For college students getting ready to embark on their post-graduate lives, a sense of purpose can be a North Star, illuminating the path toward personal development, fulfillment, and success. Having a clear sense of purpose provides students with direction and resilience, brings meaning to their endeavors, improves their mental health, and empowers them to make informed decisions about their futures. When students can identify and live according to their purpose, they can cultivate a deep sense of belonging within themselves and their communities. The pursuit of purpose shapes the college experience and lays the foundation for meaningful living beyond graduation — but how do students find something as elusive and individual as purpose? At Belmont University, they are finding it through alumni in the Purpose Mentorship Program.

“We are trying to help students know who they are, who they were made to be, what makes them unique — and how they can capitalize on that for the sake of communal flourishing,” said Joe Mankowski, the Transformational Project Strategist at Belmont University, where he heads the Purpose Mentorship Program. 

Belmont is a private Christian university in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. It attracts students with dreams of making it on Music Row, young entrepreneurs, aspiring medical professionals, and — like most college students — young adults who are still trying to find their passion and understand how to pursue it. A 2019 study conducted by Gallup in partnership with Bates College explored that pursuit, defining and measuring purposeful work experiences among college graduates. The study found that 80 percent of college graduates say that it is extremely important (43 percent) or very important (37 percent) to find purpose in their work — yet, less than half of those graduates reported finding it. Graduates who report a strong sense of purpose in work are almost ten times more likely to meet the criteria of overall well-being, which encompasses mental, emotional, physical, and financial health. This research reiterated previous findings that deriving purpose from one’s work is correlated with “having someone who encourages students’ goals and dreams.” 

“We aren’t just training students for a job; we are forming whole people.”

In Belmont’s Purpose Mentorship Program, that “someone” is a university alum — a person who has been in the student’s position, often within the last several years, and made the transition from commencement day to purposeful work. Launched in the 2021-2022 academic year with funding from the Coalition for Transformational Education and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the initiative is emblematic of a broader mission that President Greg Jones and Reverend Susan Pendleton Jones brought with them to Belmont. Making it a focal point of his administration, President Jones’s Discovering Purpose course asks students, “What’s your why?” This question, which is also the driving concept behind the Purpose Mentorship Program, prompts students to reflect on the process of meaning-making both as individuals and as members of a vibrant community. 

Originally piloted by the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business and the Massey College of Business, the Purpose Mentorship Program fosters meaningful connection between alumni and students, helping students to envision their futures and articulate their goals. Alumni are recommended by faculty and staff based on character, humility, and leadership skills in addition to professional success. Each mentor circle is composed of one alumni mentor and a cohort of 2-5 students. Mentors are prepared with curriculum-based discussion points and encouraged to engage in their own self-reflection on purpose and identity. The groups meet monthly to walk through how one’s purpose develops over the course of the college years and manifests in life beyond graduation.

As a Belmont alumnus himself, Mankowski views the Purpose Mentorship Program as a reflection of Belmont’s mission to cultivate “whole-person development,” educating leaders of character and wisdom. “Being part of a community that has so consistently and fully invested in its students has motivated me to find ways to invest back into the community,” he says. 

Mankowski understands just how vital the relationships formed through the program are for students making decisions about their futures. Equally significant, he says, are the questions it asks. As he explains, “If you know why you’re here, it gives you so much latitude and freedom.” The program begins by asking students who they are in the context of their communities — college students, interns, roommates, daughters, sons, partners. While understanding those identities can begin to help students locate their goals, Mankowski says, it also is imperative that they “take a step back and ask, ‘Why do I think humans exist? Why do I think we work? Why do I think we love?’”

“In an achievement-based culture, it’s so easy for students to prioritize work at the expense of self-reflection, self-awareness and introspection. We are holding space for that exploration.”

In a climate of careerism, immense student debt, and hustle culture, students may fall into the trap of basing their identities entirely on work in an effort to secure high-income jobs. When students pursue these bestowed metrics of status and worth —  job titles, grade-point averages, salaries — at the expense of finding their purpose, their overall well-being can suffer. That’s why, according to Dr. Amy Crook, Vice President for Transformative Innovation, Character and Purpose, the search for purpose is more than work. It is a lifelong quest for identity and understanding — not just within oneself, but in service to others. “We want students to realize they are more than their job,” Crook said. “Their ultimate happiness, fulfillment, joy and ability to make the world a better place is much larger than their job titles. We aren’t just training students for a job; we are forming whole people, and we want them to feel confident in exploring these bigger questions. And we are doing so through supportive, caring contacts who can be honest about the obstacles they faced and the opportunities where they were able to make choices to have a more fulfilling life.”

Mankowski echoed this sentiment, noting that “in an achievement-based culture, it’s so easy for students to prioritize work at the expense of self-reflection, self-awareness and introspection. We are holding space for that exploration.” 

What better guides for their North Star journey than those who paved the way before them? Mankowski views alumni relationships as crucial to the purpose initiative. The program pairs students with alumni mentors based on 5 distinct areas of purpose designed to gauge motivations and values, rather than organizing them by career or major. These 5 personalities — the creative visionary, the compassionate guide, the sincere storyteller, the thoughtful investigator, and the organizational innovator — act as a litmus test for students and alumni to connect across professional disciplines, forming what Mankowski calls “unlikely partnerships” that reinforce the belief that purpose is not a professional identity, but an ideological one. The program also directs students to courses that may be best suited to their style of purpose — the sincere storyteller might enjoy a creative writing workshop, while the organizational innovator may gravitate toward the biology lab — bringing meaning and individuality into the classroom. This approach helps students connect their curriculum to real-world experiences, building the relationship between purpose and academic or professional life.

The transformative potential of the Purpose Mentorship Program lies in these relationships — between students and alumni mentors, and between academic life and self-reflection. Mankowski notes that the program gives students “a sense of unconditional mattering — that is how we connect with ourselves, with our life’s purpose, and with each other.”