Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2013

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Rehabilitation and Counselor Education

First Advisor

Liddell, Debora L.

First Committee Member

Portman, Tarrell A.A.

Second Committee Member

Watt, Sherry K.

Third Committee Member

Ali, Saba R.

Fourth Committee Member

Beckett, Andrew K.


The purpose of this study was to describe the experiences undergraduate students cite as helping them develop and articulate their purpose in life. Purpose in life, as a construct, is associated with many positive attributes associated with life in general, and the college experience specifically; however, it is also closely related to other concepts such as meaning, spirituality, and vocation. For the purposes of this study, purpose in life was defined as a set of goals or actions, informed by a belief system or set of values, that provides a sense of direction to an individual's life. This study sought to answer the question: What are the experiences of traditional-aged undergraduate students at a large, Midwestern, public university who have an articulated purpose in life? In this way, experiences were defined as a necessary, but not sufficient, building block in developing purpose in life.

An orientational qualitative approach was used to answer the question. Participants were identified using maximum variance and theory-based purposeful sampling. Senior students close to graduation were recruited to participate using the Student Developmental Task & Lifestyle Assessment (SDTLA; Winston, Miller, & Cooper, 1999), an online assessment that operationalized Chickering and Reisser's (1993) sixth developmental vector, developing purpose. Twelve students with high scores on that assessment were selected to continue in the study. Face-to-face interviews focused on the experiences and relationships that helped them develop and articulate their purpose in life.

The results were organized into three major themes: 1) support systems upon which students relied in developing purpose in life; 2) exemplars who they sought to emulate when living their purpose in life; and 3) the critical importance of experiential learning in developing purpose in life. A discussion of the findings asserted that developing purpose in life is a continual skill-building process, rather than definable end goal or product. Existing theories were connected to developing purpose in life to provide educators ideas for helping affect the lives of students. Research implications were discussed with a call to study how individuals' multiple aspects of identity influence developing purpose in life. Overall, this study contributes to the literature, adding breadth in specifically targeting undergraduate students and their shared experiences developing purpose in life and depth in its confirmation of Chickering and Reisser's twenty-year-old revised theory.


College, Development, Education, Meaning, Purpose, Vocation


x, 144 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 116-124).


Copyright 2013 Michael Schluckebier