Discovering Our Gifts

Author: Ryan Willerton

For many of us in Holy Cross, mission expresses itself in the education of youth in schools, colleges and universities. For others, our mission as educators takes place in parishes and other ministries. Wherever we work we assist others not only to recognize and develop their own gifts but also to discover the deepest longing in their lives. - Holy Cross Constitutions

Many of us have heard the phrase “sharing our gifts and talents,” but when was the last time you paused and gave this phrase a deeper thought?  The University of Notre Dame and my shared work with dozens of Holy Cross priests and brothers over the last 21 years have provided me opportunities to think deeper into the words we hear frequently, but don’t often give time to reflect.

When I started my professional career at Notre Dame in 1998, my wife and I joined a Catholic parish in town. As we sat in the pews, we heard a consistent request from our pastor every few months, “Please share  your gifts and talents.” My first thought was, here we go again. Another fundraising drive where we need to raise more money and help the parish council call fellow parishioners. But as my professional career at Notre Dame evolved, I began to find a deeper meaning in “gifts” and how we can leverage them to advance our shared mission in educating the minds and the hearts of our students as we prepare them to lead meaningful personal lives and professional careers.

In my role leading Notre Dame’s Meruelo Family Center for Career Development, I see gifts manifested everyday in many ways.  Naturally, many of us correlate gifts with money - these gifts are certainly important. Financial gifts from benefactors make opportunities possible for many of our under resourced students, such as funding unpaid summer internships for students to get valuable practical experience, providing a world-class interview center for students to meet employers, and creating opportunities for students to network with alumni through treks and receptions. Without this support, our students would not be provided opportunities many take for granted. But gifts are more than just treasure.

Take a minute and think about the various ways you can use your talents as a gift to others.  Some of our gifts may not be all that visible, but they can have a tremendous impact. My most meaningful work over the years has been in those times when I help others, particularly students, engage in thoughtful reflection. Listening to a student talk about their struggle with alcohol, encouraging a student to remain engaged after losing an election, supporting a staff member during a stressful period in their life, or opening a student’s eyes to meaningful career opportunities they never knew existed.  I have been blessed to provide many opportunities to serve our students in various offices over the years, and what I have learned is this: my most meaningful gift is service to others. When we think of service, the first vision that comes to our mind is typically volunteer work. Service can actually be manifested in many different roles, particularly in Student Affairs. I see my work as a vocation, work that I am called to do. I also see myself as someone with “hope to bring.” This motto of the Congregation of Holy Cross serves as a guide to my life, both at work and at home.  Similar to Holy Cross professed religious, I am here for others. Whether it be listening, advising, encouraging, parenting, or even something more practical such as helping a colleague refine a PowerPoint deck or finding creative ways to use Qualtrics, I can open the eyes of others and help them learn about and further develop their talents. I can bring hope in my own special way.

As I have learned, gifts and talents go hand in hand. The gift of caring is just as important as the talent of effectively communicating. The gift of wisdom is just as important as the talent of creatively brainstorming innovative ideas to challenges we face.  Some of our talents can have very tangible results. For example, the ability to complete multiple projects on time, leading groups of divergent interests to a shared successful result, creating eye catching posters, counseling students through a crisis, determining how to best care for a sick student, advising student leaders through controversial decisions, and making a student feel welcome when they don’t look like anyone else. The work we do in Student Affairs are true gifts, and we leverage the talents of hundreds of professionals, both professed religious and lay, every day.  We all have something to offer, regardless of the titles on our business cards. While I cherish the opportunity to tell a compelling story to excite a group of alumni to get involved in a new initiative, I have found just as much joy and fulfillment helping a student navigate how to coordinate a 5k run to raise funds for a cause they care about. Every one of us has a special cause, something we deeply believe in. Some call this a heart’s longing. As colleagues working along Holy Cross priests and brothers, I call this hope.

In closing, I leave you with two questions: What are your gifts and how can you use your talents as a gift to others?

- Ryan Willerton, Associate Vice President, Career and Professional Development