Finding Purpose at Vanderbilt
Director, Office of Student Leadership Development
Purpose is central to intentional action and it is one of the hardest but most fulfilling things to uncover. I say “uncover” because I believe that it is already inside of us, but it’s buried underneath a need to learn, grow, experience, fail, resist, laugh, compare, trust, reflect, love, and all of those other verbs that accompany you on the process of living your life. At some point, as you pull off all of those layers, you’ll find your purpose or at least your purpose for that moment in time. I believe, that it is totally okay for your purpose to be a living document.
I began my adventure at Vanderbilt University in 2011 as the Associate Director of Greek Life and today I serve as the Director of Student Leadership Development. I’ve had the absolute privilege of working with college students as a Graduate Assistant and then a full-time Student Affairs Professional since 2005.
As a staff member, one often feels that their purpose is encapsulated in their position description. This curated list of bullet points lays out for you all of the things that you are supposed to know, do, and be in your role. What it doesn’t provide for you is the impact your actions will have or, in many cases, won’t have on the campus community.
After frustration when the outcome of my efforts didn’t always match the intensity of my process and after fulfilling my stated purpose by doing everything I was supposed to do based on those precious bullet points, I knew that I would have to dig deeper and uncover a few additional layers to find my “why”. Simply checking bullets off the list could not be my purpose.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a million bright spots in my work. Those bright spots, the moments when I know that my work sparked something in a student; those moments when I’ve created a genuine connection with a member of the Vanderbilt community and those times when, things you thought didn’t affect anyone actually turned out to be a transformational moment for the student. My job is the definition of those oft cited quotes, “planting seeds to watch them grow” and “planting trees whose shade I know I shall never sit in.”
What I came to find was that my purpose is to provide opportunities for students to uncover their purpose. Every student does not follow the same yellow brick road home. There are times when the opportunities I work to provide fit their needs and there are other times when they will find their way through opportunities hosted by other campus partners. Either way, it’s a win for college. My purpose underneath all of those bullet points is to create optimal opportunities for students to complete the verb list referenced above and to, in the process, pull back the layers that will lead them to their purpose.
On September 16, 2016 I posted the following on Facebook:
“I have to remind myself that my job is mainly to create what I view as opportunities. Opportunities for people to do many things including to learn, connect, grow, develop, breathe, explore, succeed, create, change, improve, lead, follow, maintain, fail, talk, listen, feel, read, reflect, play, think, laugh, and often just to be. That’s my part of the deal. It’s up to you to take advantage of what’s presented. I remind myself to celebrate those who do and wish the absolute best to those that choose not to. The worst thing I can ever do is take your life choices personally. I’m constructing just one version of the yellow brick road. My hope is that we all find the path home that’s best for us.”
Understanding and living my purpose in this role allows me to focus on the work and the process of creating the work divorced from unpredictable results. The purpose driven work that I do goes well beyond my position description and whenever the path gets rough or I’m feeling less than fulfilled, I start uncovering it again so that I may return to it in order to make my way through the day as a Commodore.