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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a pretty innocuous question … if you’re asking an 8-year-old. Whatever rolls off little Ralphie’s tongue — NBA star, dolphin trainer, TikTok influencer — the card-carrying grown-ups can laugh it off, knowing his response will change roughly 457 times as he realizes what each really entails and what else is out there.

When you’re quizzing an 18-year-old, there’s a lot more riding on it. Ralph, as the maturing college freshman might prefer to be called, is expected to lock in a practical answer that’ll dictate his path for the foreseeable future.

That’s a fair expectation, as long as he has enough intel to decide. Too often in modern higher education, students feel like they’ve been blindfolded and pressured to throw darts at a list of careers.

This past academic year, the offices overseeing career development and spiritual life at Carthage joined forces to turn that intimidating process into an invigorating one. Their new initiative grants students a temporary respite from the hounding about when-you-grow-up while they consider some ultimately more meaningful questions:

What’s my larger purpose? What kind of life do I want to build?

Once a student discerns those answers, the blindfold comes off and it’s suddenly a whole lot easier to fill in the other blanks. College major and minor. Career path. Work-life balance. Desired location.

Holly Hess at the 2021-22 Major Declaration Ceremony. It can be an emotionally trying exercise, as students come to grips with some hard truths. A severe injury forces an athletic standout to re-evaluate her identity. A student who’s always been gifted in a particular subject admits he can’t stand it.

“It’s about peeling back who you thought you were when you arrived and then putting it all back together to show who you authentically are,” says Holly Hess, Carthage’s first Purposeful Life and Leadership Coordinator. “Then you’re in a much better place to make those important decisions.”

Bridging the Aspire Center and the Center for Faith and Spirituality, her position reflects the College’s firm belief that “what you want to be” stretches far beyond a job title.

something to declare

Choosing a major is the first major milestone. About 10% of incoming students arrive without a specific area of study in mind, a larger segment than any of the College’s 50-plus majors.

Rather than “undecided” or “undeclared,” Ms. Hess likes to categorize those students as “open” — for their openness to try new things and add to their skill set. Short of an epiphany, that’s the best way to identify a preferred path.

“You’re not going to walk down Campus Drive and hear a voice that says ‘Be an occupational therapist,’” she says. “There is a guided process with a lot of self-reflection.”

Online career development tools walk students through that process, and they can connect with Aspire Center staffers for individual guidance. They also lean on one another.

“I’ve been surprised how student-driven it’s been,” Ms. Hess says.

More than 60 students took part in an online program called 40Form, which hinges on thought-provoking cues about their individual values, experiences, and personal growth. Several also met weekly in person for a discussion that Ms. Hess moderated.

Tehya Catunao ’25 came into the program with a strong leaning toward nursing, and the purpose-finding exercises only reinforced that. Her bigger takeaway was the motivation to develop her creative side. Finally acting on a longtime goal, she started singing lessons.

“I’m glad I’m part of a group that cares about emotional and spiritual well-being, too,” she says.

Bringing students with differing backgrounds and interests together, the core discussion group formed a unique bond.

“I got to know a side of people I probably wouldn’t have seen,” Tehya says. “Stuff that I haven’t said to my friends before, I’ve said to this group of people. There are times I questioned if I was oversharing, but that’s the whole point of it.”

The rising sophomore got so much out of the 40Form sessions, she signed on to lead them starting this fall as a staff member in the Center for Faith and Spirituality. While continuing to target freshmen, the modified program will be open to all students.

Visiting speakers in the new People of Purpose series personified how someone’s raison d’être can evolve over time in surprisingly rewarding ways. Last spring, the Aspire Center welcomed guests including versatile alumnus Nick Demske ’06, a librarian, elected official, poet, and anti-racism activist; as well as Karri Hemmig, a human trafficking expert who assists law enforcement.

“There’s a career theory called Planned Happenstance that accounts for the unexpected,” says Becky Windberg, an Aspire staff member. “Having the mindset to lean into it, to be open to those new opportunities, is really important.”

Students and their families attending the 2022 Declaration Ceremony. The 2021-22 activities culminated in Carthage’s first major declaration ceremony. Held in May during Celebration of Scholars, it attracted almost 100 students and guests.

The moment filled Carla Cozzi with pride and gratitude. As the mother of newly declared criminal justice major Joey Cozzi ’25, she saw what’s possible when educators believe in their students.

It’s a scene she had trouble envisioning just a couple of years ago. All over, remote learning during the pandemic doused enthusiasm for the future at a critical point in the college search.

“Coming from the kid who sat in his room for a year and a half, staring at an iPad, it’s amazing,” Ms. Cozzi says. “Carthage pulled him out of that COVID hole, inspiring him to find his own self-motivation and look toward his future.”

Joey, who has worked as a veterinary technician for several years, found the prospect of four additional years in school too daunting to pursue that path academically. Recalibrating with help from the Aspire staff, he got interested in K9 police work.

On his own, Joey arranged a ride-along to get a feel for law enforcement. Knowing that German shepherds — still the most popular American police dogs — are typically trained in Germany before they’re brought over, he even took a class in that language.

His excitement must be contagious. The returning sophomore convinced his best friend and a cousin to join him at Carthage.

a 360-degree selfie

When the Rev. Kara Baylor arrived as campus pastor in 2014, a faculty and staff learning community was already brainstorming ways to help students find their place in the world. She’s taken an active role ever since.

You’ll hear lots of terms used in different circles: Find your vocation. Your purpose. Your mission. Your why.

Bit by bit, Carthage coaches students to build an all-encompassing vision for their future. That might incorporate marriage, children, hobbies, service, and more.

A photo from the 2021-22 Major Declaration Ceremony. “Vocation goes beyond what you do 9 to 5 to bring a paycheck home,” says Pastor Baylor. “It’s also knowing what brings you joy, what gifts you can share in the world.”

Although the concept aligns neatly with traditional Lutheranism, she emphasizes that inner journey holds value for anyone — regardless of what, or even if, they believe.

“We haven’t cornered the market on meaning and purpose, by any means,” acknowledges Pastor Baylor. “All humans want that. It’s who we are.”

Purpose isn’t only found on the distant horizon. The Network of Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) recently awarded Carthage a grant to help students reflect on the things they’re learning right now … and why they matter in the long run.

Describing the massive importance of reflection in the classroom, history professor Stephanie Mitchell cites a quote from 18th century British and Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “To read without reflecting is like eating without digestion.”

In her own classes, Prof. Mitchell might pause after a lesson about U.S.-Cuban relations to let the budding historians reassess their view of Cold War leaders. Now, with reflection deeply embedded in Carthage’s new general education framework, she serves on two campus committees that are sharing those techniques with colleagues across the College.

When students see how every aspect of their Carthage experience adds to that life they’re setting out to build — classes, clubs, sports, research, etc. — it finally clicks.

“Young people appreciate when you help them understand why they’re doing all of this,” says Prof. Mitchell. “Yes, faculty desperately want you to get a good-paying job, but we also want you to serve on the school board and coach Little League.”

It further fuels her campaign against the cynical notion that higher ed is just a means to a BA or BSN. Nobody finds their purpose stapled to a diploma.

“It’s absurd for colleges to just emphasize a piece of paper,” says Prof. Mitchell. “We need to communicate to students what they’re really buying: the opportunity for transformation — that they can emerge bigger, better, and stronger than they entered.”

Going once … going twice … SOLD to the bidder in the “Proudly Undecided” shirt.