Every once in a while it is nice when things don’t go according to plan.
For me, those were my four years as an undergrad at the University of Illinois. I had entered college with the intention of pursuing a degree in International Studies. My concentration was in “Middle East Politics & Policy.” The plan was to go on to pursue a career in diplomacy, move to Washington D. C. and intern with the State Department.
But then sophomore year happened and I realized that “The Plan” wasn’t really what I wanted anymore. Though I was doing fine in my coursework and maintaining a solid 3.98 GPA, my heart was no longer in it. I knew something had to change.
I remember sitting with my parents around the dinner table over Winter break to deliver the news. “Guys, I don’t think I want to pursue this degree anymore.” There was a pause. I could see the wheels turning as my mom and dad thought about how to respond.
Finally my dad spoke up. “Okay buddy. Do you know what you want to study instead?”
“Yeah. In fact, I’ve already switched to Religious Studies with a focus in Islamic Studies,” I declared.
After all, it’s always best to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, right?
Now it wasn’t wheels turning. It was train cars flying off the rails. My parents’ dreams of me becoming the next Nobel Prize Winner turned US President had just been traded in for a mountain of college debt and a degree that would allow me to dust books in some library somewhere for the rest of my life.
The rest of that evening was filled with lots of questions. I knew they were concerned. I had made a strange choice. What does someone do with a “Religious Studies” degree? Why Islam? Was I becoming a Muslim?
All justified questions from loving parents whose firstborn had just thrown them a tuition-sized curveball.
Though they never said it, others did: “Why would I spend so much money on such a useless degree?”
But that’s not what I believed. While I realized that I wasn’t interested in the “politics and policy” part of my old concentration, I still remained fascinated by the Middle East. Namely, I was fascinated by its people. Their language, culture, and history. Their worldview. And Islam is one of the defining factors that has shaped that part of the world over the last 1500 years.
Furthermore, nearly 2 billion people around the world self-identify as Muslim. On top of that nearly 84% of people in the world still claim a religious affiliation as a central part of their identity.
Far from being a “useless” degree, I saw Religious Studies as a gateway into understanding my world in a deeper way. By learning about the history, theology, and development of Islam as a world religion, as well as about the communities that have been formed and shaped by it, I was learning about my neighbors. I was learning how to be a global citizen. I was learning how to think about and understand my world from a different perspective. In short, I was receiving the best that a liberal arts education could give.
In addition, my own identity as a Christian was actually strengthened through my studies as well as by the relationships that I built with my professors and classmates.
And the results have been too rich to quantify.
Since graduation my studies have opened doors into inter-religious leadership settings and university board rooms. They’ve equipped me to engage in thoughtful reflection and debate around a host of social, cultural, and religious issues as I continued my education in Seminary. And, ultimately, they’ve made me a better leader in my own religious community, first as a college minister and now as a pastor.
While not a direct route to a safe career, it was a detour that ended up being the better journey. The truth is that many of us don’t know exactly what we are going to do when we start out in college or embark on the adventure of a new career. We are told to follow our passions or pursue the most sure-fire way to find a career and make money.
The problem is few of us really know our deepest passions at the start. And making money isn’t enough to provide meaning in life. What we need is something deeper and more satisfying, even if it initially sounds challenging. What we need is a mission. Cal Newport says that having a mission is powerful because
It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life?… they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world – a crucial factor in loving what you do. (So Good They Can’t Ignore You, 152)
What I learned in my unorthodox journey through college is the power of a mission to define the contours of my life rather than simply choosing the simplest, most straightforward path. In the words of Robert Frost, “I took the [road] less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”
The question is: on what roads will your mission take you?
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!