I still remember the feeling of disappointment. This was right in the first week as a grad student and I was still in the social-butterfly phase, meeting the people I would be spending the upcoming years with. The thought flew through my head: “what a shame, he seemed like such a nice guy”.
This thought was not a reaction to any truly scandalous news. Instead, it was the result of my cultural upbringing, years of ardent devotion to my home state of Kentucky and our cherished University of Kentucky Basketball Team. The offense in question, you may ask? Allegiance to a rival university.
You see, I had just discovered that an otherwise wonderful individual was a graduate of Duke University, the decades-long enemy of millions of like-minded, basketball-crazed Kentuckians. These are people who, to this day, purchase and wear shirts proclaiming “I Still Hate Laettner”, a reference to a historic clash between Duke and the University of Kentucky in the 1992 college basketball season that even has its own, well-populated Wikipedia page. Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting shotgun in my grandfather’s car, riding down a beautiful stretch of I-64 into Lexington, Kentucky to see our Wildcats play. I could almost hear my mother’s disappointed reaction if she found out I was friends with a Dukie. Hell, I could practically feel my grandfather rolling in his grave.
I was caught at a moral crossroads. Do I throw away this friendship? Do I pretend I misheard him and act as if the whole exchange never happened? Do I maturely accept our differences and continue on?
Despite the shouts of my inner Kentuckian, I chose to put aside our differences and forgive his allegiance. To my pleasant surprise, this friend has even become my go-to basketball partner at the gym. That’s not to say that I’ve allowed things to be completely forgotten. You can bet without a doubt that I still shoot off the occasional playful jab: a little reminder that yes, we’re friends but he’ll never be entirely off the hook. I mean, it is in my blood after all.
Playful rivalries aside, this experience stood out to me as a marked change from the feelings of undergrad where there seemed to be a greater sense of commonality. As grad students we all attend the same school, walk the same hallways, use the same lab spaces, and yet our loyalties often lie hundreds or thousands of miles away in faraway colleges, states, and countries. In the grad school ecosystem, students are no longer members of the same tribe. Rather, we’re more of a coalition of sorts: a banding together of groups with ties sprinkled all over the world. Amazingly though, despite the many differences, and perhaps even because of them, there is a sense of community in which everyone stands together to support each other.
I can’t describe how it warmed my heart to be among friends who had no common interests with me, yet were there cheering for the Kentucky Blue and White right alongside me. Though personal interests vary, there is a common sense of togetherness that is shared among the graduate population despite lacking this inherent mutual interest. While my friends may not wear the threads of a lifelong college sports fan, they are more than happy to don the costume in support.
In the same vein, while I wouldn’t typically partake in hot-pot parties or foray into Boston for live rock in little Irish pubs, these are the types of activities I’ve found myself doing (and enjoying) as part of my newfound community. I’ve noticed that, for both myself and many around me, being part of a heterogeneous graduate community drives discovery of new interests and experiences, pushing individual growth and cementing the strength of the bonds between us.
Through mutual support I’ve found myself learning, growing, and exploring in dimensions which I had never considered, weaving together connections between my peers and strengthening the fabric of the graduate community. The peers I’ve found in grad school have a wide range of interests, allegiances, and backgrounds, yet it is oftentimes these differences that draw us together and bring a greater meaning to the grad school experience.