This is What You’re Leaving, or Year 3.10

Almost four years ago I wrote a blog post about all of my feelings on leaving Boston to come to North Carolina, on the pre-nostalgia that comes with knowing you’re exiting one phase of your life for another:

“I began taking long walks around Cambridge, trekking from Harvard Square to Central nearly every day, hoarding Mike’s Donuts from Roxbury in my bag while I hunted down the best lattes within a two mile radius of Widener Library (FYI, I’m pretty sure Simon’s Too is God’s Gift to Central). I wandered through the North End for no reason other than that I could. I stayed late at my office every night, met new people, read YA novels on the train, and had more fun than I’d had in months, maybe years. I was finished with graduate school, but occupying that post-grad liminal space where you’re not entirely sure what your future is going to be.”

Posing with my office directional sign back in 2014.
Posing with my office directional sign back in 2014 (and wearing an ear warmer from my undergrad alma mater, SUNY Purchase College.

I left small-town NC a few weeks ago to start a PhD program at the University of Maryland, and I spent the last few months having similar feelings all over again. I took similar long walks to soak in my environs, planned weekend trips to the mountains and the beach so I could experience as much of the southeast as possible before leaving. I won’t be that far away – metro DC is about a six or seven hour drive from Davidson – but I still found myself reveling in that kind of ache that appreciating a place right before you leave it brings.

Davidson's Chambers Building, taken a few days before I packed my bags and left town.
Davidson’s Chambers Building, taken a few days before I packed my bags and left town.

I’m reminded a lot of Erin White’s blog on going deep instead of high, “What it means to stay” – what does it mean to leave, when you have poured your heart and soul into a job and still have a lot of love for it? When I first moved to NC, I thought: “if this doesn’t work out, just stay a year and then look for other jobs.” I’d never lived in a small town before, and I was really concerned that I would never fit in, never be totally right for this role. I still don’t think I’m really a small town person, but I am a Davidson person, more than I could have imagined back in fall 2013. And while I’m leaving, I don’t see it as choosing to go high (although to be honest I’d rather not be an entry-level employee my entire career), but choosing to go deep into a field rather than a single institution.

Jarrett Drake’s recent essay, “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way,” is also on my mind – I’ve shared this piece with so many archivists and non-archivists of my acquaintance, because it’s one of the best, clearest write-ups of some of the biggest issues in the archival profession (and all professions) today. Like Jarrett, I have a passion for the archival field, but I may not have “archivist” in my job title in my next go-round. I ran into a colleague from UNC Charlotte at the Society of American Archivists annual meeting at the end of July, and she mentioned Jarrett’s piece and how she thinks archivists need to discuss how the field is losing people to PhDs and other professions, and while I agree that it’s a worthy topic that needs delving into, I protested that I wasn’t leaving the field, not really. Like so many archival folks, I’m layering and intermingling another professional identity along with that of “archivist.”

I will miss so much about Davidson and North Carolina – chief amongst the things I am feeling sad about is leaving our students. I always think it’s cheesy when folks say that the students are the best part about working in education, but they really are, in my experience. This small college and small-town atmosphere promotes a joiner culture, a place where bonding over academics and being a workaholic nerd type is idealized. There are issues that come with that, of course – stress, a culture of overwork, latent classism, overt racism. Being an outsider at Davidson (or at any academic institution, for that matter) is a hard road to tread. I hope that I connected with students, particularly those that don’t come from a “traditional” background for an elite small liberal arts college that was founded to educate wealthy white southern boys. All of the students certainly had an impact on me. I’ve left, but I still care a lot – about the institution, the people, and how archives can better serve and interact with both of those facets.

Posing with a pennant from that one time Davidson beat UNC in 1926.
Posing with a pennant from that one time Davidson beat UNC in 1926.

To be completely honest, in some ways it’s hard for me to believe that I’m about to begin a PhD program. I wasn’t very interested in higher ed when I was younger – I’m the only person in my immediate family to have completed a BA, and that certainly wasn’t a given (insert long story here about taking courses at community college, transferring to a private university and hating it, dropping out, working full-time in a bookstore for a few years, and then deciding that it was time to give school a fair shake and transferring to a small state school in my home county). There are many places along the way that I could have taken a different path than this one, and it seems somewhat surreal to have ended up where I am now. I am so, so thankful to folks who guided me along the way: there’s way too long of a list to name them all, but Jeannette Bastian, Geoffrey Field, Sara Sikes, Hilton Kelly, Mark Sample, Anelise Shrout, and Scott Denham deserve so many coffees at my expense.

My former co-worker Jan Blodgett deserves a special shout-out – Jan retired from her post as Davidson’s College Archivist and Records Management Coordinator this May. Jan was a really amazing co-worker – not only is she an excellent archivist with years of experience (and also a bellydance instructor, local historian, badass Quaker who is super into social justice, and a community activist), she is also extremely open to new ideas and loves encouraging new professionals. She was really more of a friend and mentor than a senior colleague, and I can’t stress enough the importance of having such a supportive, open co-worker when you’re just starting out in the field. Jan always made it clear that she valued my opinion, and went out of her way to find ways for me to develop in my role at Davidson and in the archival profession as a whole. I feel like if I do anything of value in archives, it’s down to Jan having been in my corner all of these years (I mean, check out this sign she made for me on my first work anniversary). Get you a Jan Blodgett, is what I’m saying.

Me and Jan in the stacks of Davidson College's library in 2016.
Me and Jan in the stacks of Davidson College’s library in 2016.

I’m looking back a lot these days, worrying about the future of the many projects I’ve begun at Davidson and suddenly feeling very North Carolinian, but I’m also looking forward – in the past nearly four years I’ve gained a lot of confidence, experience, friends, and one small-ish cat. This sounds very saccharine, I love both where I’ve been for the last few years, and also where I’m headed – I have a brand new opportunity to learn and hopefully shape my field, and I intend to make the most of it.