EXPLORE! Pacific Lutheran University

 By Wendelyn Shore, Eva Frey Johnson, and Amber Dehne Baillon, Pacific Lutheran University1


The EXPLORE! retreat debuted at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) during the 2004-2005 academic year. The program is part of The Wild Hope Project, a university commitment to enhance the quality of student reflection on vocation made possible by funding from the Lilly Endowment and PLU. The overarching goal is to foster students’ sense of vocation, understood not as a career but as an ongoing process facilitated by education to prepare for a wide range of roles that serve the best in human life, consistent with the Lutheran vocational tradition of calling (Shore, Johnson, & Dehne Baillon, 2010).The retreat brings together triads of faculty, staff, and students to facilitate and guide conversations about vocational exploration with first-year students. As such, EXPLORE! is one of many opportunities available to students throughout their first-year experience. Other opportunities that support students in their transition to the university include instructional courses, first-year residence hall wings, and academic writing and inquiry courses.

EXPLORE! provides a space where students can grapple with questions that surround the vocation of a student. Through developmentally appropriate small group activities, students are invited to consider their transition to college, their unique talents and interests, and their Big Enough Questions (Parks, 2000). In large group sessions, students are introduced to the concepts of vocation and Big Enough Questions, hear the vocational stories of faculty and staff, and learn strategies for reflection.

EXPLORE! Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will understand Big Enough Questions as life companions and not questions to be answered immediately and without wavering.
  2. Students will have experienced talking about vocation in a context that includes and honors different wisdom traditions.
  3. Students will have practiced appropriate dialogue when exploring their Big Enough Questions with a diverse group of peers, faculty, and staff.
  4. Students will identify connections between their Big Enough Question and their vocation as students.

Character Development


First-year students are at an important juncture in their psycho-social and cognitive development. Traditional-aged first-year college students are at the cusp of emerging adulthood, a period of development spanning the late teens through the mid-twenties (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood is typically experienced by traditional age college students who are granted a moratorium by society to explore their own identity development (Arnett, 2004; Cote, 2006). Questions such as “Who am I?” and “What will I be when I grow up?” are common during this developmental period. At Pacific Lutheran University, attempts to impact the character development of first-year college students are explicit in the EXPLORE! retreat. In fact, EXPLORE! is designed to promote this self-reflection and thoughtful conversation around the concept of the vocation of a student to take advantage of students’ continued work on their identity and character development.


 Formal assessment of the retreat is reported in Shore, Johnson, and Dehne Baillon (2010). Results of that assessment affirm that students leave the retreat with a deepened understanding of vocation and the concept of Big Enough Questions. In particular, students report that

  • They understand vocation as a passion in life, a calling.
  • The vocation of a student is not about a career so much as self-discovery and identity development.
  • Their vocational journeys are life-long ones rather than problems to be solved during the first year of college.
  • Part of the vocation of a student is asking the Big Enough Questions and active contemplation of possible answers.

Future Goals


Assessment of EXPLORE! has revealed that, although the retreat curriculum resonates with the majority of participants, white Christian women are the demographic group most likely to attend EXPLORE! and seem most open to its message. Thus, we continue to consider programmatic changes that would increase effective participation by males, by students of color, and by non-Lutheran students. In January 2011 we revised the retreat curriculum in an attempt to more intentionally ground the idea of the vocation of a student in a developmentally appropriate way. The revised curriculum infused the character strengths of hope, curiosity, zest, compassion, and persistence as a way to deepen student conversation about vocation by introducing secular language that lends itself to university-based examples. It is designed to encourage students to understand vocation not only as a term to define, but as something to live out upon their return to campus. As such, it is consistent with one of our ongoing goals to connect EXPLORE! to other opportunities within a student’s first-year experience. By linking other programs to the EXPLORE! retreat, students should be more able to continue their vocational exploration during the weeks and months ahead.

The advances in student development, positive psychology, and emerging adulthood research have impacted the curriculum of EXPLORE! The intersection of these three areas has allowed us to attend to balancing both the cognitive and psycho-social developmental needs of traditional-aged first-year students. Along with these three areas of research, we have given particular attention to the pedagogy of event planning. This type of pedagogy, first published in Shore, Johnson, and Dehne Baillon (2010), emphasizes the importance of reflective event planning by building experiential learning environments that have outcomes that are clearly defined and are assessable. By paying careful attention to the detailed planning—the ways in which we recruit and train facilitators, design the curriculum, and coordinate the event’s logistics—we engage in a reflective planning process informed by relevant research and best practices.

Media links



Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.

Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cote, J. E. (2006). Emerging adulthood as an institutionalized moratorium: Risks and benefits to identity formation. In J.J. Arnett & J.L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Parks, S. D. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.

Shore, W., Johnson, E. F., & Dehne Baillon, A. (2010).  The pedagogy of event planning: Facilitating first-year college students’ reflective learning. Journal of College & Character, 11, 1-12.

1Wendelyn Shore is professor and chair of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University. Her scholarship includes research on the acquisition and representation of word meanings, and a second research program investigating effective mentoring of college students. Eva Frey Johnson serves as the dean of student development at Pacific Lutheran University. She is completing her dissertation in the educational leadership program at Seattle University, focusing on first-generation college students. Amber Dehne Baillon is the assistant director of student involvement and leadership at Pacific Lutheran University. Amber has a master’s of science degree from Miami University, Ohio and oversees programs associated with the first-year experience program.


Contact Information

Amber Dehne Baillon
Assistant Director, Student Involvement & Leadership
Pacific Lutheran UniversityThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(253) 535-7195