Adolescents Finding Their Purposes in a Catholic High School

This article, Purposeful Explorers: Adolescents Finding Their Purposes in a Catholic High School, by Brandi P. Quinn, Ph.D., originally appeared in the Journal of Catholic Education (Volume 21; Issue 2). Dr. P. Quinn, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. Correspondence regarding this article may be sent to Dr. Quinn at

This research has been summarized by Annette M. Jones, Ed.S., Assistant Director for School Leadership at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

This study was designed to understand the content and organization of purpose for ninth-grade adolescents during their initial year in a Catholic high school. The researcher’s sample included 153 ninth grade students from a Lasallian Catholic high school in the United States. Participants responded to open-ended prompts on a survey at the beginning and end of the academic year.

Background Points

  1. Purpose in life is defined as a long-term intention to accomplish something that is once personally meaningful and of consequence to the world beyond self (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003).
  2. For adolescents in the United States, schools are a primary context for relations from which they may develop a sense of how their own gifts and talents can contribute to the lives of others (Quinn, p. 54).
  3. Damon et al. (2003) dimensions of adolescent purpose: personally meaningful intention, action to accomplish that intention (engagement), and a beyond-the-self orientation to the intention (Quinn, p. 54)
  4. Catholic schools cultivate relationship-building, which helps adolescents develop a sense of purpose (Quinn, p. 55).
  5. Some of the categories of purpose include: Help Others, Serve God, Make the World a Better Place, Make Money, Serve My Country, and Support My Family and Friends (Quinn, p. 64).

“The study drew from open-ended responses of adolescents to a direct question about purpose in life in order to understand more about the content, number, and organization of possible intentions that adolescents attending Catholic high school may include in their descriptions of their purpose (Quinn, p.69).”

  1. Most adolescents named one or two categories of their intentions (Quinn, p. 69).
  2. The majority of participants included a desire to help others when summarizing their purposes (Quinn, p. 69).
  3. A majority of participating adolescents showed patterns of stability and organization in the content of their purposes during their first year attending a Catholic high school (Quinn, p. 71).

Reflections for Leaders

  1. In my school, how can I learn what students believe their purpose is in life?
  2. In tracking longitudinal growth, how can I learn each student’s perception of their purpose annually?
  3. What conversations should school leaders and educators have with students to broaden their perceptions about their purpose?

You can read this research article in its entirety online.