My “Formation” Years

a green lawn in front of a large building with big chinese characters on top

In June 2015, I graduated from Santa Clara University. I spent my next year in Baltimore as a Jesuit Volunteer, working at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a college-prep school for students from low-income families. For me, the best part of my JVC experience was living in community, so after JVC I ended up spending two years as a live-in assistant at L’Arche Heartland, a community of people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities living and sharing daily life together. And I spent this past year in Jilin City, China, where, through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program, I taught college English at Jilin Medical University. On Saturdays I volunteered at Jilin Catholic Seminary, where I taught English to Chinese seminarians. I’ve been studying Mandarin Chinese since high school, and in college I had a great experience studying abroad through Loyola University Chicago’s Beijing Center, so it was important to me to return to China and spend some more time there.

a street of Baltimore rowhomes covered in snow
My street in Baltimore after a snowstorm.
Photo by Cam N. Coulter

I’ve thought of these experiences as my “formation years,” as something akin to the notoriously long Jesuit formation process, which typically lasts at least ten years. True, the experiences I’ve described only took up four years (or eight years, if you count my Jesuit education at Santa Clara University). However, these experiences have encompassed all five dimensions of the Jesuit formation process: intellectual formation, spiritual formation, apostolic formation, personal growth formation, and community life.

I’ve lived in different parts of the country and the world. I’ve lived and worked with diverse sets of people: Baltimore is a majority Black city; my L’Arche community was diverse not only along the axis of ability but also age; and in Jilin City, I was part of the city’s minuscule minority of Westerners.

I’ve also gotten to experience different types of work (teaching and caregiving), different community and living arrangements, and different avenues of faith and religion. In Baltimore, I often attended the local Jesuit parish, and sometimes I attended Quaker services as well. In Kansas, I attended “iCare” masses — Catholic masses geared toward the disabled community. And in China, I regularly prayed and shared time with Maryknoll missioners and Chinese seminarians.

Lastly, while I haven’t had formal education experiences since college, I have spent a lot of time reading, writing, and independently studying. I’ve been blogging about what I read on my own website. I’ve been writing a monthly short fiction review column for Skiffy and Fanty, a science fiction and fantasy blog and podcast network. I’ve helped found The Ruined Report. I had a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. I designed an ebook. I taught myself the Bootstrap framework for web development and used it to redesign my website. I’ve studied Chinese, and when time allows, I’ve written poetry and fiction. I’ve even had a couple poems published.

a building with big chinese characters on top and everything is covered in falling snow
Jilin Medical University in Jilin City, China, in March 2019.
Photo by Cam N. Coulter

Over the course of these formation years, I’ve experienced a lot and learned a lot, both about the world and myself. I’m really grateful for all these experiences and for all the people with whom I’ve shared time. I’ve done my best to serve the world while being transformed by it, and through it all, I’ve had the opportunity to grow into and more fully become the person I want to be. I’m also happy (and a little proud) to have resisted the capitalist pressures to major in something “useful” and immediately go get a “good” job. That said, I have spent a lot of breath overthinking and being anxious about my vocation and my future. Overall, my formation years were a great experience, and I’d readily recommend other young adults try out their own version of formation years.

A lot of “emerging adults” do have similar experiences to what I’ve described; they jump between jobs, cities, and even countries, trying out different identities and having exciting experiences. But I think my formation years were substantively different than the outwardly similar experiences of many other young adults. Why? Two reasons.

1) As I mentioned before, my experiences encompassed all five dimensions of the Jesuit formation process: intellectual formation, spiritual formation, apostolic formation, personal growth formation, and community life. Every year, for the past four years, I’ve been pushed to grow in those five ways. I’ve been in environments that supported all five types of growth. When other young adults go teach in a foreign country or serve with AmeriCorps, I don’t think they are supported and pushed toward growth in all those ways.

2) JVC, L’Arche, and the Maryknoll China Teachers Program were all opportunities for me to grow by serving and supporting others. My formation years were a great experience for me personally, but on the daily, I tried to stay focused on others. Like Jesuits undergoing formation, I had a clear sense of purpose driving me as I undertook all these adventures: I want to serve the world. My formation years were years of service, and taken as a whole, these experiences gave me the chance to better understand the world as well as to grow personally so that in the future I may better serve others in what I do.

At this point, I confess that I’m really tired of continually moving to new places and doing new things. I’ve now moved back to the SF Bay Area, and I’m really excited to settle down for a spell, be more firmly rooted in one place, and do the things that I’ve discovered are truly important to me: fostering community, trying to live justly, doing work that helps others, and practicing my passions and hobbies — or, to phrase that last item more religiously, developing and making use of my gifts. Some days I joke that I feel like an adult who’s just had their mid-life crisis, or who’s just discovered their second mountain.

I would be lying if I said it’s been easy to transition from my formation years into something more “normal.” Lately, the sinister voices of capitalism have been nagging me more bitterly than usual, telling me to hurry up and find a “good job” and a “good career.” I’ve found myself looking backward at paths that now seem closed off to me and feeling small pangs of regret, and it’s been extra challenging for me to keep up with my personal routines, particularly meditation, exercise, reading, and writing.

I’m thinking I may end up conceptualizing these next years of my life as “yeoman years” or something like that, years in which — with a much clearer sense of who I am and what I value — I work to live a good life and to build up career skills, but we’ll see how that all actually works out.

Featured Image by Cam N. Coulter

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. His poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer and Eye to the Telescope. His academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. He reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and also contributes to The Ruined Report. After his year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. He currently works with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on his website or on Twitter @camncoulter.