Finding Your Calling: A Reflection Retreat for Graduate Students

By Yas Hardaway

Our students are busy—whether from curricular requirements, co-curricular activities, employment, and/or personal responsibilities. Creating the time and space for reflection can be quite the challenge, and with graduate students, the challenge may be exacerbated for those who are returning to school and juggling multiple life responsibilities. This also leaves less time for community engagement in their graduate program, which is an important part of building one’s network. However, as career counselor educators, we know the value of reflection for vocational discernment and building community for career connections.

Unique Retreat Experience

Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education & Psychology (GSEP) draws from narrative theory to promote self-reflection and vocational discernment. In the Spring of 2017, the department launched a new program called “Finding Your Calling: A Reflection Retreat for Graduate Students,” (Pepperdine, 2017) designed to promote this discernment process through building community during an overnight retreat at The Mary & Joseph Retreat Center.

The retreat includes yoga and meditation exercises (including a Labyrinth sunset journey), community-building activities, individual journaling exercises, and a tea ceremony. The culminating activity is called “The Tree of Life,” a technique co-developed by the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) and Dulwich Centre Foundation:

“It involves people drawing their own ‘tree of life’ in which they get to speak of their ‘roots’ (where they come from), their skills and knowledge, their hopes and dreams, as well as the special people in their lives. The participants then join their trees into a ‘forest of life’ and, in groups, discuss some of the ‘storms’ that affect their lives and ways that they respond to these storms, protect themselves, and each other.” (Dulwich Centre, n.d., para. 2)

The Tree of Life honors the individuality of each person, their cultural and psycho-social context, and the narrative that has unfolded through their life’s journey. The process of creating their tree promotes self-reflection and an opportunity to recognize and visualize all the elements (both positive and challenging) that have made them who they are, so they can continue to move forward with awareness and intentionality as they navigate their life’s work.

A Narrative Therapy Technique

After guiding participants through the development of their respective trees using 8 ½ x 11 cardstock and markers, they are divided into small groups for the “Forest of Life” activity. As each participant shares their tree within the small group, the other group members write down affirmations on small self-adhesive notes, to be then placed on the person’s tree. The process promotes a spirit of appreciation and empowerment through community.

Following the “Forest of Life” small groups, participants are provided with career reflection prompts for independent journaling:

  • What was your experience constructing your Tree of Life (e.g., observations, insights, challenges, etc.)?
    What was your experience participating in your Forest of Life small group?
    • How did you feel as you shared your Tree with others?
    • In what ways were you impacted by witnessing others share their Trees?
  • Consider some of the Storms of your life (i.e., challenging periods or circumstances) and the impact they have had on you personally and professionally.
    • Were any of the skills/abilities from your Trunk outcomes from these Storms?
    • Did any of these skills/abilities help you manage these Storms?
  • In what settings can you meaningfully contribute the skills/abilities from your Trunk?
  • Who or what would benefit from the skills/abilities from your Trunk (i.e., people, services, etc.)?
  • Consider the Leaves that impacted you as you navigated the Storms of your life. How can you now impact others moving forward?
  • When reflecting on your Branches, are any of them connected to your Roots? To your Storms?
  • Identify three professional goals from your Branches. Within the next week, what would be a first step for each goal? What resources would you need? Who can you enlist to help hold you accountable in taking the first step?

Other retreat elements included establishing community norms on the first evening and weaving a centering activity throughout the program. A technology-limited weekend was encouraged. Participants paid a subsidized fee for retreat accommodations, and two students were granted fee waivers in exchange for volunteer services, based on financial need. The program was held in between academic terms.

Reactions and Repetition

When asked if they would recommend the retreat experience to others, 100% of the 2017 and 2018 participants indicated “yes.” Specific quotes included the following:

“The entire retreat was meaningful. I wasn’t sure what my expectations were going in, but by the time it was over I had gained so much valuable information, gained amazing new friends, and developed a level of insight into my life and career path that I will continue to work toward.”

“The most meaningful aspect of this retreat to me was the sense of unity and support that was present. It was also a valuable time for personal reflection. I was extremely impressed with retreat and grateful to have had such an incredible experience.”

Feedback from the 2017 and 2018 retreats also included expanding the retreat from one night to two nights (2017) and incorporating alumni and additional guest speakers (2018). The 2019 retreat program now includes having previous retreat participants return to facilitate the “Forest of Life” small-group discussions; incorporating the CliftonStrengths assessment in order to provide more concrete language for developing the Tree of Life “Trunk” (i.e., skills and knowledge); and inviting our graduate school’s Dean to lead the ministry session. Future retreats might incorporate individual mentoring sessions; community-specific cohorts (e.g., student employment staff, online students); and assessments for tracking student retention. The positive results serve as encouragement for this university and others to offer such retreats.


Dulwich Centre. (n.d.). The Tree of Life. Retrieved from https://dulwichcentre.com.au/the-tree-of-life/

Pepperdine GSEP Career Services Retreat. (2017). Finding Your Calling: A Reflection Retreat for Graduate Students. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/H-WBhhOtFRU


Yas HardawayYas (Djadali) Hardaway, MS, EdS, NCC, CCC is a National Certified Counselor and a Certified Career Counselor. She has worked in the career development field since 1999, across multiple universities (east coast, west coast, and transnational). Yas is the Executive Director of Career Services at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology, where she also serves as a Course Coordinator and Adjunct Faculty for the Psychology Division. She received her Master of Science and Education Specialist degrees in Counseling from The Florida State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Kentucky. Contact: yas.hardaway@pepperdine.edu

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Edward Colozzi   on Monday 09/02/2019 at 01:37 PM

Dear Yaz,
I truly enjoyed reading your excellent article describing the importance of reflection in the discernment of one’s vocational calling, and in the context of navigating multiple career-life roles.

I believe reflection is the most powerful and critical assessment technique for individuals (applicable in individual counseling and/or group work) to bring clarification and an INCREASED AWARENESS of self-knowledge, especially one’s values. Self-knowledge, and especially values, serve as the very core of all decisions, both reflective and intuitive decision-making, and significantly assist in the discernment of one’s calling(s), across ALL life roles.

I have devoted most of my life’s work to learning how this all comes together in the human journey we all experience, and how what you call the “storms” of our journey seem to always provide guidance for the most appropriate new directions we need to consider to give us a renewed sense of purpose and meaning and a measure of self-actualization.

If you enter my name “Edward Anthony Colozzi” in the search window in Career Convergence, there are a few articles including some references at the end of these articles that might be of interest to you. Then if you enter the word “DOVE” you might find an additional couple of articles and references.

I believe our own calling(s) have a similar resonance Yaz, and please contact me if you have an interest in discussing this further. Keep up your excellent work! Warm regards, EdC

Danielle Gruen   on Monday 09/02/2019 at 09:54 PM

You never cease to amaze me... this is so wonderfully written! This is one of my favorite narrative activities.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.