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Lilly Endowment grant helps students find meaning and purpose in life

By Amy Cockerham

Willie Painter '06 is not a quitter.

Wild Hope Project co-director and philosophy professor Paul Menzel meets with Willie Painter '06

When he graduated from PLU last spring, Painter's resume could have held its own against many working professionals. He served as president of the board for an Olympia sportsmen's association and operates an eBay site to generate income on the side. He was president of ASPLU his senior year, works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, served on numerous campus committees and is an all-around good guy.

He was also raised with a strong work ethic.

“I've always grown up thinking there are few limits to the adage ‘short term pain for long-term gain,'” explained Painter, who was raised south of Olympia, Wash., in unincorporated Thurston County.

But all his notions of professional obligation, duty and sacrifice began piling up on him this summer as he delved into a promising position as a management trainee at a large, multinational manufacturing company.

From Day One, the highly charged work environment had Painter's moral compass spinning out of control. Women in the office were degraded and harassed. Environmental practices were questionable at best. And in preparation for running his own 200,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center, Painter reviewed tax statements that left him extremely uncomfortable.

“It was a conflicted sense that I was on a very well paying track, but the business practices were in almost direct contradiction with my core values,” he said.

If hearing a 22-year-old seriously discuss his core values comes as a surprise, you haven't been on campus since the Wild Hope Project was initiated in 2003.

Funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, the $2.5-million project helps students develop a sense of their personal vocation, and provides support to faculty and staff in nurturing this development.

PLU is just one of 88 religiously affiliated schools funded by the Lilly Endowment to help students find meaning and purpose in life. To date, the endowment has spent over $217 million inspiring students to consider weighty, life-changing questions: What does the world need? What is it I want to create? What kind of footprint do I want to make on this planet?

At PLU, questions like that are known as “big enough questions.” They are, as program director and philosophy professor Paul Menzel observes, the kind of questions young adults are naturally considering, if not always consciously. Wild Hope provides a framework for discussing these issues through a variety of activities, from intensive retreats and focused discussion to guest speakers who exemplify a commitment to personal vocation.

As a student, Painter was steeped in the Wild Hope Project, and applied what he learned to the difficult situation he faced.

“The first thing I asked myself was, ‘Can I affect change from within? How long will it take? Can I wait that long while being emotionally drained by this? Is it worth resigning without something else lined up?'” he explained.

Had he not spent so much energy identifying his core values, Painter said he doubts he would have been so sure-footed and deliberate in his decision making process. All of which led the earnest go-getter to decide to quit.

“It was a tremendous sense of relief,” he says of tendering his resignation. “I don't think I realized how stressed I was until I spent my first work day not working there.”

The Lilly grant, on paper anyway, would never purport to help Painter through his job crisis. It is most emphatically not a career counseling project.

One of the primary goals of the Lily Endowment, in fact, is to address a severe shortage in the ranks of the clergy in this country across denominational bounds. Most pastors are older, and the number of young pastors ready to step in is woefully inadequate to meet demand.

But Lilly also endeavors to “assist students in examining the relationship between their faith and vocational choices,” as well as providing support for faculty and staff to help students on this journey.

The Lilly Endowment is one of the only philanthropic organizations in the country advancing the notion of vocation. By vocation, they don't mean small engine repair, either. The endowment is referring to the concept that each human being has a calling and a contribution to make toward humanity, be it in the clergy or in secular society.

In fact, Menzel and others involved in Wild Hope at PLU have taken to using the phrase “meaning and purpose in life” to counteract the common understanding of the word “vocation” as “career.” In a region of the country that is, as Acting Provost Patricia O'Connell Killen documents in her book “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” one of the “least churched” in the United States, it is important to make deeply theological concepts accessible and welcoming to students who are still sorting out their faith.

Since 1999, the endowment has made a name for itself in the world of philanthropy for its unusual approach to this wildly altruistic goal. The endowment was established in 1937 with gifts of stock from the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, although common stock is all that links the two entities now. Today, 60 to 70 percent of the grant funds issued in the endowment's three focus areas – community development, education and religion – stay in the state of Indiana. The religion division is the only one making grants on a national level.

That should give some indication of the level of importance the endowment places on the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), as the higher education effort is called, along with similar programs designed to reach high school students.

“The founders of this foundation really believe in the value of belonging to a congregation,” said Gretchen Wolfram, the endowment's communications director. “(The endowment) is curious about religion and sees the value of it as being a part of a person's life.

“Programs like this can cause students to give their choices another dimension. Teachers don't want to teach for the money, social work isn't for the money, so there are obviously other motivations to consider. … I think all of us have an intuitive feeling that young people in college are making the decisions of their lives at that point. They may have four or five careers in their life, but thinking through what they want to accomplish at an early stage will serve them well – no matter what they're doing.”

Kim Maphis Early directs the PTEV programs from an office on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., overseeing the grants and providing support to schools in the program. She said two features of the PTEV project reflect particularly well on the endowment's philosophy of grantmaking.

“One is that certainly the endowment has particular issues it wants to understand more deeply, or particular ways of life it wants to promote in terms of religious life and leadership,” she said. “But given that, I think they also understand at a very deep level that the religious and educational landscape is very diverse, and that a family foundation in Indianapolis may not know best, or at all, the best approach for those individual schools and religious traditions.”

The recognition that a one-size-fits-all solution would not work was supported by planning grants to each school. This provided influential and thoughtful campus leaders the time and resources necessary to develop a successful program.

At PLU, Wild Hope was designed by Menzel, Killen and a planning team of eight other faculty and staff. During the planning phase, they held nearly 100 face-to-face meetings with faculty, staff and students to float ideas and gather feedback. Their intent, according to Menzel, was that Wild Hope be “organic” to PLU.

As they went through the planning process, it became clear that to be organic meant there would not be a “center,” or discrete physical location, for Wild Hope. The planning team wanted it to be completely integrated into campus life, and to have as little central administration called Wild Hope as possible.

In fact, there are only a few events solely sponsored by the Wild Hope Project each year. In the fall, the Meant to Live conference brings influential speakers to share their vocational journey and inspire students to consider their own paths. During J-Term, freshmen are invited to a 30-hour off-campus retreat called Explore! The rest of the work is primarily co-sponsorships of speakers and other events, connecting students to service-learning opportunities, and developing faculty and staff to be effective supporters of students embarking on the journey.

Over the past two years, the freshmen-focused Explore! retreat has drawn about half of all freshmen. Menzel believes even those who don't come to the retreat or conference are influenced by the fact that the university is dedicating time and resources to address this dimension of their whole lives.

“Universities aren't duty-bound to do that,” Menzel observed. “When universities do it, it's very dignifying to students. Even when they're not jazzed about it, it's got to be dignifying. The university is telling them, ‘Your lives matter.'”

PLU received its Lilly grant in 2003, in the last of three rounds of grants issued by Lilly under the PTEV umbrella. At the 88 PTEV schools there is a definite sense of a groundswell of enthusiasm and momentum that the program is generating.

At another Lutheran school, Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., the Center for Vocational Reflection was founded to administer Augustana's Lilly grant. Bob Haak directs the program there.

“I think it's absolutely amazing,” Haak said of Lilly's efforts. “Five years ago I don't think people talked about vocation. Now you can pick up a newspaper, a secular newspaper, and see headlines about vocation that are in accord with the way Lilly uses (the term).

“That is an absolutely amazing thing to me that in five years' time and with $217 million, you can change the culture.”

The culture hasn't entirely changed, as Painter discovered at his job. After a couple of years of being encouraged to ask tough questions, he was unprepared for the answers he got when he requested a meeting with his branch manager to discuss the financial discrepancies and sexual harassment. “I'm still processing it,” he said.

Quitting without another job lined up went against every fiber of his being, but he knew that continuing in a morally compromising company wasn't the answer, either. He came back to PLU and is working with students on vocation, internships, service opportunities and employment at Ramstad Commons and for the Wild Hope Project – temporarily, he emphasized. One of the things he said he hopes to accomplish while he's here is helping students with the transition to the “real” world, and preparing them for just the kind of situation he faced.

“This program is still in its infancy and there's a lot we can learn about how to change it and encourage students to ask those big enough questions, and how to receive the answers in a way that doesn't crush their souls,” Painter said.

“Wild Hope teaches students a language, a language of asking these deep, heart-wrenching, mind-boggling questions. But beyond PLU's borders, it's usually a foreign language.”

Lilly funding for Wild Hope at PLU, and for all the other programs and schools, will expire within the next five years. Lilly awarded the funds based on a commitment from each school that when Lilly funds run out, the programs will not die. With the recent award of a $500,000 “sustainability” grant to take Wild Hope through 2011, the focus has already begun to shift toward how to keep it going after that.

Menzel would like to see it endowed, but also thinks that incorporating it into the university's annual operating budget would make a statement about the extent to which “big enough questions” and the search for meaning and purpose in life were already deeply congruent with PLU's Lutheran heritage.

“PLU is both a vital contemporary institution and an institution of the church, and when you put that together you have a group of people who have an obligation to look at this,” he said.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2006

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