On Friday, Nov. 8, 91 sophomores boarded two buses and set out to spend the weekend learning about vocation at YMCA Camp Iduhapi in Loretta, Minn.
The Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat, an annual event hosted by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, provides an opportunity for St. Olaf students to step away from campus to ponder where they have been, where they are and where they are going. Over the weekend, the participants played group games, listened to speakers and chatted in small discussion groups.
Opening speaker Pastor Matthew Marohl set the contemplative tone of the weekend by asking students to stop trying to figure out what they want to be and start thinking about who they want to be. He challenged them to think about the times in their lives when they have felt a connection with something important, and to seek out those elements of the experience that made them happy. He also told students to be practical and asked them to think about what the world needs from them. He suggested that students attempt to merge their passions, interests and skills with the needs of the community.
Marohl acknowledged that most students sitting in the room did not have concrete plans for their futures, but he encouraged them to take action and try new things despite the risks. Passion, he said, cannot fully develop without practice.
“If you think feeling has to come first, you will never act. You have to have the guts to say, ‘Since I don’t have all of my life figured out, I’ll give it a try,'” he said.
The students then broke up into assigned small groups to discuss the words of wisdom they had just encountered. The discussions, which were facilitated by junior and senior students, helped participants process the information they heard with discussion questions and activities.
One of the first activities the participants completed was filling out a “Vocational Tree.” Students received a sketch of a tree on which they labeled the roots with their passions, values and truths, the trunk with their interests, skills and abilities and the branches with their ever-evolving work in the world.
The participants reconvened as student speakers Chris Paradise ’14 and Alyssa Berg ’15 talked about redefining success. They told stories about times they encountered failure and spoke about the ways they dealt with it. They reminded their peers that the characteristics of success are different for every person, and that these characteristics should not be defined by the standards of others.
“You have skills and talents that are not quantifiable by grades,” Berg said.
With these affirming words, the formal programming for the evening concluded. The students enjoyed the rest of the evening getting to know their peers before heading off to their cabins for the night.
Saturday morning began with a faculty panel consisting of Professor of Economics Steve Soderlind, Assistant Professor of Dance Sherry Staterstorm and Assistant Professor of Biology Steve Freedberg. The panel spoke about staying alert, making the most out of open doors and following the signs to making the best choices. They encouraged the students to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a liberal arts education by taking a variety of classes and focusing on learning a wide range of skills rather than completing several majors.
“While grad schools do care about prerequisites, what they really care about is experience, and while employers might take a look at your major, what they actually want to see is the texture of who you are,” Staterstorm said.
One of the most inspiring sessions of the retreat was the young alumni panel. Nine recent St. Olaf alumni shared stories about their searches for careers, the challenges they faced and the ways they were able to align their interests and passions with viable career choices.
Many of the alumni are in careers that have little to do with their undergraduate majors, and they encouraged students to study things that interest them. They agreed that doubt and fear are intrinsically part of anything worth doing, and they urged the participants to always be humble and work hard.
“It doesn’t matter if you fail,” Megan Suszynski ’05 said. “Failure is an opportunity to shine. Believe it or not, people will look up to you if you can own up to your failures.”
The alumni gave a few collective pieces of advice. They emphasized the importance of creativity and analytical thinking. They also reiterated the necessity to learn how to act professionally and be resourceful during students’ time on campus.
Many students who went on the retreat enjoyed the time to think about their vocation, listen to the wisdom of professors, alumni and older students and find a revitalized sense of purpose.
“The Quo Vadis retreat provided me a much-needed escape from the ‘stuffiness’ of the Hill,” Brandon Cash ’16 said. “By removing myself from campus I was able to give my vocation serious thought through examining my passions and analyzing how the expectations of others and myself affect my notion of my future. I still don’t know what the coming years entail, but I believe I have a better sense of where I am going.”
Sophomore students who missed the fall retreat may sign up for the spring retreat in April.
Photo courtesy of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career