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This article presents findings and a model from a constructivist grounded theory study about purpose development for college students with disabilities. The 59 participants, drawn from 4 different higher education institutions, self-identified as having 1 or more of a variety of disabilities. Students engaged in imagination, exploration, and integration as part of the developmental process of developing a sense of purpose. Important social contexts and intersecting social identities also influenced the narrative of self that students created regarding their purpose.

Literature suggests that the college years can have a profound effect on the establishment of purpose (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Nash & Murray, 2010). Empirical research suggests that purpose is connected to optimal developmental outcomes such as: self-efficacy (DeWitz, Woolsey, & Walsh, 2009), identity development (Welkener & Bowsher, 2012), hope (Burrow & Hill, 2011), resiliency (Masten & Reed, 2002), positive affect (Burrow & Hill, 2011), academic achievement (Pizzolato, Brown & Kanny, 2011), civic development (Malin, Ballard, & Damon, 2015; Rockenbach, Hudson, & Tuchmayer, 2014), and life satisfaction (Bronk, Hill, Lapsley, Talib & Finch, 2009). Yet, these studies have not addressed the unique experiences of students with disabilities, who confront stigmatizing attitudes and problematic sociolegal support structures that may complicate their purpose development (Kimball, Wells, Ostiguy, Manly, & Lauterbach, 2016). Because college students with disabilities are a fast-growing population (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2016), there is a dire need for empirical evidence about their purpose development.


The concept of purpose is found in a number of theoretical contexts, often with different definitions and various approaches to measurement; moreover, concepts of purpose and meaning are often used together (Baumeister, 1991, 2013; Nash & Murray, 2010), sometimes interchangeably. For instance, Baumeister (1991, 2013) viewed purpose as one of the four needs of meaning and argued that to find meaning in life, an individual must have a sense of purpose, which in turn, offers direction and guides a person’s actions over time. Purpose, in this context, is viewed as goal oriented and directed outward, often toward the future.

Perspectives on purpose also vary by developmental and/or age groups. Erikson (1982) [End Page 37] argued that for young children purpose is a prime adaptive ego quality and coping resource that supports directed, action-oriented problem solving. In research with adolescents, Malin, Reilly, Quinn, and Moran (2013) described purpose as having goals that signal life direction as well as feeling like one has a meaningful worldly existence. Chickering and Reisser (1993) described college students’ development of purpose (one of the seven vectors of identity development) as “an increasing ability to be intentional, to assess interests and options, to clarify goals, to make plans, and to persist despite obstacles” (p. 209). One component of developing purpose during college is finding a vocation, which can be as specific as finding a job/career or as general as “discovering what we love to do [and] what energizes and fulfills us” (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, p. 212). Damon and colleagues (Damon, 2008; Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003) extended the view of purpose for young adults to add societal and moral components, describing it as a “generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond-the-self ” (Damon et al., 2003, p. 121). As constructivists, we did not subscribe to one perspective and designed our study to coconstruct purpose definitions with participants.

Why might purpose be important? Empirical research suggests that purpose is associated with a variety of factors related to optimal development. In studies with adolescents, purpose has been correlated with hope (Burrow & Hill, 2011), resiliency (Masten & Reed, 2002), positive affect (Burrow & Hill, 2011), academic achievement (Pizzolato et al., 2011), civic development (Malin et al., 2015), and life satisfaction (Bronk et al., 2009). Conversely, lack of purpose is associated with depression, psychosomatic illnesses, lack of productivity, and deviant/destructive behaviors (Damon, 1995). Dalton and Crosby (2010) contended, “The college years can be one of the best times for exploring meaning and purpose in life” (p. 5). Yet, relatively few empirical studies have explored purpose development in college students—and none have included students with disabilities. The limited literature points to connections between purpose and self-efficacy (DeWitz et al., 2009), identity development (Welkener & Bowsher, 2012), spiritual development (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011), life satisfaction (Bronk et al., 2009), academic misconduct (Yu, Glanzer, & Johnson, 2016), and commitment to service (Rockenbach et al., 2014).

A study of 2,503 college students showed an indirect, negative association between self-reported engagement of academic misconduct and purpose (Yu et al., 2016). In a longitudinal study of over 130,000 college students, Astin et al. (2011) found that growth in purpose (via spiritual quest) enhanced intellectual self-esteem but seemed associated with lowered satisfaction with college. In a qualitative case study that included college-age participants, Bronk (2011) found purpose contributed to identity by allowing students to develop an enduring sense of self or ego identity. In another study of high school and college-age youth, purpose was associated with greater life satisfaction (Bronk et al., 2009). A different qualitative study with college students showed that purpose development was inherently tied to positive identity development, relationships, and decision-making processes (Welkener & Bowsher, 2012). Other studies have shown that merely encouraging college students to talk about purpose can lead to educational benefits. In an intervention study, researchers found that college students who were given regular opportunities to discuss purpose had fewer illness-related health center visits than did peers who did not participate in such dialogues (Harrist, Carlozzi, McGovern, & Harrist, 2007). [End Page 38] Similarly, in a study of college students at two different institutions, Bundick (2011) suggested that discussions about purpose may prevent the normative decline in life satisfaction associated with the collegiate years.

In sum, purpose is a complex phenomenon with varying definitions. Despite evidence suggesting its association with positive outcomes, the literature does not describe how individuals—especially students with disabilities—develop purpose. Our study addresses these gaps.


Our overarching research question was: How do college students with disabilities describe the process of developing a sense of purpose? We used a constructivist approach to grounded theory research for this study (Charmaz, 2014). An assumption undergirding constructivism is that social reality is multiplistic and constructed instead of a fixed version of reality. Like Charmaz (2014), we subscribed to a constructivist perspective that resembles the work of social constructivists who “stress social contexts, interaction, sharing viewpoints, and interpretive understandings . . . [and who] view knowing and learning as embedded in social life” (p. 14).

As grounded theorists who reject a priori assumptions, we did not subscribe to a particular definition of purpose, presuppose the process manifested in any particular way, or use any particular model as a guiding frame. Instead, true to constructivist grounded theory, we used the theoretical and empirical purpose literature only as sensitizing constructs (Charmaz, 2014). Emergent categories from this study were used to construct a model about the process and contexts of purpose development for college students with disabilities.

To identify a diverse pool of students with disabilities who could contribute to our understanding of the development of purpose during college, we used theoretical sampling (Charmaz, 2014). Because of the confidential nature of disability status, we needed not only permission but also recruitment support from disability services personnel who served as institutional gatekeepers. We contacted disability services directors at 8 schools where the research team had established professional contacts. We intended to conduct in-person interviews, so we chose institutions within driving distance (i.e., in the Northeast) from at least one member of the research team. After IRB difficulties, gatekeeping challenges, and lack of responses from a few institutions, our final sample included 59 volunteers from 3 public and 1 private historically White universities. Schools included 1 small private religiously affiliated, 1 midsized state comprehensive, and 2 midsized public flagship research universities.

Our sample was largely traditional-age (18–22 years) college students. Roughly half lived in campus housing, whereas the other half lived off campus. Twelve self-identified as cisgender men, 45 as cisgender women, and 2 as transgender or gender-queer. Regarding sexual orientation, 45 students identified as heterosexual, 3 as lesbian, 1 as bisexual, 2 as queer, 2 as questioning, and 6 students preferred not to answer. Students’ reported races/ethnicities reflected the historically White institutions from which they were drawn: 49 participants reported being White; 5, biracial or multiracial; 2, Asian American or Pacific Islander; 2, Latina/o; and 1, Black.

We encouraged students to use their own words to describe their disability instead of asking them to select from a predetermined list of terms. Most used diagnostic terms, but others created their own self-identities such as “anxiety and memory issues; autistic and a pile of things you could argue either are a part of autism or not; no use of right [End Page 39] arm.” To honor their self-identifications, the actual terms students used are provided throughout the article. However, we also organized students’ terms into more formal categories to demonstrate how the visible and invisible disabilities of our sample closely mirrored nationwide student disability data (Raue & Lewis, 2011). Participants’ disabilities could be categorized as follows: a specific learning disability (n = 23, 39%), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD; n = 16, 27%), mental health diagnosis (n = 14, 24%), physical disability (n = 9, 15%), autism spectrum disorder (n = 3, 5%), deafness (n =2, 3%), blindness (n = 2, 3%), traumatic brain injury (n = 2, 3%), or other health impairment (n = 4, 7%). These percentages sum to more than 100% because 42% of our sample self-identified as having more than one disability—a frequent phenomenon (Raue & Lewis, 2011).

We employed intensive semi-structured individual interviews—a common data collection technique for grounded theory studies (Charmaz, 2006, 2014). We audio-recorded the interviews, transcribed them verbatim, and then subjected them to grounded theory initial, focused, and theoretical coding (Charmaz, 2014). We used the iterative grounded theory process—constant comparative analysis—to move back and forth between collection, analysis, and theory building. We began to hear consistent patterned responses about purpose and achieved saturation (Jones, Torres, & Arminio, 2014) at around interview 45; however, we chose to accept all 59 volunteers for the study to honor their voices and to allow the model to be examined relative to specific disability diagnoses, career pathways, and intersecting social identities. Notably, by continuing to collect data after we achieved saturation, we yielded a sample that was diverse by diagnosis—making our study different from most that focus on one or a few different disability statuses. The added participant data also served as rich confirming evidence as we moved through the constant comparative analytic process to develop and refine the model. We contend that this large and diagnostically diverse sample was essential to the creation of a comprehensive theoretical model. To continue developing emergent categories regarding context and intersecting social identities and to refine theoretical ideas regarding purpose processes, we also conducted follow-up interviews. We invited all 59 participants to a second interview but completed only 34 because many students had left their institutions, changed their contact information, did not respond, or did not have time to participate in a follow-up interview.

The initial interview protocol was crafted using key concepts from the purpose literature such as meaning making, goal development, vocational/career interests, major- and career-related decision making, life goals, hopes, challenges, supports, and civic purpose. Our initial protocol also included several questions about identity. The protocol for the second interview contained more questions about intersecting social identities as well as questions intended to clarify emergent aspects of our model (e.g., processes, disability, and career contexts).

To ensure trustworthiness and credibility, we used a number of strategies (Jones et al., 2014). First, we used analytic triangulation among the research team members. Second, we conducted extensive discrepant case analyses (in the rare instances they occurred) to ensure that the theoretical conclusions we drew were indeed representative of the experiences of all (or most) participants. Third, we conducted member checking in person and in writing. Fourth, we obtained peer reviews from disability scholars and practitioners regarding our analysis and conclusions. Fifth, we addressed relational competence through reflexivity about our social identities, [End Page 40] positionality, power relationships, and pre-understandings (Charmaz, 2014; Jones et al., 2014). As part of our positionality, we believed it was important to claim how we as a diverse team of five faculty members (with and without disabilities) viewed disability.

The term disability carries with it a deficit connotation (Charlton, 1998, 2006); however, the research team approached the topic of disability and purpose through a strength-based lens. The following assumptions informed our inquiry: (a) disability is one aspect or dimension of a student’s complex identity; (b) students differ in the salience they give to their disability as they strive to shape a sense of purpose; and (c) although ableism may create roadblocks, it would not prevent the emergence of purpose.


There are a number of limitations to this study. First, the interviews were conducted by five faculty researchers and a few trained graduate students. Despite intensive training and team meetings to discuss consistency, the skill level and propensity to follow up on emergent ideas varied among interviewers. This led to differences in the depth and focus of interviews. Second, the geographical area of our research sites (the US Northeast) and predominately White sample can also be limitations; however, our sample reflected not only the racial diversity of the campuses where we collected data but also the national demographics of college students with disabilities, who are largely White (NCES, 2016). Space limitations of publishing prohibited us from including extensive quotes from our 59 participants. Because depth of student quotes is a strength of qualitative research, we used extended quotes from a few students versus multiple short quotes from many. Also, we relied on student reports of past behaviors and future aspirations. Future purpose studies must focus on the longitudinal nature of this life-long developmental process.


College students with disabilities engaged in imagination, exploration, and integration as part of the process of developing a sense of purpose. Important social contexts as well as intersecting social identities influenced the development of purpose. These processes, contexts, and intersecting social identities coalesced into a multifaceted grounded theory model about the development of purpose for college students with disabilities. For reader clarity, we have divided the findings into three categories; however, it is important to note that purpose—like all developmental processes—is not completely linear nor does it comprise discrete aspects.

What is Purpose?

For our participants, purpose was an ongoing process of assessing interests, clarifying passions, following dreams, and taking small and large steps to develop and accomplish life goals. For college students this often (but not always) coincided with figuring out how to connect interests, passions, and dreams into a vocation (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Purpose also manifested as a “generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond-the-self ” (Damon et al., 2003, p. 121). Purpose was not just about deciding a major or career; it was about doing something meaningful with one’s life. Students often talked about “making a difference,” “helping others,” or “paying [support and advocacy] forward.” An extended example of this phenomenon was shared by Willa whose purpose revolved around helping people with disabilities: [End Page 41]

No matter what [career] path I take—definitely advocating for people with disabilities—whether it’s starting a blog, writing about music that helps people with disabilities, or whatever it might be. . . . So I [want to] be somebody who can advocate in an honest way and help pay it forward. . . . Where I feel like my purpose comes in [was] being the president of the disability advocacy club. [Other students] were just there to vent and be able to find that support . . . to get them through their academics. . . . I’ve always wanted to [be] . . . helping students; however, I’m not really sure [how]. I feel like I might be one of those people that have a lot of jobs and positions. You know, my calling might change.

(Willa: visually impaired, albinism).

The quote illuminates how Willa’s sense of purpose went beyond major and career decisions to include varied interests and skills (blogging, music), extracurricular activities, a moral obligation to help people, and a duty to “pay [support] forward.” Although she had spent a lot of time thinking, she had not solidified her purpose—which she referred to as her “calling”—admitting that it “might change.”

Participants described not only what they wanted to do (major, career, life goals) but also how living a life of purpose would equate to happiness and a sense of fulfillment. Olive pondered how to infuse her passions for the brain, children, travel, family, dogs, community service, and continuous growth (via hard work) into a life purpose that would lead to fulfillment and happiness. She said she would be living a life of purpose if she were:

surrounded by lots of friends that are very genuine and loving, and family . . . two or three golden retrievers . . . from a shelter . . . and being involved in community service—that kind of helps me. That’s more of like the helping others and just the positive feeling I get from doing that. I definitely want to continue doing that. . . . Having traveled on service projects in the past, just the perspective and experience you get with traveling, I love that too. . . . [And] struggling to a level when you’re challenged but not to a level where you feel like you’re kind of like sinking. Just like you’re putting in a lot of work, and you’re getting good results out. . . . I don’t know if I want to become like a scientist but . . . I’d still want to do something with the brain, because I think the brain is really fascinating. So mixing a love for the brain and a love for working with children—I think that’d be cool.

(Olive: dyslexia)

For Olive, purpose was shaped by many things—including disability. Olive’s passion for understanding how the brain worked was directly inspired by a lifetime (especially her childhood) of trying to understand how her own brain functioned with dyslexia. Olive’s quote also highlights the complexity of purpose, which could not simply be reduced to major, career aspirations, family, or passions. Purpose was an ongoing process of creating a narrative of self that extended beyond self—often with a focus on helping others or making a difference.

Developing Purpose: The Process

Through our analysis, we found that college students with disabilities engaged in the following behaviors as part of the process of developing a sense of purpose: imagination, exploration, and integration.


Students’ evolving sense of purpose often began with imagining what their interests, skills, passions, values, and life goals were. Imagination involved observing, thinking about, and talking to others about their interests, skills, passions, values, and life goals. When referring to the imagination phase, most participants used phrases like: “I’m good at,” “I love to,” and “I’m passionate about” a specific interest, skill, or idea. One student succinctly described the phase of imagination [End Page 42] by saying: “You try to figure out what your passions are and what you’d actually be good at” (Callie: depression, bipolar disorder).

Althea did a lot of imagining about the types of things that brought her joy such as sports and working with people; however, she had yet to figure out how to transform those interests into solidified plans, to set specific goals, or to take goal-directed action:

If I’m not going to play [my sport] next year, then it’s not going to be fun. . . . I’m just going to go with the flow. We’ll see what happens. I would love to graduate in four years, because I want to walk with my friends, but we’ll see what happens. If I stay for a fifth, I’ll probably just start [my] masters, but I don’t really know. I have no idea. I don’t really know what I want to do yet. . . . I was thinking I could do sports management because . . . I know the sports manager at school; he was really good. Or, maybe psychology. Maybe some kind of science. I don’t really know.

(Althea: attention deficit disorder)

Althea was thinking about, or imagining, a lot of possibilities, but had not set goals or taken action to solidify avenues to develop purpose further because she “had no idea.”

Many participants believed that their purpose involved “making a difference” beyond the self; yet, how this manifested was something they were only beginning to think about. Rebekah gave a rich example of this type of purpose-related imagination:

I wanted to help people and make a difference. . . . I was in the first grade when the towers were struck. I remember just staring at a TV, watching planes hit buildings and knowing that people were dying for no reason. And I wanted to be like something really noble. . . . I wanted to be like a firefighter . . . I really wanted to be a superhero like in the sense of . . . a police officer. . . . I really liked animals for a while, [and] I really wanted to be like an ASPCA [employee]. I couldn’t make up my mind for the life of me. After [multiple spinal] surgeries I was like, I wanna be a biomedical engineer and I wanna solve all the world’s problems. . . . I’m gonna develop this flexible polymer instrumentation so that people who have the same sort of injury or something similar to me can still be an athlete. . . . [But] then engineering is really hard. To be perfectly honest I think I know what I wanna do as of right now, but I could change. Like I could be a teacher for all I know in 10 years. . . . I think what I wanted to be changed every other day [because] I never got too deeply involved with anything to be [able to say with certainty]: “This is what I want to do.”

(Rebekah: Scheuermann’s Kyphosis disease—a genetic degenerative spinal disorder).

Rebekah’s desire to have a life of purpose and to be a hero was shaped by a sociopolitical context (9/11) and her disability (spinal injury). Rebekah’s quote also shows how purpose can be related to, but is not solely about, a career. Her sense of purpose—being a “superhero,” doing something noble beyond self—could be enacted through a variety of careers through which she could make a difference in the lives of others. Rebekah’s purpose was still very vague (saving others) because she had been imagining but had not yet gotten “too deeply involved with anything”—which we refer to as exploration.


After engaging in purpose-related imagination, many students began to take active steps to explore particular interests, skills, and passions by setting small-and large-scale goals and actively working to achieve those goals. During exploration, students scaffolded themselves toward a solidified purpose by applying for career-related internships, registering for interesting elective courses, conducting informational interviews, and seeking summer jobs related to their passions. Reyna’s comments illustrated [End Page 43] how her purpose of supporting animals and teaching people about nature was fostered through exploration and involved a series of goal-directed actions:

I want to go into something in the life sciences, but I didn’t know what. I knew I loved the biological sciences, and I knew I loved the wolves. So I [was a teaching assistant] for my biology honors class. . . . I knew I wanted to do research, because I thought it was a cool fun idea and I thought it’d be something I was good at, because I’m really good at designing experiments, creating hypothesis, and testing that. I love playing around with things and seeing how things turn out. . . . So, I also applied [to be a research assistant]. . . . I [was] looking through the list of [research opportunities] and I’m like, “Trees? Nope can’t do that. Chemistry? No I’m not good at chemistry. Physics? Oh lord no!” . . . On the list there’s something for jumping spiders. And . . . I’m like, “Alright! Why not?” [I also got an internship] at [a bird] sanctuary. I still work there. . . . That’s another one of my success stories. . . . I love educating people about . . . animals.

(Reyna: cerebral palsy)

Reyna set multiple short-term goals and took intentional actions (e.g., conducting research, doing an internship, being a TA) to explore her purpose. Her quote highlights the significance of constant reflection about one’s skills, talents, passions, and interests during exploration. Reyna found ways to engage in intentional actions—overcoming discouragement and rough outdoor terrain in her wheelchair—to accomplish her goals.

Ida also engaged in purpose exploration by setting goals and making key decisions, explaining:

If there is any way I can combine working with animals and children . . . and books, that would be my ideal world—doing something with those three mashed together. . . . [A potential] goal is to find a job working with children with disabilities, being a director of a camp or being an educator working at a zoo. . . . Recently, I worked on a farm. I’ve taken animal science courses. I’ve TA’ed for various animal science professors, . . . [I did] my senior internship at the zoo studying play theory and working on the big backyard they have there, . . . and I was a nature director at a summer camp.

(Ida: nonverbal learning disability)

Although Reyna and Ida ended up loving the pathways that they explored, other students learned lessons about what goals, activities, and life paths might not fit with their evolving sense of purpose. As students explored which pathways aligned with their emerging narrative of self (or not), they moved into the next phase of developing purpose: integration.


Through the process of integration, students decided what was central to their sense of purpose and integrated those interests, perspectives, passions, activities, and goals into their evolving narrative of self. They also revised or discarded interests, perspectives, passions, activities, and goals that were less critical or detracted from their purpose. During integration, students incorporated lessons learned from positive and negative experiences into their evolving sense of purpose. Participants used phrases such as “I learned the hard way,” “that wasn’t for me,” “now, I am certain,” and “that reinforced my desire.” Layla, Liza, and George’s experiences offer rich evidence of the process of integration.

Layla always wanted to be a fashion designer. After an internship with a famous fashion designer in New York, she realized that particular career path was not for her. Upon reflection, she not only changed her major but also began to adapt her narrative of self:

I still love it. I just don’t want to do it as a career, because the more I understood about the industry and the way . . . it’s [End Page 44] structured to just put everybody through the ringer, I knew that for me it would take so much more physically out of me than someone who didn’t have this sort of condition. And I felt like maybe they could handle the effect it would have on their life. . . . You have to stay up for five days straight and eat one meal in that time period. I just can’t physically do that. I [also] didn’t want [fashion design] to be my entire life. So I decided to try to find a way that I could use my knowledge of this field and my passion for [textiles and fashion] without having to be a fashion designer. . . . Sometimes you just have to be okay with not becoming [what you thought you might] and still realize that you’ve got value, even if you’re not the next big designer. . . . Now I’m studying historic textiles. . . . I would love to either be working for a company in the textiles industry, . . . like tracking the impact of changes that are supposed to increase sustainability in their processes, which [is] interesting—because I’m a great big nerd like that—or working in a textile conservation department at a local institution, like maybe the Museum of Fine Art.

(Layla: debilitating migraines)

After an unsuccessful internship, Layla reconsidered her options and integrated new plans into her evolving narrative of self. She no longer felt she had to be a fashion designer to have value and achieve purpose. Instead, she began to understand her purpose as an integration of her passion for textiles and fashion along with good physical health, emotional wellbeing, family, and doing work that fostered her inner “nerd.”

Liza experienced roadblocks from family and peers who worried that her anxiety and depression would make her an unsuccessful therapist. She integrated her desire to help others and her passion for therapy into her evolving sense of purpose despite these challenges:

Honestly, that’s my biggest goal in life—especially because of my depression. I just want to remember what it feels like, and I get a glimpse of it when I help people. My dad also is very big on discouraging. He’s like, “Can you handle that? You’re going to listen to people talk about death every day? . . . What if you go into a mental break?” I’m like, “Dad, shut up.” . . . One of my friends is really worried about that too, [but] there’s a lot of things that you learn. I’m taking baby steps learning them—like doing things like the grief groups and whatnot.

(Liza: anxiety, depression)

Liza responded to discouragement by solidifying her purpose through additional “baby steps” (goal-oriented actions) like volunteering as a grief group counselor. She did this not only to prove to others that she could succeed in the mental health field (despite her own depression) but also to affirm for herself that her purpose of helping others through therapy was a passion and career she could indeed succeed in.

George—who had an auditory processing disorder—imagined quite a bit during adolescence about his purpose and ultimately decided his purpose included teaching and being a successful role model for children, especially young boys with disabilities; however, he struggled with passing the teacher licensure exam. As a result of this roadblock, and with the support of his family, he explored and changed his major multiple times. One of his purpose-related explorations led him to intern with a state senator working on education policy. After his second interview, George re-enrolled in the elementary education major, despite his fear of failing the exam. After hitting roadblocks and exploring options, his passion for education persisted. His explorations led him to reaffirm his purpose and integrate it into a narrative of self as educator and role model for boys with disabilities. [End Page 45]

Developing Purpose: The Social Contexts

Many social influences (or contexts) shape the way individuals make meaning of the world and their place in it. The societal contexts that were especially influential in the development of purpose included what we call constructions of disability and career. We use these terms to highlight how notions of ability (and disability) as well as career are value-laden sociopolitical constructs. These contexts manifested in national, local, and campus policies and practices and through interpersonal interactions with parents, faculty, and administrators. The following quotes offer evidence of the presence of our emergent contexts and illuminate connections between the contexts and the aforementioned process of developing purpose.

Constructions of Disability.

Disability is a social construction (Charlton, 1998, 2006; Vaccaro, Kimball, Wells, & Ostiguy, 2015). For our participants, the development of purpose was situated within an overarching historical, legal, and social context of disability in the United States. Disability law, availability of accommodations, and social stigma shaped student’s’ sense of self, social relationships, educational experiences, and major and career selection as well as their ideas about life purpose. Our participants grew up as part of a generation for whom the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) were a reality. Layla relocated to a state where medical marijuana was legal, because marijuana was one of the few ways to manage her disability-related pain. Layla described how the social context of disability and her attempts to use legal medical marijuana influenced her access to a paid internship:

I’m in the medical marijuana program. . . . Even though [the state law] says you’re absolutely not allowed to discriminate for that purpose, I am currently involved in a lawsuit because of somebody doing just that. . . . They flat out told me they wouldn’t hire me [as an intern] for that reason.

(Layla: debilitating migraines)

Like Layla, all participants attempted to craft a narrative of self within the complex sociopolitical construction of disability.

Throughout their lives, students with disabilities are subjected to deficit-laden societal messages about people with disabilities. Participants talked about this sociopolitical construction as “negative,” “stigmatized,” and associated with something that is “not normal.” Haddie—a student with ADHD—summed up the sentiments of her peers: “Society, I feel, really has a bit of a stigma against disability.” Similarly, Erin noted:

There’s a stigma . . . if you’re disabled, you’re not gonna achieve as much as someone who isn’t. For me, that was always hard to deal with. But I guess it’s just the fact that when you say “disabled” that people automatically assume you can’t do something, . . . even though you still have a capability of achieving the same goals as other people. You might just have a different way of getting there.

(Erin: dyslexia and dyscalculia)

Many participants received stigma-laden messages that they could not achieve particular life goals or careers because of their disability. Participants in our study received overt and covert messages from others (e.g., family, educators, peers) such as: “Is that career realistic?” and “You can’t have [disability name] and succeed in that field.” As such, the sociopolitical context of disability stigma served as a backdrop for their purpose development.

In addition to pervasive social stigma, students talked about how constructions of disability and related oppression materialized in national, campus, and community policies [End Page 46] and decisions. Farrah talked about how national military policy prohibited her from certain career paths: “Because of the Tourette’s [syndrome], I am disqualified from joining the Army.” Some students experienced disability-related exclusion at the local workplace, in their community, and on campus that inhibited full realization of their purpose. Part of Yolanda’s life purpose was to challenge disability stigma and support young people with autism like herself. To that end, she applied to be an “autism mentor” (pseudonym) through a program designed to pair college students with young people with autism. Even though she was a college student, Yolanda noted how she was restricted to being a mentee instead of a college mentor because she had autism:

I can only register for the roles [like mentee] typically reserved for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. I am 100% a person with an intellectual or developmental disability. I am 100% a college student. If I can’t do the college student things, that’s not how inclusion works. Since they say they are all about inclusion, fail—hard fail—[I] remained annoyed at them.

(Yolanda: autistic)

Despite the roadblock, Yolanda sought other venues (such as blogging) to foster her purpose of supporting youth with autism.

Constructions of Career.

What it means to have a valuable and/or appropriate role in society is also a social construction; majors, careers, and jobs have value-laden meanings related to the political economy and can change over time and across societies (Charlton, 2006). Societal pressure to be a productive (e.g., employed) citizen was an ever-present contextual reality for participants. To that end, students experienced career press—societal, campus, and familial pressures to select a major and career—which subtly manifested in university policies (picking a major by sophomore year), procedures (assigning academic advisors by major), and interpersonal conversations (What’s your major?) on campus. Many of our participants experienced familial and/or peer pressure to change majors and career paths. They said things like “my parents want me to major in,” “my mom says I’m good at,” and “my friends all seem to know what they want to do.” Hazel explained how such press caused anxiety:

I knew I didn’t want to do astronomy, so I became undeclared for about 2 to 3 weeks and I was like, “Okay, I need to figure out what I want to do with my life,” because the anxiety was like, “What if you don’t pick a major? What if you don’t know what you want to do? What’s gonna happen?” So, immediately I was like, “Okay, I gotta find this out—gotta figure it out!” So I went to the major fair.

(Hazel: ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder)

Career press interacted with Hazel’s disability to trigger additional anxiety. To reduce anxiety, she attended the career fair to discover a possible major and career.

Like Liza and Hazel, most students found ways to develop an authentic narrative of self by rejecting or creatively adapting to career press; however, the pressure to pick a specific (and lucrative) major and career could foster foreclosure and inhibit purpose development. Foreclosure is likely when students are pressed to pick a major or career when they have done little to no imagination or exploration. For example, Cal could not escape career press in peer conversations or when completing university forms where he was asked to fill in his major.

The major I basically chose—it was kind of a placeholder. I felt like it was sort of pressured that I should declare one, and I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I sort of went about it sort of cynically, and I thought math is something not everyone [End Page 47] knows how to do. Math is something you can make money at. I am sort of good at it. . . . So, that’s what I declared . . . just [because of ] the environment—just people asking me, “What’s your major?” sort of thing and all the forms, and just things like that.

(Cal: anxiety, sensory processing, and Asperger’s)

Cal’s quote suggests that the university pressed him not to find his purpose but, rather, to pick a major—whether or not it matched his passions, interests, skills, and goals.

Even students who were committed to fostering passion-inspired purpose sometimes received strong career press from family about choosing a different major or career that would be financially profitable. Students discussed how parents lamented, “There’s no money in that field.” A section of the transcript explicates how Lex was deterred from his stated purpose of living a fulfilling and happy life doing what he loved: cooking and photography.


I’ve been told I have a good eye for pictures and stuff. So whenever there’s a chance, I’ll just shoot a picture on my phone of something I’m passing by.


Do you have dreams of being a photographer or a cook?


I feel like they could be dreams and aspirations, but my parents wanted me to get a real degree. . . . [I’m] going through with it and not being happy with it.

(Lex: ADHD, auditory processing disorder)

As a result of career press, a few students (e.g., Lex, Cal) selected majors and career paths that did not align with their passions and, in turn, foreclosed on the process of developing purpose. Instead of engaging in the processes of exploration and integration, Lex and Cal were pressed to select majors and careers that were “placeholders” and while “going through with it and not happy.” Although Cal’s and Lex’s stories show how career press can lead to foreclosure, most students responded to career press in positive ways. For instance, students like Liza, Layla, and George successfully navigated career press as part of the purpose process (imagination, exploration, integration). Their ability to negotiate, resist, or modify external career pressures typically led toward solidification of intrinsic purpose versus extrinsically pressured major, career, and life decisions.

Developing Purpose: Intersecting Social Identities

Disability identity played a large role in the development of purpose for our participants. Other social identities also shaped purpose development. It is important to note that disability, race, gender, sexuality, and class are simultaneously socially constructed contexts as well as social identities that influence the core self and narratives of self that students tell about their sense of purpose. This dual reality is reflected in the Discussion and in Figure 1. Almost all the students talked about the influences of multiple and intersecting identities; however, we chose one extended quote from Tessa to illuminate how multiple social identities—and the oppressive social contexts within which she made meaning of those identities—intersected to shape her sense of purpose.

My identities affected who I am as a person. . . . I come from . . . not a very resourceful city. . . . A lot of kids don’t go to college. So, I decided not to get sucked up in that statistical pool there. And my family doesn’t have a bunch of money, so I’m putting myself through college. And, I’m a female—I feel like [women] aren’t as powerful as men, or sometimes that’s how society makes it seem. And I’m African American, and that’s another thing that is looked down upon at times. So . . . my whole deal is that I try to become what isn’t expected of all of those stereotypical labels and be more than that. So, my [End Page 48] identity is to succeed beyond what I’m supposed to. . . . My life goals are to help others. . . . What [do] I hope? . . . Being an attorney or at least having a degree in law. . . . The Malcolm X movie empowered me a lot to want to become a lawyer. I could relate . . . I wanted to help people who lived in towns and cities like I did where it’s just—for lack of better words—bad. . . . I want to find a way to reach back and help them out, . . . [to] somehow develop an organization for minority youth in inner city neighborhoods, who need a person to look to or a place to go to when they don’t have anything to do, and learn how to be successful in school, . . . [to give] back to the kids so that they can become college-ready and successful adults eventually.

(Tessa: sickle cell anemia)

Tessa’s multiple intersecting social identities and experiences with oppression led her toward a purpose that included debunking stereotypes, supporting minoritized communities, and helping youth of color succeed. In essence, disability was important but not the only social identity that shaped the development of purpose for our participants.

Figure 1. Model of Purpose Development Process for College Students With Disabilites
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Figure 1.

Model of Purpose Development Process for College Students With Disabilites


Using constant comparative analysis, we developed a grounded model that explicates how college students with disabilities construct a narrative of self via the purpose development process (see Figure 1). The core self refers to an individual’s overall sense of “Who am I?” and is a compilation of an individual’s personality, strengths, social identities, familial roles, interests, perspectives, political tendencies, hobbies, and life experiences. Although some aspects of self might overlap with the [End Page 49] purpose process, others, such as love for bike riding, knitting, political leanings, or passion for shopping, might not be central to one’s process of developing purpose or the emerging narrative of self that individuals construct about their sense of purpose.

The purpose circle overlaps with the core self and is surrounded by social identities and social contexts. Our data confirmed that the purpose process and a student’s narrative of self were indeed constructs that were “at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond-the-self ” (Damon et al., 2003, p. 121). Where the core self and purpose process circles overlap is what we refer to as “narrative of self.” We came to understand the narrative of self as the telling of a story about one’s purpose within specific social contexts. The purpose process circle includes arrows showing the iterative phases of imagination, exploration, and integration. Purpose fore-closure—which was not a consistent theme for most participants—was a reality for a few. As such, in Figure 1 we show foreclosure as a possible aspect of the process. Students who were unable to engage in imagination and/or exploration might foreclose.

Intersecting social identities and social contexts surround the model to show their influence on the purpose process, core self, and narrative of self. Interviews revealed the most salient social contexts on purpose to be social constructions of disability (historical, legal, policy, and stigma contexts) and career (press). These appear in the model as triangular shapes pressing inward from the social context ring into the most personal aspects of self and purpose. Intersecting social identities appear in the model as curvy lines that intersect with the core self, purpose process, narrative of self, and social contexts—including constructions of disability and career. Our model shows how intersecting social identities are simultaneously aspects of self and products of the social context, highlighting the fact that social identities (e.g., disability, race, gender, sexuality, social class) are influential aspects of self precisely because of the social value (or lack thereof) placed upon them in a particular society. The curvy lines suggest a dynamic aspect of social identities that can be more or less salient to core self, purpose processes, and narratives of self, depending on the context. Tessa’s quote shows how intersecting social identities shaped purpose development and narrative of self.

The process of purpose development is not linear but is, instead, an iterative process. George’s story exemplified the iterative nature of purpose development. It involved imagining himself as a teacher and role model, exploring education as a major, encountering roadblocks, exploring other pathways and majors, reflecting on those alternatives and affirming initial passions, and integrating a teacher-as-role-model identity into his evolving sense of purpose. George’s narrative of self was also shaped by a history of overcoming shame about his disability (constructions of disability), support from family about his major choices (constructions of career), and a desire to be a supporter and role model for young boys with disabilities (intersecting social identities) in a society where disability is constructed as non-normative.

Our work contributes to the small body of empirical research about purpose for college-going populations. Moreover, it is the first empirical study about purpose to focus exclusively on college students with disabilities. Prior research suggests purpose is related to important developmental outcomes such as self-efficacy (DeWitz et al., 2009), identity development (Welkener & Bowsher, 2012), hope (Burrow & Hill, 2011), resiliency (Masten & Reed, 2002), positive affect (Burrow & Hill, 2011), academic achievement (Pizzolato et al., 2011), civic development (Malin et al., 2015; Rockenbach et al., 2014), [End Page 50] and life satisfaction (Bronk et al., 2009). These phenomena are exceedingly important for success in college, and in life. Yet, prior to this study, educators had no evidence about how college students with disabilities developed purpose. The small number of studies that included students with disabilities on topics related to purpose (e.g., major selection, goal development) offered troubling findings. For instance, research has shown that students with disabilities may not connect their major aspirations to concrete action (Bittinger, Wells, & Kimball, 2015) and experience diminished career outcomes (e.g., unemployment or underemployment, lower pay, less prestigious positions) relative to their peers without disabilities (Kimball et al., 2016). This study offers important empirical information about the purpose process—which details the ways students connect career and life aspirations to concrete actions. The narratives also offer counterstories to the overwhelming data focusing solely on diminished outcomes for students with disabilities (Bittinger et al., 2015; Kimball et al., 2016; Vaccaro et al., 2015). Students in our study exhibited resilience in the face of ableism, persisted through discouragement, and navigated complicated career pressures to narrate the self by developing a sense of purpose that was meaningful to and beyond themselves.

Our findings align with, and extend, the theoretical and conceptual purpose literature (Baumeister, 2013; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Damon et al., 2003; Nash & Murray, 2010). For instance, our data confirm that purpose is a process of considering options, clarifying goals, making plans, and persisting in the face of challenges (Chickering & Reisser, 1993) as well as a construct that has a focus on self and beyond the self (Damon et al., 2003). We also echo the work of Malin et al. (2015), who argued that goal setting interacts with identity formation and that identity work is integrated with purpose. However, our model does what none of these single perspectives on purpose has: it offers a holistic view of both the processes and contexts of purpose development. It also affirms the role of intersecting social identities to show that students are more than their disability. Purpose is a dynamic concept that is not just about self, social identities, goal setting, vocation, or social context, as prior works have suggested; it is a socially situated developmental process that involves a complex interplay of all these phenomena.

Implications for Practice

Our work has implications for higher educators, parents, and students with disabilities. It is the role of all higher educators—not just disability support services professionals—to foster purpose development through imagination, exploration, and integration. Our participants talked about parents, faculty members, academic advisors, and career advisors shaping the development of purpose. Student affairs administrators in all functional areas should plan programs and events that offer students an opportunity to learn about, discuss, and reflect upon how social contexts, intersecting identities, and the realities of career press shape their sense of purpose. In addition to formal programming, interpersonal interactions play a central role in purpose development. Nash and Murray (2010) contended that educators must talk with students about big, purpose-related questions. Empirical studies also have shown that talking about purpose can have positive outcomes (Bundick, 2011; Harrist et al., 2007). We suggest that professionals draw upon the various aspects of our model when talking with students about life goals, dreams, majors, interests, and passions.

Educators can play an important role in supporting students as they navigate career press. Campuses should not sponsor speakers, [End Page 51] events, and develop policies that contribute to career press at the expense of purpose development. For instance, requiring students to declare a major upon admission might inhibit imagination and exploration. We contend that if it inhibits imagination and exploration, career press can prompt foreclosure. Educators should encourage students to engage in imagination and exploration as they pick a major or career. Practitioners can facilitate conversations to ignite the processes of imagination, exploration, and integration when students experience familial or peer pressure to pick a different or more lucrative career. Educators can coach students to talk to parents about detrimental effects of familial pressure to pick or avoid certain majors or careers. Educators can also help students navigate career press in a way that is culturally sensitive (such as honoring familial roles and collectivist cultures) and affords an opportunity to develop an authentic narrative of self.

Practitioners must be aware of disability stigma and comprehend the influence of multiple and intersecting identities on students’ evolving sense of purpose. Professionals who are not aware of their biases, or who lack solid understandings of privilege and oppression, may not be effective in supporting students as they develop a narrative self-rooted in intersecting social identities. This includes disability professionals who may be experts on disability diagnoses and accommodations but less culturally competent in regard to other intersecting social identities.

Recommendations for Future Research

A small number of participants seemed to experience what we perceived as foreclosure on the purpose development process. Why do some students foreclose? What factors contribute to foreclosure? Given the importance of purpose development for optimal development (Bronk et al., 2009; Burrow & Hill, 2011; DeWitz et al., 2009; Malin et al., 2015; Masten & Reed, 2002; Pizzolato et al., 2011; Rockenbach et al., 2014; Welkener & Bowsher, 2012), researchers must explore the phenomena further. Although this study begins to fill the gap in understanding purpose, students with disabilities must be intentionally included in all types of developmental research. Two strategies for inclusion are to actively recruit participants with disabilities and to include disability as an item on all demographic forms (Vaccaro et al., 2015).

Because our proposed model was based on a relatively large sample that mirrored national disability data by type and prevalence (Raue & Lewis, 2011), it may be transferrable to students with diverse disabilities in various postsecondary settings. Nonetheless, more research should be conducted on purpose development in specialized institutions, such as technical colleges and community colleges that can attract students looking for immediate vocational opportunities. Research at institutions whose missions are to develop and support diverse populations (e.g., historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, women’s colleges) may also offer expanded insight into context, identity intersectionality, and purpose development. Finally, we engaged in a rigorous constant comparative process to ensure that our model accurately described the experiences of participants with all disability diagnoses; however, future researchers might uncover nuances by disability or combinations of disabilities.


Given the connections between purpose and positive educational and developmental outcomes, as well as the increasing numbers of college students with disabilities, educators and researchers need to pay special attention [End Page 52] to the ways college students with disabilities develop purpose. Moreover, practitioners must have the capacity to engage in purpose-fostering conversations, interventions, and programming with all students. Our proposed model offers insight into the processes, contexts, and intersecting social identities related to purpose development. All aspects of this model should be considered when working with college students with disabilities as they attempt to create a narrative of self.

Annemarie Vaccaro

Annemarie Vaccaro is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the College Student Personnel Program at the University of Rhode Island.

Ezekiel W. Kimball

Ezekiel W. Kimball is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy, Research and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Adam Moore

Adam Moore is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island.

Barbara M. Newman

Barbara M. Newman is Professor Emeritus of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Peter F. Troiano

Peter F. Troiano is Assistant Professor of Counselor Education and Family Therapy at Central Connecticut State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Annemarie Vaccaro, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02882;


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