What I learned on the New Faculty Traveling Seminar
Self-proclaimed “Jersey girl” Lauren Grodstein gives annual journey high marks
I almost laughed when I received an invitation to apply for the New Faculty Traveling Seminar, which takes 40 or so Rutgers faculty members on a five-day, four-night bus tour around the state. The invitation promised to introduce us to “new knowledge of New Jersey’s history, diversity, economics, culture, and government.” It felt almost like a dare. What could anyone tell me about New Jersey that I didn’t already know?
I grew up in the northeast corner of New Jersey in a tiny town called Haworth, which has a cozy, Washington-slept-here vibe. As a kid, life in New Jersey meant Saturdays at Paramus Park, football games at the Meadowlands, or visits to cousins in Manalapan. I went away for college, but in 2000, at a bar in New York City, I met my future husband, who happened to be a South Jersey native. Together, we schlepped up and down New Jersey’s byways to visit his parents in Sicklerville or his grandparents in Little Egg Harbor. Two years later, I got a job at Rutgers–Camden, and a whole new part of the state opened up to me.
So it’s easy to understand why I thought I knew the Garden State. But during five days with President McCormick, my fellow professors, and a posse of environmental, education, economic, and other experts, the state I thought I knew was turned inside out again and again.
Some fun facts: New Jersey is the most densely populated state – more crowded than India, England, or Japan. If it were its own country, it would be the wealthiest in the world. It is the third most diverse state in the nation, and if you took New York City out of New York and Los Angeles out of California, it would win the diversity contest hands down. Many parts of the state are so beautiful they make you catch your breath – dusk on the boardwalk in Ocean City, willow trees along the Navesink – but other parts are in real need of revitalization: the half-crumbling historic town of Salem City, a gang-plagued neighborhood in Newark. Bald eagles nest above the Maurice River, black bears frolic in the Ramapo Mountains, and a mini wind farm turns the ocean breeze into electric energy just off Atlantic City’s shore.
But first things first.
On a gorgeous Monday morning at the end of May, 39 Rutgers faculty members gathered for a four-star breakfast at President McCormick’s house in Piscataway and eyed each other nervously. Who were these people we were going to spend the next week of our lives with? Would they be friendly? Easy to talk to? I myself was crippled by insecurity: I was an M.F.A. in a sea of Ph.D.’s, a novelist who’d never written an academic paper in her life. Who was I to make five days worth of conversation with a neurobiologist or an aerospace engineer? What did I know about labor relations? The day before the tour, I’d studied the participants’ directory to memorize the different biographies (one of the landscape architects is from Germany; the education scientist has a toddler), so I’d be armed for small talk. In my bag, I’d stashed a yoga video, seven novels, and a tiny supply of Xanax just in case the whole thing turned out to be a disaster.
But I needn’t have worried. From the outset, President McCormick was a warm and engaging host, and as we took off in our big beige bus toward the state house in Trenton – Would we get to sign Corzine’s cast? – he took the microphone and set the tone for the trip, encouraging us to ask questions, take notes, and, most important, get to know one another. My seatmate was a professor of social work, a Long Island native with a huge, wonderful laugh and a wicked sense of humor. He told me about life on the New Brunswick Campus, and I filled him in on life down in Camden, and so, taking President McCormick’s cue, I began to feel at home.
At the state house, we engaged in some back-and-forth with lawmakers (who were gorgeously politic fending off questions about funding for higher education) and admired the antechamber where Lincoln made a pit stop on his way to Washington, D.C. Then off to Camden, where a dedicated group of residents, community volunteers, construction workers, and real estate developers are turning once-blighted districts into beautiful, livable neighborhoods. As a professor on the Camden Campus, I was delighted to learn about all the investment pouring into that maligned city (I became such a booster for my home campus that eventually I started getting teased by my colleagues: “Sure, Rumson’s nice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Camden!”).