Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a Black woman who was part of a fellowship for underrepresented scholars at a predominantly white liberal-arts college, and the older white woman who was assigned to be her mentor. They were thrust together by this program, and their early meetings were awkward and wary. But then they started sharing poetry with each other, which helped them to communicate their true feelings and build a deeper connection. They discuss their rocky start, how they came to trust each other, and why it’s worth working for friendships that don’t come easy.
Janice Gross, 71, a retired professor of French at Grinnell College, who lives in Grinnell, Iowa
Heather Lobban-Viravong, 49, an administrator at Ursinus College, who lives in Collegeville, Pennsylvania
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me the story of how you met.
Heather Lobban-Viravong: I went to Grinnell College over 20 years ago as part of a predoctoral fellowship program. It was designed to give scholars from underrepresented communities an opportunity to test out the liberal-arts environment, to see whether it would be a place where they could eventually teach. As a result of that, I was assigned a mentor—Jan.
Janice Gross: The deans at the time invited me to consider this new approach to mentoring. Heather was in the English department. I was in the French department. Some of her work was with a French author, so there was some connection.
We didn’t have a lot of other faculty of color at that point. The college was very interested in increasing the representation, and I wanted to be part of that process.
Beck: When you arrived, Heather, how many people of color did you see around you, outside of this fellowship?
Heather: There were a handful. It was great to see, but it certainly wasn’t enough to make me feel like that was the place that I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
Beck: What were your first impressions of each other?
Heather: I remember the first meeting. I can even picture Jan coming into my office to introduce herself. I was immediately suspicious. I did not want to be in any kind of mentoring relationship. It was part of the fellowship, so it was expected. But I didn’t know what her motives were. I did feel as though she was there to test me, in a sense—to make sure I was worthy of being at the institution.
Janice: I had two reactions. One [was that] I was not expecting Heather to be so resistant to my presence. I felt it immediately. She was very reserved. Didn’t really smile, seemed to be a hard nut to crack.
The second reaction was that when I had first arrived at the college, I was at a similar point in my career [as Heather was then], and I was one of very few women. I felt that [was similar to] what Heather was [feeling]. I identified with her. But she didn’t, of course, know how I was reacting.
Beck: You said this mentorship was assigned to you—how did you navigate that mandatory element of the relationship? Was that a big hurdle to feeling like you could connect?
Janice: I didn’t expect it to be such a hurdle. I tend to be naive that way. When we were first meeting for coffee or lunch, we felt very enclosed and uncomfortable because we were looking at each other and waiting. I tended to talk more just because I was trying to fill the silences. And Heather was not always participatory. So we pulled ourselves out of those uncomfortable environments and we started taking walks.
Heather: We didn’t have to look at each other as we were walking. That helped us overcome some of the awkwardness.
Beck: How did you move past the wariness to get to a point where you felt like, Maybe we can be friends?
Heather: The walks gave us room to talk about things not connected to the college, to learn more about each other as people. We started to really open up to each other. It helped me feel not quite as suspicious about Jan and her motives.
Beck: What were you worried that the motives might be?
Heather: I thought that she was there to make sure that I was qualified to be at the college, that she was a spy on behalf of the administration. But she assured me that this was not the case, that her motives were pure. She was really there to be supportive, to give me an avenue for expressing any concerns. She was not going to use that information against me or report back to anybody. She said that enough times that ultimately I felt like, Okay, this is someone that I can trust.
Beck: Are there moments from those walks that have stuck with you?
Janice: When Heather invited my husband and me to come to dinner at their house. This was a breakthrough, because Heather was so private. I never imagined that she was going to invite us into her private world.
And it turned out that Heather and her husband’s place was the exact apartment that my husband and I had lived in 20 years prior. Exactly the same space. The four of us meeting together under those circumstances was extremely moving. A neat twist of fate.
Heather: I wrote a poem for her birthday. That was the first poem I wrote for her. It was about our walking together and what that meant for me. Things really started to shift once I shared poetry. I knew that she was becoming someone who was important in my life.
Janice: [We gave] gifts of poems to each other at various occasions.
Beck: So the poems became a regular practice?
Heather: As much as we were walking and talking, I had a very difficult time really expressing myself to her sometimes. I didn’t feel as if I had the voice to say everything that I wanted to. Poetry allows me to tap into what I’m feeling and express what I just can’t say otherwise. That’s why I started writing more and sharing with Jan.
Beck: Jan, were you writing poems, too?
Janice: I was a bit of a closet writer. I didn’t feel like I was a poet like Heather was. But I found something about that kind of communication really enriching, so I jumped on board pretty readily. Poetry came in and out [of our friendship] at various times.
A forest of feelings.
invisible to the eye
buried deep underfoot.
We tread softly, intrepidly
on damp and untested ground
walking on the safe side
talking on the dark side
of petulant selves.
An arduous path
amid unbridled brush
through brambles and thickets
of thoughts left to grow
— Janice Gross
When my mother-in-law passed away, Heather wrote a poem and read it at her celebration-of-life ceremony. And when Heather’s family faced a death from COVID, she wrote poems about that, and I did too, as a condolence message.
Beck: Are there things you discussed through poetry that you didn’t discuss in person?
Janice: When we met in Washington, D.C., we went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture together. We didn’t really talk about the visit, but we wrote about it. Poetry did bring out some of those feelings that I don’t think we could have shared in a normal conversation.
Heather: Poetry has given us an avenue for deeper expression of our experiences when talking about race in general. It wasn’t always something that we talked about, but it was there.
Beck: What was the social environment of academia like for you both?
Heather: For me, having Jan as a close friend felt like more than enough. I don’t go around trying to make close friendships with people. It just has to happen naturally. I also don’t readily open myself up, because I’m a very private person, very guarded in how much I share. I operated in that way most of my time at Grinnell, except with Jan and maybe one or two other people.
Your skin pales next to mine.
A mere shade of difference.
Yet I must account for my
Whereabouts to so many masters.
You don’t ask me to explain
Why I’m here, why the curl
In my hair, why this nose, these lips.
— Heather Lobban-Viravong
Janice: Friendship was always relatively easy for me. But I probably wouldn’t have naturally fallen into friendship with Heather. It took a little more effort; it took a desire to really pursue getting to know someone. I had never had a really close relationship with a person of color. I think that’s not uncommon, statistically. Heather probably did more crossing the color line than I did.
Beck: It seems like the role that race played in your friendship evolved over time. At the beginning you were wary—today are you more comfortable talking openly about it?
Heather: Part of my suspicion [early on] had to do with Jan’s whiteness. I didn’t trust that, given that I was in a predominantly white environment. I didn’t quite know what to do when Jan was assigned as my mentor. We have come a long way in having those types of conversations.
Janice: I started really thinking about our different [experiences] early on in our walking. She said to me “I just got back from a conference, and I was the only Black person at the conference.” It really hit me, like, “Oh my goodness, of course. Why would that not affect how you saw yourself in relation to everyone else?” I wanted to understand more.
Heather: It’s easy to have those conversations with Jan. She’s not afraid to talk about these issues. That helps me a great deal. I don’t want to always be the person to bring it up.
Beck: When did you leave Grinnell? Did your friendship change when you were no longer in the same place?
Heather: I didn’t leave Grinnell after the fellowship ended. I went on to get tenure. I stayed for about 16 years actually.
Janice: The mentorship worked.
Heather: The mentorship did work. I felt like I had a place, and there was a reason for me to be there. In some ways our friendship hasn’t changed [since I left]. We continue to write poetry and exchange poetry. But it’s a lot harder to be this far away.
Beck: What have you learned about friendship generally from your friendship specifically?
Janice: Friendship is a commitment and it takes effort. It doesn’t happen just off the cuff. It’s precious, and it needs to be maintained and nourished just like any other important relationship.
Heather: It’s hard to disagree with that. Part of that effort is making sure that you are always talking to each other and learning about each other. Don’t just take your friendship at face value. There’s always more to be uncovered and unearthed. So it’s good to make room for conversation, and ask tough questions.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.