Grantee Spotlight: In Support of Purposeful Work

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill, Director of Faculty Engagement and Outreach, Bates Center for Purposeful Work, and Visiting Instructor of Psychology, Bates College

Six years ago, Bates College was awarded a $10,000 grant from BTtoP to create campus-based programming in support of students’ psychosocial well-being. This funding, along with the ideas BTtoP shared during the process of generating the program, sparked a curricular infusion that now impacts over 90 percent of Bates students by the time they graduate and is a major component of our campus-wide Purposeful Work program.

In September 2013, I attended the BTtoP Working Conference on Well-Being with my colleague Ellen Alcorn from Bates’ Harward Center for Community Partnerships. There, we were exposed to two seminal ideas that matched Bates’ institutional goals perfectly. First, we heard from Brandon Busteed, who discussed Gallup’s well-being research conducted in 155 countries that found overall well-being is predicted by purpose, which boils down to doing what we like and using our strengths every day. Since most individuals work for pay every day, purpose is often found in careers. Second, we heard from Georgetown University students who were taking classes in the Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning, which integrates health and well-being information into classes. The students were so enthusiastic about the curricular infusion model that we knew Georgetown was onto something.

Back on campus, Ellen and I were members of a working group established by our president, Clayton Spencer, to explore the concept of “purposeful work” as a core concern of the liberal arts. The working group was charged with formulating a conceptual case for purposeful work, testing the concepts with various campus constituents, and designing and piloting a program. We sought to enhance student well-being through a curricular infusion of purposeful work, an effort we dubbed the Purposeful Work Infusion Project.

What began with five faculty members, including myself, has grown to an institutionally supported program in which almost 45 percent of faculty members have connected purpose and meaning to course content in every department and program of the college. We’ve reached over 90 percent of students through the Purposeful Work Infusion Project, with many students taking multiple such classes before graduating. (The record to date is thirteen classes for one student!) Students’ responses have been overwhelmingly positive: 94 percent would recommend a Purposeful Work Infusion class to their peers, and over 70 percent believe their understanding and engagement in the classes were enhanced by the discussions of meaning and purpose.

By design, every Purposeful Work Infusion class makes the connection between course content and meaning and purpose in work and careers differently depending on class format. That said, after consulting with Joan Riley of Georgetown, one of the leaders of Georgetown’s curriculum infusion, we decided that all classes would include the same three elements as the Engelhard Project, but focused on purposeful work instead of health and wellness—at least one class session, one reading, and one self-reflective writing assignment would be devoted to the connection. Many faculty members bring in guest speakers to discuss their process of constructing a meaningful career, using materials related to the class content. We have supported hundreds of those speakers through honoraria and travel expenses.

The Purposeful Work Infusion Project is now just one of many core elements of the Bates Center for Purposeful Work, which was established in the summer of 2018 under the leadership of Allen Delong, senior associate dean. We also offer practitioner-taught courses led by professionals on skills-based topics such as music production, entrepreneurship, and digital marketing, as well as a Life Architecture course that provides juniors and seniors with a toolkit drawn from design thinking and positive psychology to support their lifelong pursuit of purpose in work. In addition, we provide a variety of cocurricular programs, including a comprehensive, funded internship program that features a network of core employers, and a community virtual cohort model in the summers; a job shadow program with required reflective elements; and a speaker series that highlights the nonlinear nature of the careers of distinguished alumni and parents. This programming is offered in addition to the traditional support provided in career development offices, including developmental counseling, resume and cover letter reviews, and on-campus interviewing. The goal, overall, is to layer the practical with a deep philosophical undergirding.

To pressure test and refine our approach, this past year we hired Gallup to conduct a nationwide, representative survey of college graduates, managers, and parents of college-age children on purpose in work. In April, we released our results, which include several key findings:

• College graduates who have purpose in work are ten times more likely to experience well-being in their lives.

• 80 percent of college graduates desire purpose in their work while only 38 percent have found it.

• Particular college experiences are correlated with having purpose in work after graduating, including having an internship, participating in a class that helps students think about pursuing purpose in work, and being encouraged by college staff to develop realistic expectations for the work world.

• Reflective thinking, especially on one’s strengths, values, and interests, is a key correlate of finding purpose in work.

This study, coupled with the data we gathered from participants in the Purposeful Work program, all lead to conclusions we suspected back in 2013: individuals flourish when they experience purpose in work, and, as colleges and universities, we have the tools to support our students’ search for purpose. This could be a compass for the direction in which higher education needs to navigate, and we look forward to continuing to explore best practices for doing so.