Bring up the subject of “calling” or “vocation” with Austin Hough Walker ’19 and she’ll tell you a lot. After being married and becoming a mother, Austin is now serving as Community Development Director for the City of Abbeville, South Carolina. She wrestled with what her own calling might be when she was an Erskine student. As she moved through her college years and into the workforce, she changed her way of thinking about vocation and began learning to trust in God’s providence while working diligently.
What will you be when you grow up?
“I came to Erskine thinking I was going to be a biology major and go on to become a doctor,” Austin says. “Family and friends had told me I was good with people and liked helping people and did well in the sciences, so naturally I should be a doctor.”
She signed up for a course on calling and vocation “because I had been struggling with what ‘calling’ meant,” she says.
“My friends in college used to laugh, because almost weekly through my junior year I thought I was going to be something different,” Austin recalls. “I think I went from wedding planner to kids’ ministry to teaching history to lobbyist to think-tank associate to student development director.”
It wasn’t just that she had trouble deciding on a career path and wound up with a major in political science and minors in biology and Christian education—a combination that elicited “looks of bewilderment” from people when she told them about it.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with all of that or even if I would ultimately use all of it,” she admits. “I started to reframe how I thought about calling and vocation. It was a theme that ran through the rest of my time at Erskine.” It was that reframing that made the difference for Austin.
Unable to identify just one thing she was passionate about or good at, as young people are sometimes asked to do to discover their calling in life, Austin “felt passionate about a lot of things and thought I had a diverse skill set,” she says.
But, like many students, she thought, “God has this one thing I’m supposed to do with my life that is his will, and I’ve got to figure that out.”
It’s not just one thing
In addition to faculty members who offered her encouragement and support, Trent Payne, then a member of the Student Development Staff, was always willing to listen. “What I found aggravating at the time, but [what was also] the best thing he could have done was to leave me with more questions instead of any particular answer.”
In part through reading a book Payne gave her— Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will, Austin arrived at a new way of thinking about what she was to do with her life.
Critiquing her old idea of calling, the “one thing I’m supposed to do” version, Austin says, “Well, yes and no. The one thing I am supposed to do with my life is ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever,’ according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.”
She began to ask herself, regarding vocational and other endeavors, “Am I doing this to the glory of God, am I working well?’” and also began to believe that “If the answer is ‘yes,’ then I am fulfilling my ‘calling’ no matter the occupation I hold.’”
It’s not perfectly straight
Austin’s current occupation is in community development, a field she knew little about before she landed in it, and her first job out of college was in a related field, with a chamber of commerce, another area of work initially unfamiliar to her. Her path to each of these was not perfectly straight.
Going to work with the Greenwood Area Chamber of Commerce—she was offered the job before she left Erskine upon completing her coursework in December 2018— was an example of what Austin says some call happenstance and others call providence. So was her eventual move into her present position as Community Development Director in Abbeville.
Back in the spring of 2018, Austin’s planned summer internship for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., fell through at the last minute, “two weeks before we were supposed to be getting out for summer break, and I needed an internship to complete a credit for my degree,” she explains.
Finding that most internships had already been filled, she contacted the city manager’s office in Greenwood, South Carolina, 30 minutes from Due West. He passed her information along to several organizations.
“About an hour later, the executive director of the Greenwood Chamber called and said she would give me an advocacy project and introduce me to local government politics to satisfy my internship credits,” Austin says, “if I helped them get through their South Carolina Festival of Flowers.”
Having helped to plan and conduct campus events for the Philos and “For the Kids” at Erskine, Austin “fell in love with the work” during her internship. Volunteering her time beyond what was required, she learned about the festival as well as the chamber’s programs, services, and advocacy work. “I was able to gain firsthand experience at getting a local referendum placed on the ballot for Greenwood County,” she says.
Learning through gains and losses
For Austin, loss of the D.C. internship turned out to be a gain. “I guess I made a good impression, because they said, ‘When you graduate, let us know.’ So right out of college, I was hired as the coordinator for festivals and programs for the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.”
Given charge of Greenwood’s Festival of Flowers, she also served as liaison for programs including Connect Young Professionals. “I learned on the job about event management, marketing and tourism, leadership development, and building a better business community.”
Then came COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings and the end of Austin’s event-focused position. “Some people have seen me losing my job as a negative, but I remember telling my small group at church that I wasn’t upset because somehow, I knew this was meant to be,” she says. “I was seven months pregnant at the time, so I was able to enjoy the final months of pregnancy and focus on the baby when he was first born without rushing back to a job.”
A friend pointed her to another job “when the time was right,” Austin says, and she was hired to help with accounts receivable at “a family-owned Christ-centered business in the fuel and oil distribution industry.” The owner was a former board chair of the Greenwood Chamber, “so he knew me, my work ethic, and quality of work,” she adds.
Hired to help with accounts receivable, Austin also worked on streamlining business processes and implementing better business practices “I got hands-on experience with tools I had been giving to other employees and business owners during my time at the Chamber. I felt like I had come full circle.”
When the Community Development Director position came open in Abbeville, Austin “wasn’t even looking for a job.” A friend and mentor told her she ought to apply for it, “even if you don’t feel like you’re qualified, though I think you are.”
She is happy that she took her friend’s advice. “I didn’t even know my current occupation was a possibility,” she says. “Who knew there was this job out there that would bridge my gift of hospitality with my skills in event and strategic planning and passion for leadership and business development?”
Today, Austin enjoys working in a two-person department that covers marketing and communications, special events, economic development, and tourism. In a bigger city, each of those areas might have its own department, but in a small-town setting, “We get to see how all of these elements of vibrant community are interdependent,” she says.
Interdependence between small municipal areas comes into play when great opportunities present themselves, Austin has learned. “It’s all about getting all the right people in the room,” she says. If one small town cannot afford to bring in a certain show or performer, two towns might be able to join together, as Abbeville and Greenwood did in a push to bring Violins of Hope and Varna International to the area. These organizations present performances and displays related to the Holocaust—focusing on the restoration of musical instruments left behind by Jews who died as well as the story of some 49,000 Jews saved from deportation in Bulgaria.
As a result of such partnering, there will be an exhibit at the Greenwood Museum May 3-20, an educational outreach to area students May 10 at the Abbeville Opera House and a chamber concert at the Greenwood Community Theater hosted by Greenwood Performing Arts May 11 at 7:30 p.m. For Austin, it is a reward to play a role in bringing such events to the community.
“No two days are ever the same. I’m always excited to get up and seize whatever the day has in store.”
Tickets to the Violins of Hope concert at the Greenwood Community Theatre are available here.