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I finally watched the lovely film Coda, which won the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture. I enjoyed it fine. I appreciated the celebration of characters (and actors) with hearing impairments along with the exploration of working class life, etc. However. Can we please stop making stories that tell young people lies about college?

I’m talking about the plot point in which the protagonist, Ruby, joins choir on a whim in her senior year, learns two songs, and—prompted by her impossibly charismatic choir teacher—strives for a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. Guess what, spoiler alert: she gets it. Admittedly, her audition performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” makes for a banger of a scene. But two weeks after she learns that pianissimo means “soft,” she’s on her way to a prestigious, extremely competitive music school? And of course, she will now live happily ever after, the conflict between loyalty to her family and her vague dream of singing heartwarmingly resolved.

Give me a break, people.

First of all, let’s get some facts from Berklee’s actual website: “Approximately 40 percent of entering campus students are awarded institutional aid, with an average award covering 40 percent of tuition.” So much for solving Ruby’s financial need. You’ve still got tens of thousands per year to cover, honey. The family fishing business ain’t gonna cut it.

Coda is not the only film guilty of hallowing fairy tale college aspirations. Think of all the movies in which some amazing scholarship becomes the protagonist’s “I want” motivation. The recent series Unorthodox has Esty singing a couple songs (which she hasn’t rehearsed) in an effort to win a “hardship” scholarship to a Berlin conservatory. (To be fair, whether Esty gets the scholarship is left undetermined, but in any case, none of this actually happened to the woman who wrote the original memoir; it was a fictionalized plot point devised for the TV series.) And then of course there’s the sports version of this, where “scouts” appear inexplicably at the big championship game of some small-town nowhere high school, ready to award an athletic scholarship to the endearing young gal or fella who scores the winning point at the last minute, which they always do.

In the High School Musical series alone—which is, admittedly, a silly confection in no way resembling real high school life—Kelsi and Ryan end up going to Juilliard, Taylor goes to Yale, and Gabriella gets into some bizarre freshman honors program at Stanford that begins in the spring of her senior year and absolutely demands that she miss—gasp!—her prom! (Note: there is no such program at actual Stanford.)

It’s a modern day Cinderella trope, isn’t it? The long-suffering, virtuous-and-talented high schooler is visited by a talent agent/scout/special teacher/fairy godperson who provides them with the means to zing through the Dress Ball of Admissions and be whisked off to Handsome Prince University, which of course ensures them a rich and fulfilling future although we remain fuzzy on the details. I will note that the protagonists in question are almost always talented in some performance field—music or athletics. I have yet to see a story in which someone gets a magical nursing or history scholarship.

Anyway, here’s the brutal truth: getting into prestigious schools at all, let alone with any kind of magical scholarship, requires achievement and dedication that runs young people ragged by their senior year, not to mention a huge dose of luck, maybe some good old-fashioned nepotism, and plenty of family money to pay for top high schools and lessons and travel teams and summer workshops and all the other stuff that actually makes one competitive. More realistic is the character Rachel in The Wilds who has sacrificed everything, including her physical and mental health, to become an elite diver—but she peaks, stalls, and gets cut at the last minute. No Stanford scholarship for her. She’s left to pick up the pieces.

So “Collegiate Cinderella” is one lie young people imbibe about college. Let’s move on to another one: the Vocational Soul Mate lie. Let’s say that the savvy young people of today shrewdly recognize the Cinderella stories for the fantasies they are and are quite happy to matriculate at Ordinary University, grateful for any kind of decent education. Well, now they have to battle the pressure to find the perfect major, then the perfect internship, which will then ensure them the perfect career right out of college. It’s another happily-ever-after story, another fairy tale we like to tell. After all, it helps boost admissions.

I’m not saying college degrees shouldn’t have a practical payoff. Research shows that they do. However, I have long complained that we create a narrative in which that payoff comes via a straightforward and efficient process: enter college at one end, pop out the other with all questions answered and a meaningful and lucrative career happily launched.

It’s just not that simple for a lot of students.

I had the privilege of working this past semester with fourteen excellent Calvin University seniors in our English Senior Seminar course. We spent some time reflecting on the topic of vocation, as we are wont to do at Calvin University, and fortunately, these seniors—not without pain and struggle—are smart enough to deconstruct the Vocational Soul Mate fairy tale.

That phrase comes from a 2019 essay we read together by Derek Thompson. Thompson writes from an entirely secular context, positing that Americans have created a religion of what he calls “workism.” For the college-educated, he argues, work has become a religion; we imagine work as a source of “identity, transcendence, and community,” the “centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” After analyzing the economic and philosophical reasons for this, Thompson observes that striving for the perfect dream job, the one always just over the horizon, often results in burnout, disappointment, overwork, and disillusionment. Because what happens if you’re not entirely happy and fulfilled at work, every day? “For today’s workists,” Thompson writes, “anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.”

My students were rather taken with this essay because they recognize a similar dynamic at their Christian college, where “vocation” is heavily freighted with obedience, a high-stakes game frosted over with well-intentioned striving to find God’s will. One student wrote that in a religious context, “vocation becomes a double-edged sword: the outside world is pushing us to identify with our work, and the church is telling us that our work is our God-ordained mission in life.”

Surrounded by a hazy cloud of Vocational Soul Mate aspirations—typically promoted in college admissions discourse, and certainly not just Calvin’s—students struggle to find their way in college. In their written reflections, my seniors recalled letting go of their initial certainty about their major, or discovering through trial and error what they are good at, or struggling to justify their eventual choices to others and themselves (a particular challenge these days for humanities majors). At any rate, nothing was as obvious and straightforward as typical vocation discourse—secular or sacred—made it seem.

So my students “stripped down vocation for parts,” in the words of one of them. They critiqued the assumed privilege and creeping individualism of vocation rhetoric. They insisted they didn’t want their entire life’s path decided at 18 or even 22. They deconstructed poor Frederick Buechner’s famous quote (your deepest passions/joy, the world’s deepest hungers/needs, etc.). They reclaimed the meanderings and missteps they have experienced as valuable parts of the story. They refused to regard their own talents as a “baggage of duty” and realistically assessed the future as “an enigmatic mess.” They determined to rejoice in small pleasures, take their time, give themselves a little slack even while seeking the next step as best they could.

Some of them echoed Calvin’s best rhetoric: that vocation is a lifelong process of discovery, what one student described as “a means of growth and development, rather than an opportunity to demonstrate and flaunt our personal worth and capability.” Some of them simply rejected vocation altogether, opting out of what seems to them an unnecessary and burdensome concept that makes young adulthood harder than it already is.

I wonder if this year’s crop of seniors across the college carries a particularly hard-won, steely-eyed wisdom. These are folks whose four precious college years were screwed up by Covid beginning in spring of their sophomore year. They’ve survived a lot: suddenly online classes, difficult learning conditions (online science labs?), loneliness, friendships never made, friendships lost, extra mental health stresses, so many disappointments from cancellations and lost opportunities. In light of all this, one student wrote: “the way vocation is talked about relies on the assumption that the world is predictable and that we are in control of our own lives. If Covid has taught us anything, I think that it has taught us that this is a very wrong assumption.”

Today I will attend Calvin University’s commencement ceremony, an occasion even more lovely and joyous this year as we emerge from Covid (sort of?) and return to standard commencement day festivities. I’m especially proud of our 2022 seniors. They persisted, endured, and overcame, more or less anyway. I know they’ll carry the scars of these years with them—they’ve told me so.  

So as you interact with young people during this tender graduation season, keep in mind that they are exposed to any number of fiction-ready fairy tales and well-intentioned-though-misleading narratives. They probably will, eventually, figure out the truth. Life is complex and unpredictable, and self-knowledge is a lifelong challenge, and fairy godpeople are vanishingly rare and not worth waiting around for although mentors are helpful, and higher education is a privilege as well as a soul-testing process, and even privileged people struggle with obstacles and inner demons, and your life will not always be smooth and efficient, but there are infinite patterns that can make a good life, and there is always hope for companionship and joy along the way.

Wouldn’t it be better if we were simply honest about all this to begin with? Young people deserve that.

Many thanks to my seniors who generously permitted me to quote from their writing.

We’ve written about vocation quite a bit on this blog. Here are three of my previous posts. Here, here, and here. There are more, too. Just search for “vocation” in the blog’s search function.

Image credit: calvin.edu website

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

12 Comments

  • Amen.

    Please write about the dishonesty of the “Romantic Comedy.”

  • Greg says:

    It’s a film! Suspension of belief is likely necessary! I encourage viewers to consider more fully the crux of the film, the actual experience of a “CODA” (a “child of deaf adults”), rather than the subplot of the film.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for saying this so well. Calvin prepared me, with a well-rounded liberal arts foundation, to feel that there’s a lot of truth when I joke that I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up! Although that foundation may be more and more the ‘choose a vocation in college’ mode, your students make me hope that many realize that self-realization may take many years of discovery and growth.

  • Bob VE says:

    This is just what I needed today. Thank you.

  • Sharon Etheridge says:

    Thanks for writing this Debra. This is exactly what my granddaughter, who is graduating from high school, needs to hear and think about.

  • Mike Kugler says:

    This is moving, and so accurate. In the future, perhaps you would also do some parting out of “poor Frederick Buechner’s” famous quote. Thank you.

  • Dean Koopman says:

    I wish that one graduation speaker would begin their exhortation with “GO FAIL!”

    That one graduation speaker would begin their exhortation to the graduates with “GO, FAIL!”
    The fainting spells would be epic.
    I wish I knew how we gain this fear of failure that would have stopped us from even standing or walking had we been born with it.
    I love the quote many attribute to Winston Churchill, “Courage is going from failure to failure without lossing enthusiasm.”
    So Class of 2022, GO, FAIL!
    You were born with the courage to get up and try again. You just might have forgot.

  • bp says:

    Yes, this definitely needs to be said and repeated with each year’s class. The definition of “workism” resonated. As a supervisor for decades in a field that has a heavy dose of vocational awe (librarianship), I would assert that not only do young people need to hear this honesty, they need to be warned that buying into the myth that the perfect job will fix all their ills could result in them being difficult, unproductive employees.

  • Anthony J Diekema says:

    Thanks, Deb, for this absolutely delightful piece…………quasi-cynical and deadly honest! It should be required reading for every high school counselor to college-bound seniors! It also reminded me of a quote I learned from one of your predecessors in the Calvin English department in the early 50s—–“Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any. Join the United States and join the family, but not much in between………unless a college” (Robert Frost, from Build Soil).
    I’m deeply grateful that you joined “a college”. Blessings on this grand commencement day!

  • Anne Petrie says:

    Deb, this is eloquent and important. And it reminds me of your & Ron’s wonderful essay, “Call Waiting,” than ran many years ago in Perspectives. I clipped it, saved it, and probably used it at some point in an Intersections class. Thanks for your wise words.

  • Deb, thanks for this wise piece. I wrote briefly on Facebook but thought perhaps I’d share a little tidbit on this page as well.

    I graduated from Spring Arbor University in 2009, entering into my bright future as the Great Recession hitting its peak (job rates were lowest in Oct. 2009).

    So it was. But the last words I heard at commencement scalded my imagination in the worst imaginable way. Whoever the guy was, his point as the keynote speaker was, when distilled, to “make money to support those in society who are aging.”

    Nothing about vocation, none of the Beuchner quotes, no go-be-a-change-agent in your corner of the world. After an amazing 4 years studying Christian worship in a small liberal arts university, I was to go support the aging by getting an awesome job.

    Because of God’s generosity, the journey has been alright, and I have been able to interpret much of the vocational messiness you’ve outlined in your reflection. But it has certainly been difficult at times.

    Praise God that we are not the sum total of whatever job we had or title we carried, but are instead exquisite, complicated creatures with potential that doesn’t end in this life but continues in the New Creation.

    Grace and peace to you, Deb 🙂

  • Jill Feikema says:

    I was taken with a our article—- in that I too attended the Calvin ceremony for the class of ‘22 and President LeRoy echoed your voice; He told grads NOT to go out and be heroes but to seek to serve. There was no plea to be the best and greatest. I thought it to be a wise and realistic commencement address.
    But then later at the reception I overheard 2 grads lamenting the msg—- yes the Cinderella super hero story attracts us all— but winning is found in everyday diligence and Gods persistence in us! This is a msg perhaps too hard to absorb when on the cusp of life? I’m grateful that I don’t need to be a hero – Christ already did that for me.

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