Conference Friendships

I wrote this news item on the flight back from Milwaukee using my I-pad. I’d rather be grading, but the seats on this new plane are so cramped that I can’t type on my laptop while reading the screen without elbowing my seat mate.

I’ve been attending this annual conference most years since the late 80s. At my first conference, I was asked to serve on the executive board. I had been asking a past president for advice and we had talked a few times. The past president then recommended that I serve as the corresponding secretary on the board. Yes, they were a little hard up for officers at the time. Back then, there were less than 200 members of the organization. Serving on the board as the corresponding secretary meant planning the annual conference; writing the newsletter; maintaining the website; writing for the journal; updating the resource directory; designing and mailing promotional materials; and numerous odds and ends. The board worked hard. Just planning the conference involved selecting a hotel, negotiating the contract, hiring keynote speakers, recruiting other presenters, selecting food, recruiting sponsors, scheduling sessions, arranging for evening activities, and so on. After my term as corresponding secretary ended, I was elected vice-president, so I was in charge of the conference. Then I was president and past president.

A strong bond forms when a small group of people works on challenging tasks. I only saw this set of people a few times a year at the conference and at other board meetings. We e-mailed and talked on the phone regularly. While we spent most of our time together working, we also shared our struggles and kept up on each other’s personal lives. We all worked the same kinds of jobs, so we were knowledgeable and sympathetic toward each other.

After I finished my terms in office, I continued to attend the conference, even when my job changed. The leadership of the group changed, but I stayed in touch as the organization evolved. Over the years, the board members have asked me to do things for the organization.

The organization now has over 600 members, so I’ve made some new friends over the years. Our friendships reflect quite a bit of diversity. We share a common interest, but our other interests vary widely. Some of us would probably not be quite so close if we saw each other every day or worked together at the same university. It is easy to get along with others when you are sort of vacationing together for in short spurts of time. In our regular lives, people’s bad habits become annoying, our minor disagreements become ongoing problems, and our sympathy dissolves when we hear other sides to the story. We tend to sort ourselves into groups of friends who are less diverse and share more interests in common. When we do so, it’s a shame because we are less likely to grow. Our interests won’t change. We’ll stagnate.

I keep in touch with some of my friends from grade school and high school, but only one person I know lives in Atlanta. The people from the professional organization are my oldest friends that I see regularly. Some have retired, some have moved on to other things, but quite a few of the people I first met around 20 years ago are attending the conference every year.

I wish all my friends were as close to me as I am to my “conference friends.” A common interest can sustain friendships for a long time. The trick, perhaps, is that you have to keep in touch with them, take the time to renew the friendships, and enjoy doing something together.

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