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Engaging in the big questions

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By Betsey Norgard

Mark Tranvik poses with Lilly ScholarsIn their monthly seminar, Professor Mark Tranvik (left, in blue shirt) seeks to create a comfortable atmosphere for the Lilly Scholars to discuss and explore vocation. (L to R) Denise Shuck, Leah Jarvi, Tranvik, Cody Oaks, Allison Streed, Alexander Garver, Abigail Ferjak, Natalie Sasseville, and Ashley Weston.

The Lilly Scholars seminar is a place where students can feel comfortable talking about the big questions in life. Questions like, Is Christianity the only true religion? What does it mean to forgive someone? What is God calling me to do?

For Mark Tranvik, associate professor of religion and director of the Lilly grant program, the seminar is the heart of the year-long program designed for juniors and seniors who are considering seminary or graduate study in theology or sacred arts. Once a month they meet to discuss assigned texts, engage with guest speakers, and reflect on biblical passages or issues in the Christian tradition.

Each year, 10 or 11 Lilly Scholars, who receive a $2,100 scholarship, are selected from more than twice that number. Among the current scholars, the average GPA is 3.75. In addition to the seminar, Lilly Scholars visit Luther Seminary and can take courses there.

“There is an ongoing hunger in the intellectual community for genuine theological conversation among students that the Lilly Scholar program honors,” says Tranvik, who is also an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Creating a comfortable place for these critical conversations is his goal. And, he adds, “doubters are welcomed.”

Jenni Pickford, a philosophy and religion major, finds the seminar most valuable for “the openmindedness I’ve gained from hearing about views that differ from my own.” What she appreciates is that “there are other students out there who are interested in more than just a grade and do this for the love of learning.”

“The greatest impact for me is the group friendship and discussions that carry throughout other classes,” says religion major Denise Shuck, a Weekend College senior who is planning to enter Luther Seminary. “I have a great appreciation for the diversity of opinions about the topics we’ve discussed.”

Abby Ferjak, a senior, finds it easy to integrate what she does in the Lilly Scholars program to her youth and family ministry classes. “It’s important for youth to understand that vocation is not simply what one might do as a career; but rather, that everyone has many vocations, and [that] they don’t have to wait to fulfill their vocation.”

And that’s exactly what the Lilly Endowment hopes to hear. Their goal for funding programs in church-related, liberal arts colleges that explore vocation is to nurture a new generation of vocationally- guided leaders—both pastoral and lay—for church congregations. Lilly Scholars are one part of Augsburg’s $2 million grant program, Exploring Our Gifts, that began in 2002 and is directed by Tranvik.

Over its six years, Lilly Scholars have included a mix of younger and older students and have cut across disciplines, for example, among science and social work majors seeking ways to combine faith life with their fields.

Last year four Lilly Scholars continued to Luther Seminary (all with full scholarships), two chose law school, one entered the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, one is in congregational youth ministry, and one began graduate study in social work. About half of all Lilly Scholars have entered seminary.

During their year as Lilly Scholars, the students serve as role models within the larger community. They develop a portfolio, reflecting on vocation and what they carry with them from the year.

Cody Oaks, a current Lilly Scholar, finds inspiration in Tranvik’s ability to merge the pastoral with the academic. “He provides the model of a pastor-scholar I would like to embody in my own work and call to teach,” Oaks says. He will enter Princeton Theological Seminary this summer and begin to seek ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Kyle Zvejnicks, a 2006-07 Lilly Scholar, reflected on community. “The seminar has reminded me of the importance of community in vocation, namely that we need each other. … Just as much, we don’t come with the same vocation for everyone, but each with their own, and not for themselves but for others.”

To learn more about Exploring Our Gifts, go to

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