Arts & Sciences

How to live a meaningful life

Vocational discernment classes are taught by faculty members (l to r) Drs. Melissa Shew, Elizabeth Angeli and Jennifer Henery.
Photo by Patrick Manning.

Vocational discernment courses provide students with reflective opportunities for self-discovery.

Dr. Melissa Shew always aims to teach classes she would have wanted to take as a student. But if she had been offered a class in vocational discernment, that would have intimidated her. 

“It would have terrified me the same way that it terrifies many of our own students,” says Shew, a teaching associate professor of philosophy and senior faculty fellow. “This class allows for and pushes a high-impact teaching and learning experience.”

Vocational discernment classes are offered as options of Marquette’s CORE 4929 courses, which all Marquette undergraduate students are required to take. CORE 4929 courses, taught most often by theology and philosophy instructors, allow for a range of curricula developed under the umbrella of “service of faith and promotion of justice.”

Vocational discernment helps students think critically and make ethical decisions in their personal lives, Shew says. Unlike the usual class with standard assignments at its core, in Shew’s CORE 4929 classes this fall, she will focus on this central question: How do you deliberate carefully and soundly about what you want and need to do in your life to make good, hard and meaningful decisions? 

Shew teaches students that making meaning takes deliberative practices, such as finding values and thinking critically. To this end, she challenges students with exercises. In one exercise, students create a values inventory and then think about how to align those values with careers, service activities and ways to help improve societal problems. 

“Underlying all of this is my desire to let students know that not everything is meaningless and hopeless,” Shew says. “They can make a difference and help make positive change in their communities.”

Dr. Elizabeth Angeli, Arts ’06, associate professor of English, also teaches vocational discernment courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels. In her classes students write about important influences in their lives, how they make decisions, and what values they take into the world. She gives personalized feedback to the students, recognizing important themes and guiding them to write more deeply about these themes.

Students are often frustrated by chewing on deep questions, but Angeli says that she hears positive feedback from students who have completed the class. An undergraduate engineering student emailed her at the end of last semester with a simple note: He was glad to have taken the class and now looks differently at his future. 

“It’s great to watch them grow and develop their confidence,” says Angeli, who hopes this class can bring authenticity and freedom to the lives of students. “It takes practice to trust yourself.” 

Shew has also loved watching her students creatively blossom. Her favorite example from this past year, when she co-taught with Dr. Jennifer Henery, Grad ’00, ’12, teaching assistant professor of theology, was a student who created an illustrated children’s book detailing her immigration story and how it aligns with her vocational desires in the legal profession. Stories like this are exactly why Shew and Henery love teaching this class — self-discovery can be terrifying, but it can also help students make important decisions.

“I want this class to be able to help them to live more meaningful lives,” Shew says.