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three key questions article

Boston College Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Akua Sarr is continually approached by students with the same anxious question: What should I do after graduation? “It’s as if they’re looking to skip over college and get hired immediately,” she says.

Sarr steers students away from this line of inquiry and toward three questions that have become the foundation of career exploration at Boston College:


What brings me joy?
What am I good at?
What does the world need me to be?

By considering these simple but thought-provoking questions, Sarr explains, students discover what it is they enjoy most—and frequently, the answer to the question that brought them to her office in the first place.

“A college degree is about figuring out these big questions,” she says. “When students realize what truly makes them happy, they go on not only to meaningful careers but also meaningful lives.”

Fr. Michael Himes introduced “The Three Key Questions,” as they’re called across campus, when he arrived at Boston College as a professor of theology 16 years ago. Himes had identified those questions while he was on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame in the 1990s, helping students with “vocational discernment,” or the contemplative process of learning one’s religious purpose. It was partly on the basis of a popular lecture Himes gave at Boston College that the University applied for and received a grant funding to develop vocational programming around the questions, according to Burt Howell, director of the Division of University Mission and Ministry’s Intersections program. At Boston College, the concept of a “vocation” has broadened to include any type of career or life decision, says Howell.

The three questions remain strongly aligned with a Jesuit education, the goal of which, explains Director of Campus Ministry Fr. Anthony Penna, is for students to become “more of who they are.” The questions also draw heavily on the Jesuit tradition of self-reflection, Penna notes, in that students must find the answers themselves.

Boston College has recently increased the number of programs and offerings that explore the questions from many vantage points. The University has also begun introducing the topic of career exploration earlier: this year, for the first time, the Boston College Career Center presented a workshop about the Three Key Questions to all new students at freshman orientation. In addition, representatives from the Career Center, Academic Advising, and Mission and Ministry report they are collaborating more closely on programming that integrates the questions.

The idea, says Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Career Services Joseph Du Pont, is to create an on-campus community that “guides and empowers students to reflect on their talents.” He emphasizes, though, that no single workshop or program will fast-track students to their individual answers.

career connections

Students should approach career exploration as a process, he says, one that includes the following steps:

1. Meet the team. The Career Center has put together a “career exploration” team: four counselors and a director who are specifically trained to help students identify their strengths and talents, choose a major, and begin discussions about potential career paths, reports Du Pont. The “team” will focus on helping students explore the Three Key Questions while using skills assessment tools, going to workshops, or in one-on-one counseling. (The Career Center also offers more-targeted, customized career guidance services to students who may have selected a major or profession in the University’s professional schools.)  

2. Embrace new experiences. Answering the Three Key Questions often requires students to step out of their comfort zones. “They need to be flexible and open to change,” says Sarr. Joining clubs, going abroad for a semester or break, taking a course on an unfamiliar subject, and participating in service-learning trips are just a few ways that students can uncover new interests and talents, she adds. Penna agrees that “engaging in newness,” as he calls it, enhances students’ capacity for self-awareness. “The more students experience, the more they get to know who they are,” he explains. “They start to grow and understand themselves differently.”

3. Go on a retreat. Boston College sponsors a broad range of off-campus retreats such as 48Hours, which gives freshmen a chance to reflect. Offered four weekends a year by the Office of First Year Experience, it attracts 100 students per trip and is led by senior student leaders.

Five times a year, the Boston College Center for Student Formation, a division of Mission and Ministry, takes 40 to 60 students off campus for Halftime—a three-day retreat specifically designed to explore the Three Key Questions. Open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the retreat, says Center for Student Formation Director Michael Sacco, “gives students the time and space to slow down, unplug, and reflect on their lives.”

Through small-group work and panels led by peers and eight to ten faculty and staff members, participants consider their interests and priorities, with special emphasis on cultivating the Jesuit values of attentiveness, self-reflection, and social and personal responsibility. A Halftime retreat for seniors only is scheduled each August, says Sacco, “when those big vocation questions hit closer to home.”

4. Build relationships. Achieving the level of self-awareness required to answer the Three Key Questions is not a solo endeavor, says Penna. He advises students to seek out mentors to help guide the process and provide feedback. “When we know students well,” he explains, “we’re able to ask them the right questions and to challenge them in the right ways.” Campus ministers often meet one-on-one with students to engage in conversations about personal and professional decision-making.

Likewise, says Sarr, a main role of the Academic Advising Center is to work individually with students from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences to help define their personal values and educational goals. The center also sponsors programming, such as the weekly Professors and Pastries gatherings of students and faculty at Stokes Hall, to make it easier for students to get to know faculty members as mentors and resources. Along the same lines, the Center for Student Formation’s “SparkLunch” series brings together 16 students with faculty members to chat about an academic field or topic related to career exploration.

5. Personalize the process. Just as no two students end up with identical answers to the Three Key Questions, students can apply the questions in different ways as well, says Sacco. For instance, freshmen might use the questions to examine their interests and talents as they move away from their high school identities. Sophomores might reflect on choosing a major, and upperclassmen might call on the questions as they start their internship and job searches. And students pursuing majors with more rigid curriculums, such as nursing or education, can use the questions to think about the practice setting or specialty that best matches their values, adds Sacco.
Yet always, he notes, the ultimate goal is the same. “We’re helping students to find their purpose,” he says, “and to live their most authentic life.”

By Alicia Potter