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PALKO POV: Finding the Next Step

Here at UVA, the 400+ graduates of the Exceptional Assistants Seminar Series sponsored by Talent Development form a network that focuses on personal development and community service. I appreciate seeing how the University supports the professional development of Academic and Health System employees serving in an administrative or support role through this opportunity. I recently spoke at their annual conference, whose theme was “Honoring the Past, Treasuring the Present, Shaping the Future.” I built my reflections on “Living Authentically: Finding the Next Step” around the best advice I ever received from a student.

It was several years ago, during office hours, that Connor came in to chat with me about course selection for the upcoming semester. A question I posed prompted him to say, “It’s like Fr. Himes’ questions.” I had never heard of Fr. Himes, and so he explained. When you’re faced with a significant life decision, Fr. Himes advocates asking yourself three questions to guide your discernment process: 

  1. Is this a source of joy?
  2. Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts—engages all of your abilities—and uses them in the fullest way possible?
  3. Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large.

Or, reframed more pithily: “1) Do you get a kick out of it? 2) Are you any good at it? 3) Does anyone want you to do it?” For Himes, the existential question, What should I do with my life? is a question about what it means “to be fully, totally, absolutely as human as I can possibly be."

Listening to Connor synthesize this lesson for me offered me one of those “a-ha!” moments that those of us who build our careers in academia thrive on. One of the true pleasures of teaching is the chance to learn from your students, and I have taken the lesson I learned from Connor to heart, using it in my own life. The call to choose opportunities that bring us joy, which Himes defines as “the deep delight that one feels in being called to something still before you,” and tasks that we are good at, with the reminder to “look for the task that will continue to stretch you,” is a call to live authentically.  

For our interns at the Women’s Center, the heart of our engaged scholarship program is work done with the community, NOT on behalf of them. Himes' third question is a call to live in relationship. What a profound question! Do others need it? And what an oft-overlooked question! Himes is adamant: “We must hear from the people around us what they really need.” This is a common pitfall for activists, both new and seasoned. We can fall into the trap of seeing a problem, and, just knowing we know how to fix it, rushing in. Himes’ final question reminds us to pause and ask if our intended actions are needed.

Along with the rest of the staff at the Women’s Center, I’m reading President Ryan’s Wait, What?, in which he explores related thoughts about productive questions to pose yourself. In his reflections on the first question, “Wait, what?” he posits that “Inquiry, in other words, should always precede advocacy” (31). This is a crucial reminder to all of us engaged in the Women’s Center’s work.

Both of these sets of questions, Fr. Himes’ and Ryan’s, are invitations to be in relationship with the people around us. As Ryan says about asking how you can help someone, “You are likely to be open, as you should be, to the possibility that the person you are offering to help will likely have something to offer you in return” (97). Himes reminds us that while only we can determine for ourselves what brings us joy, ascertaining what we’re good at is best done with others: “Only others can reflect back to us what we do and how well we do it.” 

Having spent my entire life living by the academic calendar, I don’t think that I’ll ever consider January the true start of a “new year.” Even in a role that has largely taken me out of the classroom, my professional life and daily work rhythms are palpably shaped by the needs of the academic calendar. Add in the ways that the calendar at my daughter's middle school shapes our family life, and school’s rhythms are an incontrovertible influence on my life.

It’s not surprising, then, that as we welcome back our interns for a new year of work with us, I invite you to join me in pausing to reflect on where our individual paths have brought us over the past year and think about where we hope to go in the upcoming one.

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