What I Learned From My College Reunion
Recently, I attended my college reunion. Let’s just say it’s been more than a couple of decades out. And it was different from the first several, in a positive way.
The 5th reunion was almost “too soon” for me. Not enough had happened, and we were all still about the same. It was more about catching up on gossip and satisfying curiosity about “what ever happened to (fill in the classmate’s name).”
The 10th reunion was draining in that everyone seemed to be preening and those who had something to brag about pretty much did. It was less fun for everyone else.
Then I skipped some reunions.
But I’m so glad I went to this one, because here’s what I learned.
There are two kinds of people
There are two kinds of people: those who become more judgmental as they get older, and those who are less judgmental with age. The good news is, the ones who go to college reunions tend to be the latter. So if you’re on the fence, go to yours!
And when you go make sure to be generous, be kind, and be forgiving. I can tell you that my classmates and I were all grateful to be alive and well enough to make our way back to campus. This is what made the reunion such a special occasion.
By the way, one of the things our class organizers did was to make sure that cost was not a barrier to people participating. Those who could afford to donate more did so, and others offered housing.
If you’re ever in charge of a reunion, keep that in mind. It’s about getting everyone involved. It’s about who you include, not who you exclude (to borrow from Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s vision for the New American University).
You have a common bond
“The older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.”
This one comes from Mary Schmich who wrote a piece in the Chicago Tribune that’s been turned into a song and also a book. It’s also completely true.
Even though there were 1600 people in my class and I probably only met 10% of them back in the day, there’s something about sharing an experience from the past that creates bonds more quickly than you ever thought possible.
That’s one of the reasons that I tell my coaching clients to reach out to alums from their universities, high schools or former places of employment. This common bond and seal of approval means more than you might think.
No one is immune
Going to (a great) college and having a great job or career does not make you immune to life. We all have our troubles. Most of the time, we only see our own, or what’s visible to the outside observer.
But the reality is everyone has problems. Disasters even.
60 of my classmates have already passed away, and we aren’t that old! It still hurts to think of the ones I knew well, and even those I knew not at all. It feels like we're way too young to go.
And then there’s my classmate whose son became a heroin addict at 13, lived on the streets and was in and out of jail for 9 years before getting clean 18 weeks ago. We are sending positive thoughts and support their way.
Or my classmate who has had four bouts with cancer, the latest treatments weakening her heart and causing her to have a stroke four months after her husband died. She’s paralyzed on one side of her body, but she still showed up. Yes, she’s that tough and determined.
Or my classmate and his wife who had autistic twins 20 years ago, during a time when there was far less knowledge, research and support for autistic children and their parents. Having taken time out from their careers to discover how to care for their children, it’s wonderful to know that their twins are now enrolled successfully in a mainstream university. And my classmate and his wife are still married.
All weekend, there was an outpouring of unconditional love and respect for our classmates. And these are only a handful of the stories.
What matters most
Family, close friends and health trump everything else.
No matter how accomplished we are, our relationships and our health are what raise and dash our hopes the most. Without these, we are adrift.
So, why is it only in those moments when we’re brought to our knees by some piece of awful news that we remember we should have been grateful for who we are and what we have?
Spoiler alert: it’s not about our things and our status.
In every such moment for me (and I’m incredibly fortunate only to have had a few), I know I would trade it all – every last bit of the trappings of success.
Time to grow up
At some point, we do stop feeling jealous and envious. Even me. Finally, I’ve been able to experience joy and pride at the accomplishments of my classmates without feeling like I haven’t measured up.
To give you some perspective, when I was about to go away to college, my mother pulled me aside and gave me some advice. The conversation went something like this:
“May, when you go to college and are away from home, I want you to remember the 3 C’s”
“Okay, what are they, Mom?”
“Avoid unnecessary competition, comparison, and conflict.”
“Okay, thanks Mom”
Yes, that was it. Ungrateful me.
Clearly, I didn’t get what she was saying.
At the time, I assumed it was some well-known advice handed down from a sage from the past. To be ignored as well-meaning motherly concern.
It turned out that sage is my mother who knows me only too well! That turned out to be GREAT advice. Advice that I use TO THIS DAY.
That’s why I am so pleased that I finally went through an entire 4-day reunion with highly accomplished classmates and felt only genuine pride and affection for everyone.
It’s a new feeling for me, and it feels great!
In case you’re wondering, it’s not because I reached some “top dog” position (as you know, I have not). Nor is it because I have given up on my goals (you can be sure I have not!).
Perhaps I finally have “grown up”?!
But if I can finally be comfortable in my own skin, you can too. And hey, you’ve probably gotten there already – which is great!
Life is short
This whole experience – of going back to this joyous reunion with people who knew me when I was young, hearing everyone’s stories, supporting each other, and sharing tears and laughter – makes me want to be a better person. To make the most of my time on this Earth.
It’s a reminder that there’s no point in waiting, whether that’s waiting until your proposal is perfect, until you’re sure that everyone will love what you have to say, or whatever else you may be waiting for.
Life is short. It’s time to “go for it”, whatever your “it” is.
Be the best you can be
So even though they say, “God laughs when we humans make plans”, I’m more determined than ever to act on my plans: to share what I know to help others achieve their goals. To help people be the best they can be. To help others make their difference in the world.
How about you?
What are your plans for being the best you can be, and how will you get going and keep going?
And what are your experiences with reunions?
Leave a comment for me – I’d love to know.