From studying in McKeldin to pursuing high-powered careers in D.C., these SOCY alumni and avid readers have stayed friends through it all.
When she chose to enroll in the University of Maryland’s graduate sociology program in 1993, California-native Amy McLaughlin had no idea she was about to meet lifelong friends.
McLaughlin came to the program because of her passion for studying social psychology and gender. She was drawn to the university’s women’s studies graduate gender certificate program and the sociology department’s in-house survey research shop.
Tallese Johnson and Mitali Sen, other graduate students in McLaughlin’s cohort, were drawn to sociology for other reasons. Johnson was eager to learn about social stratification and the intersection of gender, work and family while Sen wanted to better understand the social hierarchies she had noticed throughout her childhood in India and learn how to make the world more equitable.
The women bonded over their mutual love for sociology and made many other friends in the program who shared their interests.
“Since we were quite a large cohort of students, we experienced the same stresses and helped each other out. We worked hard, but we also socialized a lot,” Sen said. “We were also close with cohorts above and below us, and we would celebrate birthdays, go out for happy hours, do potlucks and more.”
Because she did not have the time or means to travel home to California for every holiday, McLaughlin even began a tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinners for everyone in the program.
Johnson said the friends she made at Maryland shaped her experience. “We all came from different places and didn’t really know anyone else in the area, so we developed dear and long lasting friendships,” she said.
Many of the students stayed in the area after earning their degrees because Washington D.C. boasted a plethora of jobs in their field. This was rare, Johnson said, as most post-graduate students usually disperse across the country to pursue different careers.
By 2004, many women from McLaughlin, Johnson and Sen’s cohort still kept in contact but also found themselves wrapped up in their busy personal lives. “A lot of us had kids the same year and we could feel our lives going in different directions,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t want to lose touch.”
To strengthen their friendships and stimulate their analytical minds, the women decided to form a book club. Thus, the “Covergirls” were born. The group began with seven women, all of whom overlapped at some point in graduate school at UMD. They began meeting monthly and reading whatever book that particular month’s host chose.
Sometimes, the host would cook meals in accordance with the book she chose to add more flair to the discussion. “When we read ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ we ate Chinese,” Sen explained. “When we read ‘Song of the Cuckoo Bird,’ we had Indian. When we read ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ we ate kebabs.”
While the group tends to focus on novels with female protagonists, hosts are free to choose any title they desire. Because of the members’ different backgrounds and perspectives, the group has read a wide variety of titles. Johnson, the group’s volunteer historian, has kept track of every book chosen over the past 14 years.
“Some are from California, Alabama, Utah, Pennsylvania, Michigan, others are from India, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Finland. We are black, white, brown and all colors in between,” Sen explained. “Our book discussions are richer for the perspectives we bring from our varied backgrounds.”
Their book discussions are also inevitably driven by their sociological backgrounds. They analyze characters and societies using the foundation they gained at Maryland. When one member brought a friend who had a background in humanities rather than sociology, she brought a brand new perspective which illustrated the differences in their methods of analysis, McLaughlin explained.
“Covergirls is actually far more than a book club,” Sen said. “It is a gathering of old friends who were already on the same wavelength deciding to read. And spectacularly, this book club has brought us closer still.”
As time went on and lives changed, the group added more UMD graduates and lost some as they moved out of the city. No matter where they go though, they are still considered part of the group. They stay on the email list, so they are always up to date on the group’s readings wherever they are.
“Once you’re in, you’re in for life,” McLaughlin said.
There are currently 12 book club members- 11 of whom are UMD sociology graduates. While they have followed many different paths with their sociology backgrounds, they have all achieved great success.
Book club members are employed in various research and non-profit organizations including UMD Department of Sociology, U.S. Census Bureau, NIH, John Snow Inc., the Department of Health and Human Services, the Inter-American Foundation, American Institutes for Research and the Institute for Social and Economic Change in India. Members work on broad range of topics in their places of employment including international development, education, family and fertility, race and ethnicity, and social policy.
Additionally, the club also has one member who works as a professional musician and one who is a recruiter for the IT sector.
When they are not discussing books, the Covergirls stay in touch and spend time together often. The group celebrated its tenth anniversary a few years ago with a three-day trip out of town. They rented a house, ate, drank and explored--an event they decided to continue annually.
Also, each year, the group gathers at book club member Valerie Durrant’s for Easter and Soumya Alva’s for the Fourth of July and New Years Eve. And of course, McLaughlin still invites the members to her traditional Thanksgiving dinners.
“We’ve been through marriages, divorces, kids,” McLaughlin explained. “It’s really just about having a group of great friends who can support you through everything, and I feel so lucky to have found that in the program.”