For the past few years, I’ve suffered from a disease. In lay terms, it’s known as intermittent episodic seasonal analytical why can’t I just read write eat and travel for a living disorder, and its incidence runs high among liberal arts majors.
Those who suffer from IESAWCIJRWEATFALD fear an acute disconnect between the life of their minds and reality. They often hope to make a living helping people, yet their interests and vocational paths seem disconnected and aimless. My own symptoms were typical. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in psychology, left the U.S. to volunteer with the Peace Corps and came home to a psychiatric hospital—as an employee, of course. Upon the onset of the disorder, I did not know I would reach a cure, but I found it through work and study in the field of social justice. I recently began a masters program in social justice, and almost two years ago, helped found and now work for a not-for-profit social justice organization called Adventrek. Both my job and my studies are, beautifully, an amalgam of many diverse interests that I thought were disconnected.
So if your interests are diverse, but you want to do justice work—to improve the lives of the oppressed and poor—where do you begin? To serve most effectively, what do you study?
You can choose two educational paths: a specialist or generalist approach. Traditionally, most graduate programs offer the specialist approach. This approach trains students in a specific area and set of skills, be it law, social work, economics, public policy, public health or theology. Thousands of professionals trained in such disciplines contribute daily toward alleviating the suffering of the oppressed.
If your interests, like mine, are not that specific, you may prefer a generalist approach to graduate studies. To meet this demand, some schools now offer graduate programs in social justice. A masters program in the field trains students across relevant disciplines, providing an intellectual grounding in areas as diverse as the demands that justice makes.
I saw the necessity of approaching problems through a generalist; also known as a systemic, approach during my two-year stint in a fishing village with the Peace Corps. A decreasing fish population caused great problems in the village, but a full understanding of this issue took more than an environmental assessment. To begin to fix the problem, one would have to take a complete survey noting the convergence of the environmental, agricultural, governmental, educational and familial factors that contributed. Situations such as this made me realize that a generalist approach best addressed the complexities of real-life problems—and the approach also fit my diverse, and often fickle, interests.
Currently, I am enrolled in the M.A. in Social Justice program at Loyola University of Chicago. Marygrove College and the School for International Training (SIT) also offer similar degrees. During the next two years, I will take classes in areas such as economics and justice, community assessment and development, human rights, public policy, social analysis, non-violent interventions, leadership and grant writing, community development, theology and philosophy.
I found Loyola’s program to fit me well for several reasons. First, students in this program can take classes in other departments, drawing from a wide array of expertise from diverse professors. Loyola’s theology department offers classes in the prophets, liberation theology and Catholic social teaching, as well as classes that examine war and peace and worker rights from a Biblical perspective. To me, a firm theological framework is the driving force behind justice work.
Second, I saw an institutional commitment to justice issues at Loyola. St. Ignatius of Loyola was widely known for his work with the poor and oppressed and the program is a natural—even prophetic—extension of his mission.
Third, Loyola’s M.A. in Social Justice program attracts religiously diverse, young, idealistic types, like me, to a university setting. I am not Catholic, but I love learning from others’ religious backgrounds to see how their religious traditions approach justice issues.
Aside from study, volunteering may be the best way to figure out what you enjoy in justice work. Trends show that many other young people find this true. USA Today recently noted that volunteering has prodigiously increased: Teach for America tripled its applications since 2000, while last year, the Peace Corps had the largest amount of applications in 30 years.
I am not unique in my search for a career that fights for the rights of those who are not able to, and I am not unique either in my initial confusion as to how to begin that search. Whether you prefer a generalist or specialist approach, whether you prefer to work, volunteer, or study, there is hope for an exit from vocational chaos. The paths to justice may meander like paths in our own lives, but it’s normal. Keep working, and keep searching: things are probably more connected than they seem.