El Camino de Grad School: Learning to Trust God in a World Without Mile-Markers

The author on the Camino de Santiago

In the summer of 2018, I had the privilege of traveling to Spain with 12 other students from my university to walk two weeks across northern Spain on El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James.” 

This pilgrimage, an item on my bucket list since I saw the Martin Sheen movie, “The Way,” was a graduation present to myself. Only a month earlier, I had completed a Ph.D. in Community Psychology focusing on research with religious ministry groups and nonprofits. After four years of undergraduate studies and another five getting my M.A./Ph.D., it seemed only fitting to end my long academic journey with a physical one. 

This pilgrimage was a chance to escape for two weeks and walk through Spain with God. He and I had much to discuss, after all. What was next for me? He had sent me to graduate school, and now that I was at the end of that journey, I worried that I would head in the wrong direction with my career. During my two week walk, I listened, I prayed, I journaled, I looked for answers, but it wasn’t really until my final day that I started to find some sort of clarity about life post-Camino.

On our last day in Santiago de Compostela, before returning to the States, I found myself sitting in the garden in front of the hotel/seminary where we were staying. I sat across the plaza from the grand façade of the Santiago Cathedral, marveling at the journey I had just completed. My feet were sore, my legs muscles screamed, and my right knee threatened mutiny anytime I attempted stairs… but I had done it nevertheless. I smiled as I compared my Camino to another arduous journey I had completed mere weeks prior to boarding my plane to Spain: El Camino de Grad School. 

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I laughed as I held the two caminos parallel for comparison. Five years ago, I entered graduate school straight out of undergrad, and, like my journey across Northern Spain, I hadn’t really known what I had signed on for. There had been high points for sure, like landing a big research grant, signing the contract for my first paid research project, and of course defending my dissertation. 

But there had also been points when I had been ready to give up and crumble where I stood. In many ways, grad school is made to push you to your limits; academically, emotionally, and mentally. You get thrown one thing after another and there isn’t much time to recover between your research, teaching, classwork, and thesis responsibilities. The camino is like that too. It strips you down to the bare necessities, pushes you to your physical limit and forces you to put your head down and just walk. In my opinion, grad school wasn’t dissimilar from hiking 16 miles on broken blisters, with a swollen throbbing knee, in the rain. 

The author with some canine companions along the way

Yet somehow, in both cases, I had persisted. Eventually something small like a good meal, a cute dog, or an encouraging word from a fellow pilgrim would give me the strength to keep trudging forward. In grad school, this “something small” may have been a “good job” email from my advisor, a thank you note from a client, or getting to pet a cute dog (are you seeing a canine trend in my self-care?)

I did reach my goal, on both counts. Heck, I even had the certificates to prove it. Now I sat at the end of both these grand adventures. I was exhausted, broken and bruised. However, I was also proud, content in the knowledge that I had achieved what I had set out to accomplish. But another feeling, a restlessness, had been creeping in along my camino, and had become more pronounced when I finally reached Santiago. It was the realization that I now stood at the beginning of another journey, and unlike all years previous, when I was a student, this journey was not well marked. And I am not ashamed to say the lack of structure is terrifying. How do I begin to form a life based on my culmination of experiences? How do I make God “proud of me”? 

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As if in answer to my question, something I had come up with a week ago during a group reflection crept out of the recesses of my mind: “Go home and tell them of your heart, not your feet.” In short, I had a responsibility to take what I had learned from God — in grad school and on El Camino — and to do something with it to make the world just a fraction better because I had been made better by these experiences. 

I would like to say I returned to the States to a religious ministry research job that allows me to change the world one Excel spreadsheet at a time, and that I never doubt God’s plan for me. But as anyone will tell you who is walking down a path because God pointed at it, it is never that simple. 

In the last year, God has continued to invite me to not just hide behind spreadsheets, but to go out and teach. I am entering year four of college teaching, while also teaching Sunday school and subbing at a PreK – eighth-grade Catholic school. While it might not be my long-term calling, I notice it does help me relate to my research and evaluation clients who work with kids, teens, and adults. It gives me compassion when writing recommendations in evaluation reports, which make me a better help to my clients.  

Have I had as many religious ministry clients as I had hoped? No. But building a business takes time and patience. In the meantime, I have had the chance to work with some wonderful secular groups who are doing God’s work in the world even if they aren’t necessarily teaching God’s word. I have grown as a researcher and Catholic. I have been able to make a difference in how my clients minister to others, and that is making the world a fraction better than I found it.

Santiago and graduation are merely kilometer markers on a larger journey. So for now, I continue trudging forward as a lifelong student and as a lifelong pilgrim. Maybe at the end, I will be able to stand next to God and see the clearly marked path through the wilderness. Until then, I’m going to have to keep walking in uncertainty and of course, in faith.