Be my Valentine: getting to know Bowdoin staff couples
February 11, 2022
At many institutions, and at Bowdoin in particular, professors’ personal lives are far more intertwined than we might expect, and their partners are closer still—sometimes even in the classroom next door. Within Bowdoin’s faculty and staff there are many couples, with some occupying neighboring offices and others situated on opposite ends of campus.
Much like the variety in the material they teach, each couple’s path to Bowdoin varies significantly depending on factors that are often outside their control. For Assistant Professor of History Javier Cikota and Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies Irina Popescu, it took three years before the pair found a teaching opportunity that provided them both a job in the same place.
“It was really hard for two academics to find a job in the same place without one being [taken advantage of],” Popescu said. “This was the only opportunity that had us both teaching in a very equitable environment.”
Cikota was the first to apply, answering a posting for an assistant professor of history position. Once he was in discussion with the deans, he mentioned that his wife was also a professor, and Popescu was invited to apply. However, for Popescu, coming to Bowdoin meant narrowing her field of study.
“I actually got my PhD in comparative literature,” Popescu said. “So, Latin American Studies was part of my research, but not my only [research]. I also taught in an English department, so it was kind of hard to let that part go. But, I have found that I just have a new home, and I’m happy with that.”
For other couples, one professor’s existing position at Bowdoin helped pave the way for their partner to find a job at the College as well, albeit in different departments. Assistant Professor of Religion and Asian Studies Claire Robison is in her third year at the College while her husband, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Zahir Janmohamed, is in his second semester.
“It’s not commonplace, but it’s not unusual, when couples are trying to think about where to settle and where to teach in a college or university that they think about a place where [they] are both able to pursue [their] careers,” Robison said. “Bowdoin has historically been really open and progressive with their accommodation of trying to bring both members of [a] couple to different departments.”
However, some couples did not originally come to Bowdoin with plans to share a workplace. The Honeycutts—Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Jennifer Honeycutt and Sustainability Outreach and Program Manager Christina Honeycutt—moved to Maine in 2020 with a two-month-old baby.
Jennifer Honeycutt first joined the faculty in July 2020, while Christina joined the staff roughly a year later.
“This is our home, too, even though [we] don’t live on campus. We’re here every day, and it’s really nice to have that community and to be able to walk across the street or go for a walk on campus [and] just catch up on things,” Christina Honeycutt said.
Since then, Bowdoin has become a home for all three members of their family.
“Our daughter is also on campus, which is nice. She’s in the Children’s Center. It’s a nice relief [to know that] if she needs something we can, if we need to, just walk over there,” Jennifer Honeycutt said.
The Briefel-Hecht family has been on campus for roughly 20 years. In that time, the family has accumulated countless stories with Bowdoin serving as the backdrop.
From teaching their son how to play baseball on the quad with previous president of the College Barry Mills, to utilizing their daughter’s notorious decorating skills when Hecht moved offices, to dinnertime conversations in which their daughter asked how students answered Briefel’s thoughtful but fun ice-breaker questions, the line between family and Bowdoin is blurred.
“I think [us] both being here made Bowdoin feel a lot like home, because again, both of our kids learned how to walk on the [quad], they both had meals in Thorne and they both interacted with the last president and this [current] president. We all have stories about our family that are very much based at Bowdoin,” Edward Little Professor of English Language and Literature and Professor of Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel said. “There’s been a greater continuity between work and everyday life.”
For the Cikota-Popescu family, too, Bowdoin’s campus has served as the backdrop for children Mateo and Lucca’s early lives.
“Both of us being immigrants and not coming from families that serve our liking better in academic life. It’s wild to think about my five-year-old [running] around Bowdoin, right? He sees college students all the time—he’s going to grow up thinking that it’s no big deal to be on a campus like this,” Cikota said. “This is the place where you go to bike, right? It’s not intimidating.”
Despite the large presence Bowdoin holds in their family, Cikota and Popescu try to keep a healthy balance while at work. Since the pair has had desks next to one another since they were 19, they have plenty of practice.
“It’s funny because throughout graduate school, we didn’t have offices, so we’ve gotten used to having desks next to each other. [We try] really hard not to bug each other with silly couple things and try to stay at work … even when we’re in the same space,” Cikota said.
When the couples do step away from campus, Bowdoin seeps into couples’ lives and conversations—whether intentionally or not.
“Having us both on campus has been really lovely for me to have this interesting overlap between our personal life and our professional lives,” Robison said. “I think it’s been really illuminating to get a cross-sectional view from what [Janmohamed] is seeing in creative writing classes, particularly because different kinds of students will gravitate towards different departments. But sometimes there is also overlap, and so it helps me to understand what students are going through [and] get that pulse on what campus is like these days.”
The two also help each other academically, suggesting readings and materials the other or their class might enjoy.
Hecht’s and Briefel’s departments, History and English respectively, also lead the pair to help bolster each other’s work: Briefel provides close-reading analysis and Hecht provides historical context.
“The fields are close enough that we understand what the other one is doing, but we each have our own domains, too, which is a really nice sort of sweet spot, actually,” Hecht said.
Cikota’s favorite memory with Popescu on campus is just that: combining their academic interests and specialties in the classroom. A few years ago, Cikota invited Popescu as a guest speaker in one of his courses.
“To sit in the back row and watch her teach and see what I hear from her as a teacher, and then seeing my students … react to her differently than [how] they interact with me was such a cool treat,” Cikota said. “It was these two worlds: my students and my wife, the teacher.”
Editor’s note 02/11/2022 at 11:05 a.m. EDT: A previous version of this article mistakenly reported that Professors Cikota and Popescu met in graduate school and misspelled their children’s names. The article has been updated to reflect that the couple met in undergraduate school and their children’s names are spelled Mateo and Lucca, not Matteo and Luca as was previously reported. One quote has also been corrected to read [Janmohamed] rather than [Cikota].
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