Education

The Academic Nomad’s Quest for a Campus Family

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It’s the time of year for the great academic migration, when U-Hauls packed with prized possessions (namely books with a weight as heavy as the memories of the last fight you had with your grad school mentor when you asserted he’s a hack) are driven on major highways by less-than-experienced and –spatially acute intellectuals. The journey, whether across the country or just a few states, is laden with high hopes of glory, prestige, success, collegial peers, brilliant students and sympathetic administrators. Anxiety is masked by the adrenaline of overwhelming details and decisions about contractual obligations, living accommodations, locations of grocery and liquor stores, internet and building access, office furniture, and lab equipment.

Why shouldn’t you be brimming with excitement and anticipation? Granted, you’re arriving in a town and at an institution where you know absolutely no one. But you’ve asked all the right questions. What’s it like to live here and work at the college? What’s the atmosphere in town for new people not from this part of the country? Is it easy to meet people? What do people do for fun? Where’s (fill in the blank … Starbucks, Target, et al.)?

Take it from me; you’ll wish you had asked a hell of a lot more questions. Here are a few: How’s the cell service on campus? Is there a hospital, movie theater, car wash, gynecologist and Uber service in town? Is this a dry county? Do bears and coyotes come onto campus? Why did someone call me a carpetbagger in the diner? What is the “War of Northern Aggression”? Do people really eat fried chicken sold at the gas station? What do you mean, there are different styles of pizza? Why do people keep coolers in their cars (read: the decent grocery store is more than an hour away)?

Most importantly, be wary of the often-repeated phrase “We’re a family. You’ll fit right in.” It’s said so convincingly that it is difficult to determine if it’s genuine or a Stepford Wife–like chant. The problem is you want to believe it. Who wouldn’t? You almost need to believe it. But how can you tell if it is true or not? You really need to know if it’s the kind of place that embraces new people with open arms or if it’s the type of campus that violently rejects the transplanted organ.

I’ve put together a few “Campus Family” tests drawing on the educational wisdom of Highlights for Children magazine (once a staple found in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms across the country). Highlights had a recurring comic strip called “Goofus and Gallant.” The two characters illustrated good/bad and right/wrong behaviors through their actions relative to a similar situation. Goofus demonstrated selfish, unkind behavior. Gallant presented polite, generous and kind behavior. In addition to the list above of expanded questions to ask (please feel free to add your own), here are a few scenarios (which may or may not be from personal experience) one might adapt/test when trying to determine if a campus is right for you long term.

Scenario 1: Milk and Bread Test

  1. You’re just home after surgery. Gallant asks you, “Do you need anything?” You respond, “I don’t think so, but thanks!” He replies, “Well, I’ll pick up some milk and a few things for you that might be heavy. You shouldn’t be lifting anything.” Later, you put some cookies on his desk with a thank-you note. He responds via email, stating the flowers are school colors with a smiley face.
  1. You go out of town for a week to a conference. Your recently graduated daughter is home for the summer. Goofus (your colleague and neighbor) says, “If your daughter needs anything while you are away, let me know.” Goofus invites your daughter for dinner, but she has the flu and can’t go. In response, Goofus offers to get milk, bread and soup for your daughter. When you return to campus, you leave a loaf of homemade banana bread on his desk with a thank-you note. He leaves a receipt on your desk demanding $13.52, and there is an email from the HR director about wanting to speak to you.

Scenario 2: Accommodation Test

  1. Gallant says, “I remember you said your leg gives you trouble now and again. The bed in the campus apartment you’re staying in is a little high off the floor. There is a stepstool there now in case you need it.”
  1. Goofus says, “Just let me know if you need anything for your office.” You reply, “I have a problem with my leg swelling up at day’s end. May I have a small stool for under my desk or a chair that allows me to elevate my leg?” Goofus: “You can bring one from home if you like. We don’t budget for that.”

Scenario 3: Glamour’s “Dos and Don’ts” Test

  1. Gallant enthusiastically remarks about a colleague’s attire, “I love his bow ties, hats and shoes. I like school colors and all, but his style is so playful and interesting. I wish more people enjoyed how they dressed. I bet he’s fun to be around.”
  1. Goofus angrily whispers to another colleague, “Why does she always wear high-heel shoes? It’s like feminism never happened. She doesn’t belong here; she’s not one of us. No one likes her.”

Scenario 4: Truck Test

  1. You ask Gallant, “Is there a place to rent a truck in town?” Gallant cheerfully responds, “No, but what do you need? If I can’t help you, I’m sure I can help find someone who can. We’ve all been new in town and trying to settle in.”
  1. You ask Goofus, “Is there a place to rent a truck in town?” Goofus says sharply, “No. People usually just get a family member to help them,” rolls his eyes and walks away.

To all the folks headed to a new campus—safe travels and good luck. To everyone else—be Gallant and not Goofus.

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