A Facebook friend recently asked for advice about how to make friends after grad school. Because this is something I’ve struggled with since starting my first job five years ago, I couldn’t respond with any sage advice. In the few weeks I’ve been at my new institution, however, I’ve noticed a number of differences that have led me to wonder if it is possible for institutions to do a better job of fostering these relationships among faculty and staff. So far, these are the differences I’ve noticed:
-I previously lived in a town with a college but my new location better fits the definition of a college town. The town is also much smaller, meaning that there are not that many places for faculty to go. At dinner the other night, for example, I saw two different groups of faculty getting drinks. I can’t remember any chance encounters like this in my previous city.
-My new town is not only smaller, it is also more isolated. There are still faculty members who live in other cities and commute, but there are a lot of faculty members who live in town. Institutional practices also make it easier for faculty members to live in town. A large number of faculty spouses and partners have also been hired in some capacity, whether as visiting faculty, adjuncts, or staff members.
-The institution also makes other efforts to promote interaction between faculty during business hours. One of the biggest is a course schedule with a common lunch hour, allowing faculty members time to have lunch together. There is also a faculty dining area, which my previous institution did not have.
-The final major difference I’ve noticed so far is in the composition of the new faculty cohort. At my previous institution, my cohort was fairly small and was also heterogeneous in terms of age and location. At my new institution, my cohort is quite a bit larger (the institution itself has about 1000 more students, leading to a larger number of incoming faculty members, but orientation also included new administrators and adjuncts) and the age of full-time faculty members is more homogenous, with more young-ish people who are interested in making friends in their new town.
Together, these factors have resulted in a completely different experience as a new faculty member. I am not exaggerating to say that I have done as much with colleagues off-campus in the past few weeks as I did in the previous five years at my former institution. Colleges and universities obviously can’t change their locations so that faculty members can more easily make friends, nor can they force faculty to live nearby or refuse to hire employees who aren’t in their early- to mid-thirties.
On the job market, these factors are largely influenced by luck. Institutions can, however, do things to encourage faculty and staff to engage with each other on campus through social gatherings and in faculty dining rooms. Unfortunately, social gatherings are probably among the first to go when schools face budget constraints since they don’t clearly contribute to the bottom line. Common lunch hours are probably also related to budgets, since schools with cramped facilities don’t have the luxury of leaving their classrooms unused for five or more hours per week.
So far, these changes have made me hopeful for my social life in this town. I have to remember, however, that finding and keeping friends still demands effort. Rather than sitting and waiting for people to contact me, I need to be proactive about inviting people to get lunch or coffee on campus and dinner or drinks off campus. We’ll see how it goes.