Transitions Reflection I: Journey, Home and Culture

When I set out on my adventure in early June, 2021, I had no idea what was in store for me. I was venturing very much into the unknown and unexplored. I was coming out of a place of personal and professional disorientation. I will spare the details; but suffice it to say that I was in a place of change. I was entering a new phase in life. I felt it, but I wasn’t quite sure what success looked like in this new chapter.  A friend said, “Pete, you could use a retreat.” I knew I was not living my best life. I held onto hope that this retreat would open new possibilities—not of the material kind, but a change in something fundamental. I hoped for a rediscovery of what was most true and important to me, and how to live my best life in my 60s. It was a search for authenticity. I believed that setting out on a camping adventure in the West would be my best avenue for this season of seeking. Because it was so different from anything I had experienced, I didn’t know what to expect. It was a leap of faith—with an underlying hope to discover fresh perspectives and renewed hope. 

Indeed, the journey I have chosen is a very personal and individual one. I am doing it with considerable separation from the institution I have been part of for decades and the community that has been my home for the past 16 years. It would be difficult for me to experience these same epiphanies and the same joys if I were as connected to and embedded in my customary life in my organization, university, college, and department. I have been able to step away during my sabbatical, into a summer of adventure. But, at the time of this writing, I am in an autumnal season of being alone, wrestling and coming to terms with some of my most basic desires, loves, fears, hopes and obstacles–both personally and professionally. 

In early September, I took a deep breath and considered the first three months of this adventure, posting reflections on what I had learned from this first portion of my sabbatical on Facebook. I wrote:

What I’ve learned so far: 

1 – Moving out of one’s comfort zone can be incredibly fulfilling. I hadn’t camped for nearly 20 years before setting out on this journey. And never by myself. The rewards are immeasurable.

2 – The natural world is awesome and surprising and life-giving. 

3 – I can be pretty good company. People close to me were both rooting for me to try this adventure and concerned that I’d be sad about being alone. Read #s 4 and 5

4 – Micro-moments of connection can be rich and unexpected. I have had memorable moments, many of them short conversations with people on trails (mostly) and campgrounds and restaurants/bars. The bond between people across ages, races and, yes, even political persuasions can be profoundly rich and life-giving.

5 – There is a paradox: Sometimes when the sights and sounds and odors of nature are the richest, there is an undercurrent of desire for connection, which is sometimes accompanied by sadness and even grief. I embrace this range of emotions.

6 – I want to and need to find ways to savor this and hold onto it when I return to institutional life.

7 – The public library system across the country is an awesome jewel.

8 – I can take care of myself pretty well, and that feels good.

Following the “What I’ve learned. . .” post, I continued my travels for a few more weeks. During this time, the basic form and goals of my travel were changing due to the transformations that had already affected me. I had made discoveries about myself, primarily through active engagement with the natural world, and through encounters with people who were experiencing their own counter-cultural experiences on the road and in nature. 

In addition to the personal changes taking hold in me, the environment was presenting something new. By the beginning of October, as I navigated my way through the coast and inland of the beautiful state of Oregon, the weather became cooler and the rainfall increased in the Pacific Northwest. I was clearly moving into a new season, and I wanted to understand how to make the most of this transition. Among other aspects of this change, it was a time for me to consider my adventure vis-à-vis my re-entry into a contemporary and conventional lifestyle—a return home. This was not going to happen imminently, but I was now at the mid-point of my journey. The reality was hitting me that this experience was finite. I would be returning home, even if not right away. 

Autumn Colors in Great Basin National Park, Nevada 

“Home” is one of the most important aspects of the human experience. I love my community (Athens, Ohio) and the connections it brings. During this time of reflection, I am also considering home in a larger context. I am reflecting on aspects of the larger systems that shape what happens locally, in my everyday experience as a resident of a college town and an employee of a university. By stepping out of normal institutional and community life, I have been able to make the familiar strange and see my work life in new ways. 

What are the fundamental characteristics of contemporary culture and how do those characteristics play out in my everyday life at the university? I found these words of Plotkin (2008) to accurately depict our current reality. He wrote: 

…technological progress is the highest value, and we were born to consume and discard natural resources. . . and, often, other people, especially if they are poor or from the global South. This is a world of commodities, not entities, and economic expansion is the primary measure of progress. Profits are valued over people, money over meaning, our national entitlement over global peace and justice, “us” over “them.” (p. 261)

Our institutions are, at least in part, products of this cultural mindset. And many of us who occupy positions in student affairs have indeed received benefits from this culture, at least on the surface. Capitalism and industrialization, with all their trappings, have seduced many of us to a path of comfort and success. But in this place, our engines often whirl, our wheels often spin, and we too often talk about how busy we are rather than about the core purpose of our work and our lives. The things that really matter take a back seat to the call of professional success. We exist at a time of threats to free democracies, compromised psychological and physical wellbeing (especially among the poor), and catastrophic environmental events. The work of student affairs has never existed in a vacuum, and this is no different today. It is important to recognize the conditions we are facing and the commitments needed to evolve into a promising future. 

I have recognized the loss of higher education’s grounding of our highest values in myself and in my colleagues. But I also see glimmers of a fundamental hope to be something more–something that is latent within us. In my travels over the summer, I experienced and tasted a reality, an alternative to everyday institutional life. On trails and in campgrounds, I met people who were deeply affected by the healing power and inspiration of the outdoors. This healing occurs because of beauty that is impossible to ignore when it is right in front of us. It is likely to be more evident when we are away from the trappings of institutional life that too often obscure and obfuscate what matters most in our lives and in our work. 

But even in my work in higher education, I have been reminded at times–between discussions of financial viability and enrollment declines–of the calling of this profession, grounded in celebrating and fostering what is deeply human. Those moments come to me periodically within the life of the university, most often in discussions with students about their struggles and fears; their dreams and passions; and their increasing awareness about themselves, their communities, and the world. It is occasionally found in a student’s articulation and discovery of a choice of a career, or even their completion of a credential, like a degree; indeed, these are causes for celebration. However, the moments that matter the most are found in the liminal spaces where students discover deeper senses of meaning and purpose that are beyond the everyday experience of our well-manicured campuses, beautiful brick and stone structures, and even the documents that bestow credibility in ever-changing career fields.  

We are now at a crossroads as a profession, as higher education institutions, and as a global society. It is a time of transition. Indeed, the immense challenges we currently face also present an opportunity to imagine and build a new life, a new future. It is a time to consider how to reconnect with the soul of our work and to undermine the contemporary realities that have degraded our institutions. 

Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. New World Library. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this reflection. I would like to invite you to engage in a discussion. Please feel free to take part in the discussion below 👇🏿

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