally occurring food in Haiti, spoils quickly in that highly humid environment. With Dr. Camille George’s mentorship, St. Thomas’ engineering students designed a manual device to shred fresh breadfruit evenly. The breadfruit is then sun-dried, and the resulting dried shreds have a shelf life of up to a year.

    With Dr. Ashley Shams’ mentorship, St. Thomas’ French students then created appropriate visuals for the Haitian users of this breadfruit shredder to understand and maintain that technology. The final design for the “Tommie Shredder” was produced by a graduate student in manufacturing engineering and will be delivered along with the culturally appropriate manuals developed by the French students to Haiti very soon.

    St. Thomas’ mission to “Challenge Yourself (and) Change Our World” is especially evident in this project. Developing appropriate sustainable technology and helping ensure that the users can work with it effectively provided a meaningful context and objective for students in both major fields to anchor their academic learning. Most importantly, the project helped foster a theological sense of vocation in the students’ lives. The engineering students understood that their skills can be channeled toward creating a world in which every citizen has adequate food and water and access to a renewable energy supply. The French students used their language skills in an authentic service context while working alongside other professionals. For both sets of students, the experience gained from this project broadened their understanding of work as a calling as well as their awareness of cultural and global issues.

    Vocation and the Christian Intellectual: A Faculty Reading Group

    By Dr. John Boyle, Theology

    This ongoing project, funded by the initial Lilly grant, gives faculty the opportunity to reflect on the vocation of the Christian intellectual in a small group setting and through discussion of works of literature. While participants have varied from year to year the group generally numbers about a dozen and meets weekly during the semester. So far, our discussions have centered on Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, Augustine’s City of God, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and, this year, Plato’s Republic.

    The overarching goal of the discussions is to encourage faculty to think afresh about what drew them to the life of the mind in the first place and to renew a sense of their vocation as Christian teachers and scholars. Over the years, many participants have commented on how refreshing it is to have time to discuss with colleagues serious ideas in a sustained manner – too often a rarity in academic life. Many of these conversations spill out into corridors and faculty offices throughout the week.

    Some participants in the discussion group teach the books in their classes; most do not. Nonetheless, our readings affect our teaching in that they serve to give new shape to ideas discussed in the classroom and provoke us to think anew about how these ideas can be more effectively communicated.

    The life of the mind ought not be an isolated affair. These faculty discussions on the vocation of the Christian intellectual have helped foster a sense of the intellectual life as a shared enterprise, one first shared with our faculty colleagues and then with our students.

    Computers and Callings: The Vocation of the Computer Professional

    By Dr. Carole Bagley, Quantitative Methods and Computer Science

    During the 2004-05 academic year, I directed a program funded by the Ireland Grant for New Initiatives that focused on interdisciplinary computer careers and on viewing one’s computer-related profession as a vocation. I was assisted in the implementation of the program by Dr. Mari Heltne. The program invited a series of guest speakers to campus, with follow-up student discussion sessions. These events were then capped by a student writing contest.

    Each invited speaker works in a field where an interdisciplinary approach to work is required, and each understands his or her job as a “calling,” that is, as work that goes beyond merely bringing home a paycheck.

    The presenters and topics included Dr. Noreen Herzfeld, professor of computer science at St. John’s University, who spoke on artificially intelligent computers and their theological impact; Curt Melzer, an attorney and CIO of Dorsey and Whitney law firm, who discussed his passion for working with computers in a law practice; Greg Johnson, director of channel management at Thrivent Industries, who presented on the importance of climate in an organization and how professionals can make a difference in the world through their work; Jon Giftakis, senior scientist in neurological therapy research at Medtronic, who spoke on a model for “calling” that a company can instill in its employees; and Dr. Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Research Lab, who discussed working with passion for what you love.

    A week after each guest presentation, the Computer Science Club sponsored a student discussion facilitated by a professor. These discussions were open to all students with an interest in pairing computer science, information systems or quantitative methods with another discipline of study. They focused on issues related to the presentation, and specifically on matters of theological vocation and calling in the computer field. Finally, students had the opportunity to submit essays on the topic of computer science as a vocation for a prize.

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