A sense of community

We’ve just returned to school after a two-week (much-needed) spring break, a period during which I vacationed, relaxed, slept in, read many books, and tried not to do too much work. It wasn’t easy at times: I discovered midway through that I was a little anxious about the second week (the unstructured one) because mentally, it felt a lot like last March somehow – when I was in the final weeks of dissertating. Laugh all you want, but it was surprisingly stressful. I’ve spent so long doing so much that it can often be hard for me to pull back and just relax. I’m trying to do better. Mostly, that meant that I allowed myself to spend two hours reading a novel for kicks some mornings last week, then watching 4 hours of 1900s House.

As part of my goal to relax and have fun, I caught up with some friends at WashU. Thursday afternoon, I made plans to get coffee with a good friend in the Art History PhD program, then added lunch with another good history PhD friend and caught up with a few other folks while I was on campus. I think I’m supposed to feel out of place in the Grad Students’ office in the Department of History – now that I’m PhD’d and all – but I spent the last couple of years of my life there, so it will always seem like mine to some extent, I suppose.

Or at least as long as the people I know and admire are still there. Going back to WashU last week got me thinking about community and connectiveness – both things I’ve been striving for this year as I transition into my new career post-grad school. Even when you know that it was time for you to move forward, that you moved into the right place, the pull of people and places you are so fond of can be difficult to ignore. In the midst of a moment when people are still getting to know you and you’re still getting to know them, there can be almost nothing better than going back to the places you still think of as home.

I think that afternoon of revisiting community was one of the highlights of my break. Forging a new sense of community for myself has been a challenge this year. I’m surrounded by amazing people, but we all go a million different directions and are very busy. Sometimes – often – I feel like I’m intruding when I pop in to ask a question or say hello (rather than shoot an email for random things). It turns out that it’s not that uncommon for faculty to spend their entire school year living out of their classroom. I certainly adore my classroom – fully decked out with Dr. Who and Downton Abbey and Shakespeare and sundry things – I can’t stay in here all the time on my own. So I keep coming to visit people, and hope that they don’t get tired of me too much. When I sense that they do, I try to stay away a bit.

It can be good to remind myself that it took time to build community last time, too. If I’m perfectly honest, after all, I tell myself that the first couple of years of grad school were really challenging in the community department. It’s not that I didn’t meet people – it’s that the connections weren’t there yet. I was in this weird no-man’s-land: friends outside of school had very different lives and were going their own merry ways; others in my cohort were shaping connections in ways that sometimes seemed to exclude me because I lived across town.) My connections and community developed over a longer period of time in grad school – probably from year 3 through year 6. And by the time I left last year, I had an amazing community of grad student friends and connections.

I’m building the sense of community here, too. It began with the students I see every day: while they see me once and go their way, seeing them and getting to know them in the classroom setting is always one of the highlights. Then I see them around campus, or in the cafeteria, and each time it feels like I know someone and they know who I am.

Then, of course, there are the other faculty. I’ve felt the most affinity with those who also arrived this year, but not all stayed and their departures have been and will be an adjustment. I’ve probably gotten closest to our amazing library team because it never fails: if you are a lover of books, you can never be alone in a library. With our librarians, I have discovered three wonderful people who will talk books with me, talk work with me, talk shows, travel, entertainment – you name it. If anyone is ever looking for me on campus and can’t find me in my room, the library is the place to go. I can’t imagine what this year would have been like without the people in that place.

The community is developing here – sometimes more slowly than I’d like, and sometimes just right. Those are the days I love best, when the sense of connectiveness and belonging absolutely resonates.

 

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