Montini Fellow William Sullivan Speaks on Campus

by By Ginny Prior | October 27, 2017 | October 27, 2017

Metaphors matter—especially when it comes to motivating students. Last week, noted scholar William Sullivan, the 2017-18 Montini Fellow in Catholic Higher Education, shared the findings of a decade-long experiment on 88 college campuses in a lecture in the Soda Center last week. Sullivan, author of the book, Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose, argued that the metaphor of being “called” to a vocation is more engaging to students than the metaphor of being “driven” to succeed.

The concept matters, Sullivan said, because student disengagement is one of the biggest problems in education today. “Large percentages are not engaged in their academic learning. Serious conversations about purpose can change that and excite students. Very few other efforts have shown success in addressing this,” he said.

Sullivan, awarded the Montini Fellowship by the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action, spent two days on campus, sharing the best ways to help students discern their life purpose, encouraging both self-development and service to others.

His research shows that colleges that focus on the exploration of vocation give students a rich undergraduate life that takes on new significance and urgency. In simple terms, he says “the “drive” metaphor distracts you from thinking about the larger world. The metaphor “call” brings self-awareness and living within a larger life.”

Important, too, is the aspect of reflection, which Sullivan suggests should be “grounded in communities of learning that include faculty as well as students.”

Carrie Davis from Mission and Ministry leads a Living-Learning Community of SMC sophomores and says the communal setting encourages students to think about what is meaningful to them and what it means to be an individual within a community. “My biggest take away from the lecture was not a question about if living-learning communities are valuable...but how to structure them so they truly help students integrate the various parts of their lives as college students, and not just add one more commitment to the busy-ness of their already busy lives,” she said.

To this end, President Jim Donahue says the entire Saint Mary’s community needs to be involved in helping students explore key questions like who they are called to be and what they are called to do. “This also requires that we as a community of faculty, staff, administration and students create opportunities for engaging these questions, whether this be in the classroom, the residence halls, the dining rooms, or in service projects or immersion programs,” he said. “We have extraordinary opportunities to build on our existing programs to realize even fuller possibilities for a deeper sense of SMC as a vocational community.”