Willamette University

Tools Road Trip: Life and the Liberal Arts

We are a nation of planners, goal setters, schedulers and map readers; we mount GPS units on our dashboards, turn when the voice says “turn” and trust that we’ll arrive at our destination. We might occasionally allow ourselves to go off course, but we tend to see this as either an aberration or a temporary detour.

Learning… How to Live

Given this context, a liberal arts education can seem downright counter-cultural (or at least counterintuitive). Wouldn’t a generation of young people who grew up with play dates, soccer practice, after-school service and résumé workshops gravitate toward an educational experience that was fashioned to set them in a particular direction? Isn’t that what we advertise when we remind prospective students (or is it prospective students’ parents?) that there are, in fact, jobs and careers at the other end of a philosophy, psychology or physics degree? Why is it, given the need to demonstrate that a liberal arts education is a good investment, that the College of Liberal Arts over the years has dropped “practical” majors like business (the most popular undergraduate major in the country)? Further: Why is it that, while we have a respected and successful record of preparing undergraduates for medical school (which is only loosely tied to a major), we are unlikely to start an undergraduate nursing program?

Willamette, in the good company of other respected undergraduate colleges, has maintained a traditional liberal arts curriculum. Rather than focusing solely on training students for a specific career upon graduation, a liberal arts degree offers a chance at a fulfilling and useful life — as well as a way to make a living. The College of Liberal Arts offers majors, both traditional and interdisciplinary, that prepare students for what’s ahead while grounding them in a way of viewing the world and themselves.

As alumni remind us, Willamette helps students develop the habits and skills of critical (and open-minded and imaginative) thinking and expression. Undergraduates interact with fellow students and friends in their classes and residence halls who speak different disciplinary languages. They share opportunities for connecting across such lines on playing fields and in clubs and community outreach programs.

To return to our GPS metaphor, a liberal arts education, rather than providing one defined, established path, offers a view of open spaces, a vista that draws one to consider off-road adventures. Of course, many students identify a clear sense of their passion and purpose early on and chart a course to achieve their goals. Even for these folks, however, a Willamette education invites free (in the liberating sense of the liberal arts) engagement with the world that might never have occurred to them had they pursued their education at another kind of institution.

Their academic guides in this off-road adventure — the faculty — have stories of their own rambles. Every year, various faculty members relay tales of their own journeys to Willamette students. These narratives, told at convocation under the heading “Professors Profess,” reveal that the vocational journeys of many Willamette professors resemble meandering rivers rather than superhighways cutting straight through the scenery. Many of them (unknowingly, we suspect) took to heart the words of St. Teresa of Avila, who counseled, “To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray and thus acquire[d] experience.”

One professor of politics told of working retail after graduating from college; when he made a creative suggestion about how to accomplish a task more quickly, his supervisor replied, “I don’t need you to think.” This clarifying encounter helped inspire Professor Michael Marks to enroll in graduate studies, and he now happily pursues a life in which he is, in fact, engaged in creative thinking for a living. Another member of the faculty chose a college that offered him a boxing scholarship, but before he could take it up the NCAA cancelled boxing as a sanctioned sport. Spanish language study beckoned him to another university, to graduate school, and eventually to his job at Willamette. Ever since, Professor John Uggen’s combativeness has been intellectual.

Willamette alumni commonly tell stories about how they discovered an unexpected path here. Sometimes this reorientation occurs in the process of choosing a major. We can both attest, having seen this many times, that very few religious studies majors matriculate with that major in mind — they fall into it, are engaged and intrigued, and their imaginations are captured by the study of religion. Majors sometimes do indeed lead to a vocation that reflects the academic discipline studied, but a major is often not a particularly accurate predictor of professional path (see chart below).

A Willamette degree, however, is a very good predictor of a particular kind of engagement with the world, both professionally and personally.

This is why, in the Office of the Chaplains — and more precisely, at the Lilly Project (see sidebar p. 17) — we talk about helping students discern their vocation. Vocation, as we interpret it, refers to the way in which we live out our passions in the world, the way in which our values, our commitments and our beliefs are embodied in our choices about work, about family, about our political and social lives, and about how we inhabit our environment.

A Few Good Reasons

We talk to students a lot about what they’re good at, what they love and where they’re headed. Here are three things we’ve said to them over the years — if you are an alumnus, maybe parts will sound familiar.

1. A Willamette education gives you essential skills and habits of mind that serve you wherever the economy and the world need you. For example, maybe you think you want to teach in a university like (fill in your favorite Willamette professor here), but you discover that doctoral work is a long, hard, expensive slog with no guarantee of a job. However, someone points out that you’re a great writer, and you spent some time interning across the street at the Oregon State Capitol — and the majority leaders in the House of Representatives draft you to help run their office.

Or, maybe you think you want to be a doctor, but it turns out that you don’t get along well with organic chemistry (despite the hard work of the excellent and friendly members of the chemistry department!). But then you discover a whole new world in medical anthropology or medical sociology — callings you knew nothing about in high school — which fits your skills and allows you to employ those helping-humanity genes that might not have been as well-served elsewhere.

2.   You will almost certainly connect with other bright, imaginative and committed colleagues, whose friendships and fortunes you will follow, and whose lives and/or vocations may well entwine with yours. Alumni know this lesson well. Let’s say you come to Willamette to play football and sing (classical music as well as doo-wop), but, although you are good at both, neither the Canadian League nor the Met nor Motown breaks down your door after graduation. However, your best friends were members of one of the religious fellowship groups on campus, and they help you evaluate a career in ministry.

Or consider another scenario. How many Bearcats have spent a couple years in Portland or Seattle, rooming with friends and connecting with older alumni, and discovered a calling that they had unknowingly been preparing for during the previous four years: public relations, computer design for friends in the restaurant business, social work, law?

3.   Living and studying at Willamette encourages initiatives of all sorts — in class and lab, through special scholarships and internships, and in entrepreneurial improvements of the community. (It obviously continues after graduation — refer to the other stories in this edition of The Scene for proof.) Suppose you write a paper for a history class, your teacher suggests you deliver it at Student Scholarship Recognition Day (a Willamette tradition where students play the role of professor), and at the end of your junior year you think, “I really want to see if an academic career is for me.”

Or perhaps you go to the dean of campus life with a great idea for our community that might require some university investment (past students invented the Bistro, club sports like lacrosse and rugby, the tiny program that morphed into the community outreach office, and Willamette Emergency Medical Service) and in the process you find your life’s calling.

We are talking here about vocation in the context of a liberal arts education. The questions of meaning and purpose — “Who am I and why am I here?” — are the questions that we hope our students will pursue during their time at Willamette. A liberal arts degree, rather than narrowing our focus, in fact prepares us for the unexpected, the uncharted. It prepares us for life in the world, for citizenship in the global commons.

Debra Ringold, dean and JELD-WEN chair of free enterprise at Atkinson Graduate School of Management — a part of Willamette that is nothing if not focused on preparation for a career in a business, non-profit or government office of some sort — recognizes the point. “Come to us,” she has been known to say (and we might also add, come to the College of Law or the Graduate School of Education), “but come to us after you’ve got your liberal arts degree!”

Whether students are sailing down a vocational I-5 or meandering off-track without a GPS, they can listen for the clues that their liberal arts education, their talents and their deepest delights give them. Perhaps their liberal arts bumper stickers will read, in the words of Mary Oliver:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


Charlie Wallace, Chaplain and Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Charlie Wallace’s wanderings have been geographical as well as vocational. He was a history major at Bowdoin College and had an interest in journalism and broadcasting before his Methodist genes kicked in and he attended Yale Divinity School, followed by graduate school in religious history at Duke University. After a few years as a pastor of a small rural church, he began a career in teaching and campus ministry on the East Coast before finally arriving at Willamette in 1985.


Wallace (left) as a college freshman in the studios of the Bowdoin College radio station

Karen Wood

Karen Wood, Associate Chaplain for Vocational Exploration and Director of the Lilly Project at Willamette

Karen Wood entered Brown University with the intention of becoming a simultaneous interpreter when, in the midst of her junior-year studies in France, she picked up a theological text and never looked back. She began studies at Harvard Divinity School to be a college chaplain and stayed to pursue doctoral studies in theology. She taught undergraduates, directed national and international programs in interreligious dialogue and served as dean of students at graduate institutions of religion and medicine before finally becoming a college chaplain, 20 years later, at Willamette.

Wood (left) with friends in Michigan during a summer spent exploring vocation

Wood (left) with friends in Michigan during a summer spent exploring vocation


The concept of a liberal arts education is not new. The image above is taken from the Hortus deliciarum (in English, the Garden of Delights), a 12th-century illustrated encyclopedia. It depicts the “seven liberal arts,” a breakdown that is remarkably relevant today. It also provides an interesting visual representation of a “well-rounded” education.

source: wikipedia.org


The Lilly Project for the Theological, Spiritual and Ethical Exploration of Vocation is a universitywide program that helps students discern their vocation and engage with questions of meaning and purpose. Funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Lilly Project is thoroughly embedded in Willamette’s intellectual and residential life.

Since 2002, the Lilly Project at Willamette has provided funding for arts events, convocation lectures, visiting and resident scholars, student outreach grants and — perhaps most visibly — the Take a Break (TaB) service program.

Students also pursue religious callings through seminary semesters, internships and other programs.

For more, visit willamette.edu/dept/lilly.