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'Where are you going?'

By Alexandra Wertz '12
March 30, 2011

Lilly Vocational Intern Marija Crosson '09 came up with the idea for the Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat after noticing a lack of specificity about the concept of vocation and systemic support for second-year students on campus.

On the outskirts of Thiruvannamalai, a small, rural village in southern India, is an interfaith dialogue center called Quo Vadis. After briefly visiting the center while on Global Semester several years ago, something stuck with Marija Crosson '09. It wasn't the breathtaking scenery, the sweet chai tea, or even the intriguing conversations about Hinduism in India — it was simply the name. Quo Vadis, Crosson learned, means "Where are you going?"

Crosson feels like she has begun to answer that question for her own life in the yearlong position as the Lilly Vocational Intern at St. Olaf's Center for Experiential Learning (CEL). "Frederick Buechner, a writer and theologian, describes vocation as 'the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet,'" says Crosson. "For me, serving as the Lilly Vocational Intern at St. Olaf has provided a powerful and intimate intersection of those two things."

Now that Crosson has addressed her own "Quo Vadis," it's time to pay it forward. On April 2–3, 50 sophomore students will embark on their own Quo Vadis retreat, a time for them to reflect on where it is that they're going. "While the content of the Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat is not based on interfaith dialogue, the method is similar. We emphasize the importance of taking time to step away, gather in community, and reflect on how and where we are called in the world. If we think about life as a pilgrimage, the phrase 'Quo Vadis' provides a helpful orientation that reminds us to be reflective about how we live our lives every day," says Crosson.

Opportunity to reflect

Funded by a Lilly Sustainability Grant and a Presidential Initiative Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the retreat brings together 50 St. Olaf sophomores, 18 faculty and staff from varying disciplines and departments, 10 junior and senior student leaders, and 13 young alumni. Six different campus offices, including the CEL, Alumni and Parent Relations, Dean of Students, Residence Life, the President's Office, and the Pastor's Office, have also provided instrumental support throughout the process.    

Throughout the two-day retreat, the sophomore students will hear from their upperclass peers, faculty members, and alumni. Small-group discussions will focus on questions like "How do you live out vocation as a student?", "What brings you joy?", and "Who does the world need you to be?"

"Too often, I think our students cruise through lectures, discussion, and course readings without ever really taking time to stop and think for a second about what it all means," says Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt, who is attending the retreat. "But I think the ability to reflect is such an essential life skill. You are more aware of how you learn and why you do the things you do, and I think that helps you extract so much more from your experiences."

Vocation at St. Olaf
The idea for the retreat began when Crosson noticed something was missing. "As I did an environmental scan of campus life, I observed the lack of specificity around vocation and the lack of systematic support for students in their sophomore year," she says. "The retreat was born in response to these gaps."

While the term "vocation" has religious roots, the Quo Vadis retreat will challenge students to consider how vocation can play into other aspects of life as well. The numerous student and faculty leaders and alumni will bring their own definitions to the table.

"For me, vocation is the way that we integrate our interests and whole person into what we do. It is what makes the work you do complete," says student leader Courtney Payne '11.

"I see a vocation as a life philosophy that informs how and why we go about what it is we do," says senior leader Hal Halvorsen '11. "It's more than a career aspiration or a job opening. Vocation necessarily extends to life beyond the workday."

But regardless of whether students leave with a concrete definition of vocation, they will have had the chance to consider it. "Every student should have the opportunity to stop, especially in their sophomore year, and clarify who they are becoming and where they are going as a human being," says Crosson. "The broad nature of the question also serves as an avenue for further inquiry — the question can only be answered with more questions."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or