Backpacker’s Guide Education

Connections that last

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Having a large virtual network is not the same as having a support system that you can rely on

I am at that stage in life now where I can look back at the many phases of my life and trace the friendships and connections that have followed me through the years; some stronger than others, some for longer than the others. Apart from family, there are some precious old lines that go back to primary school, others that draw from neighbourhood groups and high school, but the thickest and most sustained networks have their origins in college.

I recall a professor telling my cohort on the first day of graduate school, “Take a good look around the room. Many of the relationships you form here will last a lifetime.” He was right. Some of the most rewarding associations were cemented in those years, beginning from early adulthood through my professional pathways, and have helped me in various ways over the better part of five decades.

Real Vs. virtual

We tend to think that such networks form and sustain naturally, that if they are strong enough, they will automatically remain so over time. In the age of social media, this illusion is strengthened, since we continue to “see” our friends and associates virtually, staying linked over large distances and long periods of time. But ask anyone about how connected they feel with the hundreds (or 1,000s) of friends and followers on their social media accounts, and it becomes clear that most of these threads are pretty weak. Probing further, you will find that only a small number may count as connections that are good enough to call on for a meeting, phone call, or even to text. Fewer still can be depended on to respond.

So, having a large virtual network is clearly not the same as having a large network of support that you can reliably draw upon. Of course, there are situations where this virtual network can be activated for a common purpose, as we have seen in social and political campaigns — but that is a different story altogether. A dependable network requires time and effort to cultivate — and “cultivate” is the operative word here. It requires one to give if one is to get, to have an interest in the people and values that form the network, not just in the benefits that might come to you as a member of it.

In our personal lives, we know quite well that close-knit families are those where a considerable amount of time and energy has been spent among its members, that cousins become close over years of summer holidays together, and relationships are comfortable simply because of that familiarity built over time. In academic or collegiate life, such relationships get nurtured both inside and outside classrooms and lecture halls, and across time through alumni events and meetups. But on an everyday basis, they derive from the willingness to listen and speak up, from expressions of cooperation, respect and a mindfulness to each other’s needs — to peers, college staff, and teachers.

No matter what the nature of the network, it needs a lot of work in the initial stages if it is to pay off later when you really need it (reference letters, introductions, for instance). Importantly, one should be a contributor to a network if one is to become a beneficiary of it — it is not a resource to be exploited, but a community to participate in.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 2:50:16 PM |

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