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The Intersection of Passion and Purpose: A Vocation Story

Uncovering Vocation Series

Uncovering Vocation is a partnership between Campus Ministry and the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, a member of the Augsburg community is invited to share a component of their vocation story. It has become a way of building community, becoming reacquainted with one another, and celebrating the diversity of people and vocations that make Augsburg University the beautiful place it is.

This week’s Uncovering Vocation talk is given by Jennifer Butler, Augsburg University’s Director of Multicultural Life. Jennifer is a lifelong collector of stories, an advocate for inclusive excellence and equity, and an educator. For years, Jennifer has worked with students to help sharpen their ideas and advocacy skills. Jennifer recognizes that success as a student comes both inside and outside of the classroom and purposefully works to support underrepresented communities as they navigate higher education. Trained as a social scientist, Jennifer strongly believes in empowering through the framework of self-efficacy and hopes to instill in those around her a steadfast belief in their capability to succeed. She is committed to practicing humility, developing understanding, and promoting an inclusive campus. She received her Ph.D. in Asia Pacific Studies from National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, where she focused on financial behaviors, financial literacy, and self-efficacy. Jennifer is passionate about the role of student services and the unique levels and layers of support students need.

Good morning, when I was emailed about potentially speaking in one of Jeremy’s vocation chapels, I thought there were so many unique and great stories to share here at Augsburg that the odds of me speaking anytime soon were quite slim.

Jokes on me, he asked in December and here we are in March!
I’ll be honest, when I started thinking about this chapel, I googled “what is vocation”

And while the results of my Google search didn’t really clarify things, I remembered from my time working at the College of Business and Analytics at Southern Illinois University this concept of “ikigai” that expresses

  1. Find what you’re good at.
  2. Find what you love to do.
  3. Find what you can get paid for.
  4. Find what the world needs.

So today, I’m going to hurry us through my journey of finding.

For those who don’t know, I’m a transracial adoptee. When I was a few months shy of my 2nd birthday, I was adopted by these 2 loving individuals. I spent a lot of my early days watching and taking in the sights of what was happening around me. I was in an unfamiliar place. I was with unfamiliar people. I was surrounded by unfamiliar practices. And I felt alone. But to say I felt alone might be confusing to some because I was constantly surrounded by my new doting parents, their excited families, their happy friend group, and a family pet or two. Being adopted makes me sensitive to and aware of the importance of belonging. The importance of having support. The importance of a community or family or support system. It makes me aware that when life and personal stuff occur, it can fully impact your ability to thrive and succeed.

So fast forward to me graduating high school.

When I graduated high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in… I just knew that I was off to college. I started at my local community college and there, I had a professor who encouraged me to look into the exciting field of actuarial science. Not wanting to be a teacher like my mother, not really being passionate about anything other than the fact that I did not like chemistry, I decided to give it a go.

I transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio. This was a huge change. I had to live on campus. I was away from my family. I didn’t know anyone. And I had to take Calculus 2 and Accounting. I ended up getting an F in Accounting, a D in Cal 2, and a couple of other sad or bad grades. That coupled with the experience of feeling so alone, disconnected from friends and family, and receiving all the scary emails about needing to turn things around because the next semester I would be on probation…really made me question whether or not college was for me.

Aware of the fact that I was not thriving academically or personally my family and I decided it would be best for me to move back home. I took a summer course or 2 and got my GPA back to non-probationary status and I transferred to the 4-year university in my hometown. I decided to major in pollical science because those were classes I always did well in and it also meant I didn’t have to be a teacher like my mother. I was back with friends, I made new friends at my new university, and my friends were now talking about this cool new thing called graduate school.

Now during my time in college, my mother started a speech and debate club for students 12-18 years old. My younger brother was learning how to be a competitive debater and as one who lives at home often does, I got sucked into this family project. But it turns out I was actually really good at teaching young novice debaters who were debating policy. I know I said I didn’t want to be a teacher, but it was interesting teaching 12-year-olds how to be effective communicators. I loved the moments when it all clicked and came together. When they realized how to defend their debate cases. When they learned that listening is just as important as speaking during a debate round. When they learned just how powerful their voices were as they shared their ideas on topics most 12-year-olds aren’t talking about…like dependency on foreign oil or African trade policies.

But what stood out to me the most was this one young newbie. He and his debate partner were energetic pre-teen boys who probably wanted to be doing anything except debate. But shortly into the experience of learning how to debate and practicing being an effective communicator, this young student of mine, was tasked with giving the eulogy at his father’s funeral. Forget the rules of debate, forget the implication of US foreign policy, he was learning to communicate and be a communicator for this and so many other moments in his life. And that’s when it dawned on me that I valued helping people find their voices. I am passionate about equipping people with the skills needed to speak and advocate for themselves.

Still thinking that teaching was not for me, I poured myself into my poli sci classes and I graduated with a rehabilitated GPA and professors who were happy to write me letters of recommendation. So now I’ve found something I’m good at so off to grad school I go.

I found a small private liberal arts university that had a graduate degree in International Relations where I could specialize in international development and learn about theories such as the capabilities approach or self-efficacy which really resonated and meshed with my newfound passion for equipping people with the tools they need to succeed. So in grad school, I continued to explore themes of advocacy, empowerment, self-efficacy, and yes, education.

When I say I took that campus by storm, I mean I was everywhere. I was in so many student orgs. I served as the student representative on university committees. I worked for the ambassador in residence (the former US Ambassador to Belize). And I decided to write a master’s thesis so I spent a lot of time with my thesis supervisor, the grad IR faculty, and the amazing research librarians. My experience at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio was unlike any other. It was a small enough campus that everyone knew everyone and anyone who stepped foot on the campus could sense the Marianist commitment to belonging, community, service, and justice.

While at St. Mary’s, I got the opportunity to work as the Director of Forensics, teaching and coaching the competition speech and debate students. My students would go on to compete in regional and national competitions and while I could talk of their many awards and accolades, I simply want to put it out there that these former students who were honing their communication skills then are all now in roles of advocacy. They are using their voices to advocate and empower others. So, things are starting to come together. I found something I was good at. I found something I loved to do. And somehow, I had found a way to get paid a little for doing it.

So, as I was starting to wrap up my grad program, the dreadful what’s next questions re-surfaced. I had a few opportunities popping up here and there but nothing felt exactly right. My grad school mentor suggested I apply to this new and experimental PhD program in Taiwan. I kind of was like well what’s the worst that could happen. I applied, got accepted, bought a 1 way ticket to Taiwan, wedged what I thought I might need into 2 suitcases, and hugged my family goodbye.

At this point, I had attended a community college, a couple of 4-year universities, and a private graduate school so I felt like I kind of knew how to navigate higher ed. Wow, nope…I was now in a new country, a new culture, with a new way of doing things. Having come off of a really amazing experience in grad school, and now knowing the importance of having that sense of belonging, having a strong support system, and having that community, I immediately started building and finding it. I cobbled together a community of friends, kindred spirits, and quickly regained that sense of belonging I had become accustomed to before leaving for Taiwan.

Fast forward through my adventures abroad, I came back to the US in February of 2020. Just at the start of something big. Yes, COVID. I managed to catch one of the last flights out of Taipei before much stricter protocols and widespread cancellations of flights occurred. I moved back to the States to be closer to my parents and family but also to put my shiny new PhD to good use. I had gotten a job at Southern Illinois University in a town called Carbondale where I had never visited and knew no one. I was hired to lead the equivalent of the Multicultural Life office for SIU’s College of Business and Analytics.

In that role, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was tasked with making sure that the college’s students felt engaged, like they had a community, and that even though things were remote that they had a sense of belonging. Not exactly the easiest task when people weren’t in a face-to-face capacity. I threw myself into earning the trust of the students, building relationships with the staff and faculty, and understanding the geographical community I had just joined.

Southern Illinois was good to me. I was able to do some amazing firsts for SIU and the students I served. I had excellent relationships with campus partners and I was really happy with the job I had and I wasn’t really looking to move when here comes Augsburg.

One of my mentors told me that after 2-3 years in role, I should take a look at the job postings of jobs being offered in the area I’m in and the areas I’m interested in growing into. That way I am seeing the knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that are part of these roles and can find ways or opportunities to incorporate some of them into the role I currently have. So toward the mid to end of the spring semester of my 3rd year at SIU, I was lightly doing some searches while planning awesomeness for my office and the Fall 2023 semester when I ran across the Augsburg job posting.

I was curious and I hopped on the website to see a little more about Augsburg and I was like, oh hey…y’all potentially are kind of like the Lutheran version of my grad school but didn’t really think much of it until l I started creeping on the social media of the student orgs. Augsburg students were doing so much. I was like wait, what…how…how are they so engaged. So y’all should thank my mother, she encouraged me to apply so I could talk to the interviewer and get a sense of what was going on with this campus.

So poor Joanne and Taylor. I had a 30 mins screener with them wedged between a whole bunch of craziness on my end because at the time I was in the middle of a high school summer camp college takeover with high school students from all over Illinois. I slid into Zoom scattered but excited to ask questions. All I had to do was get to the part where they asked “so what questions do you have for us” And then I could pounce. I could ask about their student involvement. I could get a sense of what specialness was going on with their campus to bring back to mine. Joanne and Taylor were so nice and Joanne went on and on about Augsburg answering my questions and I left the interview with new thoughts for my office and went back to my chaotic summer camp experience.

When I got the email later saying that Augsburg would like to invite me for another round of interviews, I went uh oh. The thought really hadn’t crossed my mind that I could work at Augsburg. I had been on a fact-finding mission. And now I have a full-fledged multi-interview opportunity in a state I’d never been to. Once again, y’all should thank my mother…she encouraged me to do it for the experience. I’m sorry, but who does 4 interviews back-to-back to back for the experience?! And as they say, the rest is history. I packed up my stuff in Carbondale and once again moved to a place I had never visited, a place where I had 0 friends, all to start a new job.

So why do that? It’s because, through the interview process, I saw Augsburg’s intentionality. I saw its dedication to community, to supporting students, and how it valued belonging. I saw students who were learning to use their voices. Who were being empowered to advocate for themselves, their communities, and others. And I saw things I valued and had sought after.
As a transracial adoptee, I found myself searching for community and belonging. As a college student, I was academically more successful when I found a sense of belonging and community and leaned into the support resources available on my campuses.

So now as a person working in higher ed, I look for places where I can serve and hopefully give students that same experience. The experience I had where I felt supported, where I felt like a valued member of the community, where I felt that I belonged, and where I learned my voice mattered.

So going back to the concept of “ikigai”

  1. Find what you’re good at.
  2. Find what you love to do.
  3. Find what you can get paid for.
  4. Find what the world needs.

Currently, my role at Augsburg allows me to do exactly that: I can use my talents and skills to serve our campus community. Augsburg values things I love and I’m passionate about. Strangely enough, this is an actual job…Augsburg pays me to do this. And the students we are equipping here at Augsburg are exactly who I think the world needs as future leaders and informed citizens.