When I think of vocation, I think of many things: an inner sense of call; my spiritual beliefs; the lifelong influence of family, teachers, coaches, mentors and friends; and the willingness to try new things and jump headfirst into the unknown. All of these elements have come together in my own life and have given me a vocation in a field that I never would have predicted when I entered college.
I somehow always “knew” that I would be a teacher, even when I consciously considered other career paths. Maybe this conviction started in first grade when my teacher asked me to help another student who had developmental delays in speech. I remember that day—nearly 40 years ago—like it was yesterday. Perhaps I wanted to be a teacher because of the great respect I had for the teachers throughout my life who motivated me, challenged me, and treated me with kindness and understanding.
When I entered St. Olaf College as a first-year student, I planned on majoring in English and music. I loved those subjects, and I assumed that someday I would teach one of them. On a whim, I decided to take Russian to fulfill my language requirement. I don’t know why—I had no background in anything Russian. I was an absolutely awful beginning language student—I had not taken a foreign language in high school; I came from a different educational background than many of the other students; I was young; and I didn’t know how to study a foreign language. The one thing that kept me going that first year was that every Friday we would sing Russian folk songs at the end of the class hour. I could endure a whole week of grammar drills for those wonderful 10 minutes on Fridays. Yet despite the difficulty and my seeming lack of talent for the subject, Russian was my favorite subject. I sought out extra sources and studied during breaks and in the summer. I was fascinated by the language and culture and wanted to get “good” at it. And after I read Dostoevsky in translation, I was completely hooked. For some reason I knew that this—Russian language and literature—was the subject for me—it just felt “right.”
I have to add that during my second year in college I switched to a new academic adviser (she and I are still in contact 25 years later) and connected with several professors who gave me encouragement and played a major role in my personal and academic development. These professors treated me with respect, challenged me to perform at a high level (and weren’t afraid to give poor grades!) and were available and willing to talk about things outside the classroom. I owe these professors a great debt; their guidance helped lead me to where I am now.
Throughout the years (beginning while I was still in college), Russian teaching positions presented themselves at unforeseen and completely unexpected times…and I never declined an opportunity. As a result, over the past 20-plus years I have taught Russian language, literature, and culture to a wide variety of students: grade school, middle school, high school, and college/university. All of these experiences have helped me become a better teacher. I also direct a Russian folk ensemble at Luther that performs throughout the United States. Our ensemble does a great deal of service work in schools and in raising funds for charitable causes in Russia. In other words, my vocation involves the same interests (literature, music) that I had when I entered college—but in a completely unforeseen venue.
The influence of my family and upbringing also is crucial to my own sense of vocation. I was fortunate to be raised in a family of strong and independent women (my grandmother, with a sixth-grade education, ran her own business until she was 77 years old). Active involvement in church was important to my entire family. Also, (in the days before women’s sports were widely accepted) my dad introduced me to a wide variety of sports. My dad also made sure that I had my own workbench next to his own and that I knew how to work with tools. My dad wasn’t concerned with gender roles, and he didn’t have preset notions about who “should” do what. I realize now that this is something that deeply shaped me as a person.
When I think about vocation, I think about the role mentors played throughout my life. They met me where I was at and encouraged me to do my best. So while I am teaching my courses at Luther or advising students, I always try to keep in mind that students have many diverse talents and come from a variety of backgrounds. Perhaps a student who has difficulty in my class has other unique talents—or is involved in service to the greater community. Thanks to the way I was treated by my own mentors, I try to see the best in my students and provide opportunities for them. And, given my own story—I want my advisees and students to know that they don’t need to come to college knowing what they will do for the rest of their lives. Hopefully there will be people around them who will help them in that journey.