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Big Questions, Worthy Dreams

by Sharon Daloz Parks

Reviewed by Jennifer M. Mussi

Sharon Daloz Parks’ “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams,” is essential reading for anyone who works closely with young adults. Parks clearly has faith in the young adults with whom she works and writes about. The author’s eclectic background in psychology, education, ethics and spirituality provides her with a diverse perspective, from which she draws to offer a template for forging meaningful mentoring relationships with young adults. These are relationships that support, challenge, validate, encourage and cherish the rich future, promise and ambition of this generation. Parks is successful in presenting both theory and practice in a manner that offers suggestions and meaning for readers.

Chapter One begins with determining when an individual becomes an adult. Parks writes, “the promise and vulnerability of young adulthood lie in the experience of the birth of critical awareness and the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self, other, world and ‘God.'” (p. 5). Once an individual knows that he/she “has a life,” he/she begins to seek meaning and develop faith. Parks describes faith as, “the activity of seeking and discovering meaning in the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience” (p. 7).

In Chapter Two, Parks further discusses meaning and faith. She states, “A worthy faith must bear the test of lived experience in the real world – our discoveries and disappointments, expectations and betrayals, assumptions and surprises. It is in the ongoing dialogue between self and the world, between community and lived reality, that meaning – a faith – takes form” (p. 23). Parks employs a beautiful Jewish “wedding canopy” image depicted in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” when discussing how young people’s faith, purpose and meaning can be different from that of their parents and peers. She explains that sometimes we weave canopies that are not the same as the ones that our families associate with a religious faith. In “Fiddler” one of the daughters moves away, but promises her father that she will marry under the canopy – this is her gift to her father. Later, the second daughter decides not to marry under the canopy and her father is devastated. Our canopies are our beliefs and sometimes when our canopies do not match our parents, there is an unraveling of the fabric that holds the canopies together.

In Chapter Three titled, “Becoming At Home in the Universe,” Parks indicates that young adults begin to discover their place in the world when they step beyond the home that has sheltered them. Parks also provides a review of the works of human development theorists including Piaget, Erikson and Gilligan, which is a useful review for readers who are not familiar with human development theory. “It Matters How We Think” (Chapter Four) raises important questions about trust. In Chapter Five, “It All Depends,” Parks discusses forms of dependence and explores the content of relationships. In relationships, we learn from our interconnectedness, yet our dependence within these relationships can shed light on how young adults really feel about life situations. Parks illustrates the forms of dependence and provides a detailed discussion of each stage of dependence.

Chapter Six titled, “…On Belonging,” reviews the Paiget paradigm that “human becoming absolutely depends upon the quality of interaction between the person and his or her social world” (p. 89). Parks uses this paradigm to explore our networks of belonging and stresses the importance of community and how it “nourishes the development of human life” (page 91). While Parks discusses many community types, she states that for a young adult, the most powerful form of community is the mentoring community. “The sense of having a viable network of belonging is key. If a person becomes critically aware and begins to take responsibility for his understanding of faith, then recomposing truth includes recomposing his own sense of trust and power. In such moments, the recognition, presence, care, and faith of others can make all the difference” (p. 93).

Chapter Seven explores imagination and the power of adult faith. Parks says that, “the power of imagination humans participate in the ongoing creation of life itself, for better and for worse birthing new realities into being” (p. 105) and that through our imagination we entertain the “great questions of our time and craft the dreams we live by” (p. 105). Chapter Eight, “The Gifts of a Mentoring Environment,” defines a mentoring relationship as an “intentional, mutually demanding, and meaningful relationship between two individuals, a young adult and an older, wiser figure who assists the younger person in learning the ways of life” (p. 127). Parks believes that a mentor is one who recognizes, supports, challenges, inspires and engages a student in dialogue. Each of these mentor characteristics are discussed at length. It is in Chapter Eight that mentors can find a template for strengthening their mentoring relationships.

Chapter Nine reviews the different types of mentoring communities in which young adults participate. Parks identifies the communities as: higher education, professional education and the professions, the workplace, travel, the natural environment, families and religious faith communities. Each of these mentoring environments brings different mentoring relationships, which enrich a young adult’s life. Parks’ exploration of each of these communities is thorough and thoughtful and guarantees even the most seasoned professional will learn a thing or two from her research and commentary. In “Culture as Mentor” (Chapter Ten) Parks asks her readers to consider the whole cultural milieu in which the young people and the institutions and communities they seek mentoring relationships exist within. Parks defines culture as “composed of the forms of life by which a people cultivate and maintain a sense of meaning, thus giving shape and significance to their experience” (p. 206). At the conclusion of Chapter Ten, Parks appeals to mentors to examine their mentoring relationships. She says, “If adults are willing to undergo this critical re_examination of young adult Dreams, there is the possibility that a deepened, more mature and wiser passion becomes available. The self is renewed so as to beckon the promise of the next generation of young adults” (p. 222).

Throughout “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams,” Sharon Daloz Parks explores the intricate transition years with care, enthusiasm and a critical eye. She cares deeply for young people and speaks directly to those who work closely with them. Through “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams,” Parks provides a template for understanding and strengthening mentoring relationships during these critical human developmental years.

While reading this book, I could not help but remember all the people at the side of the road that have challenged and supported me during my own self_discovery and educational journey. I have always been someone who paused to recognize and thank those who have touched my life. I have taken on my mentor’s role with the students I now work with … I now mentor my students as I was mentored. It is a great joy to work with young people and I think it is a blessing that I discovered this profession. A career in college student affairs was not something that I dreamed up in grammar school. I wanted to be a reporter. I followed the journalism path until my senior year of college when I discovered a new dream. As a college newspaper editor, I researched many of the programs and initiatives offered at colleges and universities to counsel, advise and support students in times of achievement and tragedy. Had I not been pursuing journalism I would not have discovered a new interest in college student personnel. This realization opened new doors to me; I enrolled in a graduate program and began working in higher education. I literally followed one dream long enough for it to lead to the next. Today, I advise my students to dream and achieve and not be afraid of changing your mind. Each new experience and new opportunity should be embraced for it may lead to yet another worthy dream.

As stated by Parks, young adulthood is a challenging time of asking the big questions and discovering the worthy dreams. But finding the answers and following the dreams is the fun part as is watching our students come to these realizations.

Jennifer is a recent graduate of the Student Personnel Administration program in the Graduate School of Education at New York University. She is currently the Director of Student Activities at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University in New York City. Email: mussi@fordham.edu