“Discovering Vocation and Calling” with Jacqui Smith-Bates

Jacqui Smith-Bates serves as the associate vice president of Student Life at Seattle Pacific University. She has been the director of the Center for Career and Calling for the past 21 years. She started at SPU as an internship coordinator in 1986. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology for eight years. Jacqui loves helping students discover how God has uniquely created them to serve the world and then helping them connect with people and organizations who share their passions.

Amanda Stubbert: Jacqui, thank you for being with us today. The first thing I have to ask you is about the Center for Career and Calling. Most schools have a career center, but they don’t have that extra word calling in there. What is so different about the department where you’ve worked on for so long?

Jacqui Smith-Bates: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think one of the uniquenesses of our career center is that we really focus on the whole aspect of helping students discern their essential creativeness, like who God created them to be, no matter what your faith or even lack thereof. It’s like, who are you at your very core? What’s your essential creativeness? And then that is the starting point for where you work out what I want to do with my life, what I want to do in my life.

So one of the uniquenesses of SPU is that we, oh gosh, a couple of decades ago, got a grant from the Lilly Foundation to work on vocation on campuses campus-wide, not just the career center, but we did some work in that arena and we discovered that for our type of university, we weren’t all about just, “Oh, get a good job as an investment banker and get rich and live in New York City,” nor were we about, “Don’t worry about it; just pray and God will take care of everything. You don’t have to do anything.”

So we were at a space in the middle where we wanted certainly students to discover and use their giftedness and figure out how to work that out in the world, not sit around and wait for God to do all the work because it’s a joint project here and how to move that forward from the point of, “Who am I and what’s my creativeness?” So then we decided to rename our center the Center for Career and Calling, because we’re doing both. We’re helping students work out their career based on their sense of calling.

Amanda: I love that so much, as someone who’s done multiple things in my life, in my career, and I feel like I think who I am is a big thing. And I think most of us would say the same thing. We can’t just pick one and say, “That is who I am, full stop.” So I love this idea of finding out who you are and what you want to do in the world because there’s so many different ways you can live that out. As we look at statistics these days, right, our graduates are going to have many, many, many jobs, but possibly one calling that’s a through line through the whole process, right?

Jacqui Smith-BatesJacqui: Yeah, that’s right. And possibly several different careers, but still with a calling through line, and sometimes calling’s tweak and change and twist, but generally speaking, who you feel called to be or what you would like to see changed in the world or what are your key concerns or what you feel motivated to contribute your essential gifts to, those are usually, as you say, through lines. Yeah, that’s a good term for it.

Amanda: I would say of my own life, not that you asked, but of my own life, I would say that in college I discovered I am a storyteller. At the heart of who I am is a storyteller, and yet how that has played itself out has changed and morphed many times over the years. But I feel there’s lots of peace to be gained in knowing that I know who I am, even if I don’t know what the next iteration of job is going to look like. There’s just some peace in that. I know so many college students who just come in going, “I don’t know what I want to do.” And I think it helps get some foundation there, don’t you think?

Jacqui: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. That’s a nice way to put it, that I am essentially a storyteller and there are lots of places where I can be a storyteller. And I think you’ve had those various places. You’ve been in theater and several other things, and now you’re in the alumni office still telling stories. There’s a way to work out that theme in lots of various places and that will change over your life. And that’s all good.

Amanda: Absolutely. And I feel like one of the best parts of that knowledge for me was times in my life where I really had no idea what was coming next. I had the privilege of being able to be a stay-at-home mom with my kids when they were really little. But there was a part of me, there were muscles I wasn’t exercising, but I knew I could still work on being a storyteller, even if it wasn’t going to turn into something. I maybe wasn’t writing stories that were getting published, but I could still work on that aspect of who I was. So it gives you some focus.

Jacqui: Yeah, that’s right, some groundedness and some focus, yeah. That’s hard work getting to that point, though.

Amanda: Yes, absolutely.

Jacqui: Identifying and then articulating, “I’m essentially a storyteller.” But that’s such a good thing to know because even if you’re doing a career transition, you can figure out a way to weave that theme into various kinds of jobs that you’re applying for and you’re still telling the story of, “Who am I?” Because one of the things that I always tell students when we talk about interviewing and even writing resumes and all of those just career skills that you layer on top of the foundation of who am I, with those career skills, essentially what employers are asking you one way or another, they want to know what you can do. They want to know if you can do this job, but they really want to know who are you. And so if you can identify that and articulate that in a way that will make sense to that employer … you’ve got to do some translation work … then that’s what’s going to work. That’s what’s going to be successful.

Amanda: And I feel like that goes both ways, doesn’t it? If you go into an interview saying, “This is who I am, and if this kind of person with these skillsets is who you’re looking for, then you should pick me, but if it’s not, please don’t, because this is authentically who I am and we’re both going to suffer …”

Jacqui: That’s right.

Amanda: “… if I’m lying about who I am and then that’s who you’re expecting.” I just recently helped a friend through an interview process, and that was big. That was very eye-opening to her. And I think I was really sharing actually advice that you had given me at one point. But really, it gives you that confidence of “I’m not begging for this job.” I’m just like, “This is who I am, and if that’s who you want, then you should absolutely pick me.”

Jacqui: Absolutely. Yeah. No, that’s really true. And I think the whole key you’re getting at here is finding a fit, how important it is to find a fit, and a fit goes both ways. Because if you sort of morph yourself into this little pretzel shape that that employer wants over there, and then you land there and then you go, “Ooh, I’m not that shape at all,” and it feels really bad. It feels really bad to you and it feels really bad to the employer eventually. And as you say, it’s a disservice to everyone. It’s lose-lose. So don’t try to pretend. I mean, we can all learn and grow. We can all change. But trying to be something essentially that isn’t really who you are is not going to work for anyone.

“We can all change. But trying to be something essentially that isn’t really who you are is not going to work for anyone.”

Amanda: Yeah. If someone comes to you in the midst of that struggle, what’s the difference between “I just need to get better at some of these skills” and “this really is a bad fit for me”?

Jacqui: That’s a good question. I guess it’s sort of what’s at your core if this is a bad fit or not. That’s why I think doing informational interviews is so important with different organizations to get a sense of … or even doing internships if you’re a student. That’s really essential … to get a sense of, “What is that place really like and is this really a fit for me or not?” So that’s different than, “Oh, I just blew that interview and I really liked that organization. I’d love to be there. But they asked me hard questions and I didn’t know how to answer them.”

So that’s the skill that you layer on top of your identity. So you can get better at interviewing skills. That’s a skill, but you don’t want to use that to your and the organization’s detriment. And I’ve seen this happen where people are super skilled at interviewing and they can ace an interview and then they get hired and then you realize as the employer and they realize as the employee, “This is not a fit. That’s not who they are. They faked it. They had that skill but it wasn’t authentic,” and then it’s lose-lose for everyone. Does that make sense?

Amanda: Oh, absolutely, which I realized this is off-topic, but I think it’s the same for relationships.

Jacqui: Yes, it is.

Amanda: If we don’t show up as ourselves, then we are not going to like the relationship we end up in.

Jacqui: That’s really true.

Amanda: There’s a little side note for you.

Jacqui: Excellent.

Amanda: Side piece of wisdom. So if you are later on in your career, if you are either forced to make a change or are just ready for a change and you maybe haven’t ever done that work of articulating, “Who am I? What is that core?” What advice would you give to start that journey, to start really discovering and being able to articulate, “Who am I?”

Jacqui: Yeah. Well, it depends partly on the resources you have, but I will say that at least on our website, on the Career Center website, there’s some great resources about helping you do assessments and doing some of that deeper level work. You can look at the field guide that’s on our website and you can also look at Pathway U that’s on our website that has some tools and exercises to help you ask yourself those hard questions, because it’s not quick and easy. It’s a deep, difficult reflection process that takes time. So it’s a practice.

So those are some starting points. In addition to that, I would say talking to as many people as you can about what they’re doing and what looks interesting to you and ask who else they might suggest that you talk to. So you’re building sort of a web of connection”s, of friendly connections of people that are doing things that you find interesting and you might want to do someday. You’re not going to know if you don’t get out there and start seeing what’s out in the world. And the way you do that is, “Oh, who do you know?” Ask your friends. Ask your family members. Asking your alumni is so important because they are essentially your extended family, and you want to use that extended family. I mean, I don’t mean “use” in a negative way. I mean in a positive way, where you connect with them and they connect with you. You build relationships with your extended family. They’re there to help you. They want to help you.

“It’s a deep, difficult reflection process that takes time. So it’s a practice.”

We just recently did one of our mega meetups [career fair/networking event] for STEM students, and actually for lots of students. It was packed. But we also reached out to several alumni and said, “Hey, we know you’re not recruiting for your organization, but we thought maybe you’d be interested in coming back and just chatting with students.” Oh, and we did this at the last minute. We had over a dozen alumni just show up just to chat with students. They weren’t recruiting for their organization.

Amanda: That is so fantastic.

Jacqui: Yeah. They just wanted to share their stories. So they’re out there and they want to help you. If you are a student or an alum of SPU or any other college or university or even high school, those are your extended network.

Amanda: It’s true. And I feel like sometimes one little conversation can save you years of hurt, I want to say. I remember again with the storyteller at heart, not that I could articulate it yet, but in high school, I had said to an attorney, being a Perry Mason fan, right, I wanted to get up there and tell the story, right, and convince the jury. And he said, “Well, there are times and places where it used be that way. But these days being a litigator is about 80% paperwork and maybe 15% to 20% other things.” And immediately I just thought, “Okay, that’s not what I want to do then.” But I could have gone for years thinking that that was going to be my life, only to have this rude awakening that it was 80% paperwork.

Jacqui: That’s a fantastic story. I have a similar one where I was always interested in jobs and careers, probably because I struggled and I just always found it fascinating. And so I decided I wanted to become an occupational therapist. One day, I just decided that. So then I applied to graduate school and then I was smart enough to have asked the admissions people, “Are there some alums I can talk to who are doing occupational therapy?” And they go, “Sure.” They gave me a couple names. So I went out and visited with this woman who was doing occupational therapy at a hospital. Within five minutes I thought, “No, no, no, no, no. There is no way I’m doing this.”

Amanda: Not what I want at all.

Jacqui: It’s a fabulous career but not a good fit for me. It just wasn’t a fit. And I knew right away I could have done an entire degree. You know why? Because I like school, and I like learning, and I would have been great at it, and then I’d have gotten out and gone, “Oh, no, no, no. This is not a good fit.”

Center for Career and Calling
Jacqui Smith-Bates (second from left) and the SPU Center for Career and Calling staff

Amanda: Right. Which I’ll have to put in one more plug for liberal arts, right?

Jacqui: Yes.

Amanda: Even if you do end up with a degree that you say, “The job I was going for, I’ve changed my mind,” but you’ve learned so many other things along the way, so often you can pivot even without going back to get another degree, which is just fabulous in my mind. Even in my own life, right, it has been so helpful.

Jacqui: Because you how to learn. You know how to deal with people. You know how to think critically. You know how to ask good questions. Those are critical skills.

Amanda: It is. Absolutely. So the final question I like to ask everyone on the podcast is, from your unique perspective and experience, if you were to tell everyone in Seattle to do one thing differently when they wake up tomorrow, what would you tell us all to do that would make the world a better place?

Jacqui: Oh my goodness, that’s a hard one. I think the world might be a better place. Well, apart from all kinds of political changes that I want to make, okay? Not counting those, not counting the fact that I want to rule the world and make all kinds of changes. But other than that, I think as an individual, just taking several deep breaths, calming your spirit, and paying attention to what’s deep inside you and what you honestly want to express that day, how you want to show up, how you want to show love of God and love of neighbor in that day. And if you can come from that sort of deeper, more centered space rather than from all the noise and buzz and pressure in your head, I think everyone shows up better and the world can be a kinder, and I don’t want to say kinder and gentler, but a kinder and better place for us all to coexist in.

Amanda: Absolutely. I agree with that. All right. I think we’re all going to try and be a little bit more authentically who we are.

Jacqui: Awesome.

Amanda: And thank you for giving us tools for those of us who are still trying to figure out exactly who that is.

Jacqui: Which is all of us.

Amanda: All of us.

Jacqui: Thank you.

Amanda: Thanks, Jacqui.


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