The college where I work has this program called Tuesday Talks where faculty and staff members are invited to share with students about how they found their calling/vocation. I was asked to share about 6 years ago, but was recently asked to give another talk. This is the text of the talk I gave.
I have a confession to make. I really struggled getting started on writing out what I wanted to tell you today. I wanted to do a little more than just give you an outline of my career progression or tell you about this magical moment when I discovered exactly what it is I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To be honest…I’m not sure I’ve ever really had that one singular moment. (I’ll talk more about that later.)
So…in thinking about what I wanted you most to understand about my journey is what’s taken me so long to actually figure out for myself. And that discovery, for me, has been both very recent and extremely profound.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian church in Tennessee and for years I was taught about God’s will and purpose. I believed what my church taught and that was that God had this great, masterful plan for my life and if I were faithful enough, I would be shown that plan and ultimately live in the peace and comfort that can only come from knowing I’m doing God’s will. In my attempt to find that ultimate goal, I attended a Christian college and pursued a Psychology degree with a minor in theology. I had always been interested in psychology. I loved trying to figure out why people behaved the way they did. I was also someone that people trusted with their secrets and to whom people came for advice. My plan was to attend seminary and become a Christian counselor. I even went so far as to take Biblical Greek as my foreign language requirement. So, if there are any religion majors out there that plan to take Biblical Greek…all I can say is “bless your heart”. I truly believed this was the path I was supposed to take, but toward the end of my senior year, I was coming to terms with a bit of a shift in my faith. My grandmother was very sick and I knew at Christmas that year that it would probably her last. She was the most important person in my life and I had no idea what my life would be without her. I had also spent the past couple of years reconciling my faith with a childhood I spent a lifetime running away from. Because for a lot of people, college becomes a place where you are finally allowed to discover the kind of person you want to be – you begin to discover your values, your likes, and your joys. And even in a restrictive environment like a conservative Christian college, I found myself battling the person I was destined to become versus the person I thought I was based on a traumatic upbringing. I wasn’t quite sure my faith could withstand the healing and restoration that was desperately needed in my life. How in the world was I to find God’s will in all of this? Did God really have a purpose for me and if so…did I really want to find it?
In just the right time, though, a couple of people made their way into my life and managed to help me make sense of the mess I found myself in.
Holly was a Student Affairs administrator at Union University, the college I attended. She was the Director of Student Programs and she was the advisor for the Student Activities Council – a large student group that was in charge of all the events and programming on campus. I was a leader of this group and Holly quickly became a mentor to me. I admired her tenacity and her charisma. She was insightful and hilariously funny. She exemplified servant leadership in everything she did. In one of our meetings she suggested that I check out the Student Affairs career path. I never thought about this option because I didn’t really know it existed. I loved being involved in campus life, I loved being a leader, I loved planning events and leading my peers to make it all happen. I loved providing occasions for memories to be made. Holly recognized this passion in me because it was also one of her own.
Another person that played a part in changing my perspective was a professor of mine. Dr. Gushee was and is still a prominent voice in Christian thought and practice. I was lucky enough to have him for a few courses during his time at Union and I admired his wisdom and thoughtfulness. He was always so real – incredibly relatable and always willing to talk to his students outside of the classroom. Dr. Gushee and I also attended the same church and we talked occasionally about life and faith and dealing with all of these questions. Dr. Gushee was the first person from “the church” to tell me it was ok to be questioning. He even said, “Well, Tonya, you might not be a Baptist anymore and that is ok.” I felt complete horror at the thought, but…ultimately, it was the complete truth. I needed to hear this. And I needed to be ok with living in the questions.
Fast forward to 2005, I landed here at Hendrix. Since I have been here, I have finished my master’s degree and been promoted from Assistant Director to Director of Student Activities. I have had the most incredible opportunities and experiences. I have met some truly amazing people. In fact, some of the most important people in my life are people I’ve connected to through Hendrix.
It has not always been like that, though. It’s tough for me to say this out loud, I have struggled being at peace in Arkansas. I have had a hard time connecting to this state as someone who identifies as a lesbian and a very liberal Democrat. I have struggled to find a faith community and for a long time, to even find meaningful friendships. Conway is kind of a tough place to be for a single thirty-something. All of these struggles brought me to a place of real doubt as to whether or not I should continue living here. Yet again, in my mid-30’s, I found myself in the mess of trying to discern what it is I am supposed to be doing with my life.
Like in college, though, I found myself reminded of the people that have come into my life through Hendrix. And more importantly, I began to realize the immeasurable joy I have experienced in making an impact in the life of someone else. For example:
The fearless and funny student that had a strong desire to change Hendrix for the better when it comes LGBT issues. We laughed together, we had passionate discussions together. We were the best of partners.
The incredibly kind and quiet Couch girl that found her voice…and the strong, sassy, wickedly smart sociologist that helped me rediscover mine.
The silly, thoughtful, and uncommonly wise girl that humbly led her peers with poise and grace.
And, finally, the most caring, dedicated, passionate, and fiercely strong group of faculty and staff friends that share my dedication to making an impact in the lives of others.
In closing…a line in a poem I read recently says “let the beauty you love be what you do”. And when I look back at my life and look around myself today, it is glaringly obvious that the beauty in my life is people. And no, it’s not just those people that are a part of the good experiences in my life. Those people that bring such joy and love wherever they go. It’s also seeing the beauty in those people that were a part of the not so good experiences as well. This past August, I gave the eulogy at my uncle’s funeral. He wasn’t even 50 years old and he died of complications due to his addiction to various drugs. He was a man that lived a violent and painful life. In my eulogy, though, I found a way to speak of his courage, his admirable yet sometimes skewed sense of justice, and his deep, but somewhat misplaced love for his family. It is because of people like him that I think I am able to do what it is I try to do in my life and in my work. And that is to find that “beauty”. I want to tap in to that thing that allows someone to be a better a friend, a better leader, a better communicator, or just a better person in general.
So…that’s where I am, friends. My vocation or calling has never been about that one, singular, A-HA moment. It’s not about the actual “job” that I have. It’s about finding what it is that I love about the world around me and connecting it to what I do in my every day life – in whatever job that is. And I’ll tell you…this discovery took quite a long time. So, don’t make a fuss about needing to have it all figured out by the time you’re 25. It’s not going to happen…and you can’t force it. It’s a process that renews itself over and over again. I think that as long as you’re in a place and amongst people that love you and share with you in this journey and who allow you to just be clueless for a while, I think you’ll be ok.