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.
May – Genuine & heartfelt…a reminder of our human connection,
indeed a true blessing to anyone who reads ! Your Mom’s 3C’s
(Avoid unnecessary competition, comparison, and conflict) seems
to be especially relevant as the challenges of early life gradually give way
to our legacy and the mark we leave on this place. Blessings Jon
Thank you, Jon. Indeed, human connection and the 3 C’s can take us far in life…
May – what a wonderful post! As always you phrase your wisdom rather easy to take in. I haven’t had many reunions yet, but will think of this when it comes to it. The 3 C’s are definitely worth remembering. Thank you!
Funny that this appeared on the weekend of mine which I opted not to attend for fear of ‘failure’ at a milestone reunion. Now sorry I missed it…thanks May!
What a coincidence, Michele! Well, the good thing about reunions is you will have another shot at it in five years…which is both a short and long period of time, depending on your perspective. I’m sure people will be glad to see you. And those successes and failures are that you will enjoy seeing old friends as well as making new ones.
Thanks May very enlightening. I have not kept in touch with any of my classmates, there were only 8 physicists who graduated with me. But they are all over the world now. I went to school late in life. About a month ago, I decided to leave something of myself behind, the knowledge I have accumulated with some added flavor of experiences learned. I feel more at ease that I’m doing science work again than just my present position. I started a blog on water sustainability and feel that by promoting sustainability of our natural resources in any country gives me the joy of sharing my love for physics.
Wonderful to hear that you are sharing what you love in a way that supports a worthy mission. Keep blogging!
May- it is great to read about your reunion stories! While I have not attended any of my college reunions, I have done so with my high school. And, I have a very positive memory of my ten reunion.
When my ten year reunion was about 18 months out I received a message from one of my close friends from my high school years asking if I had any news about the 10 year reunion. He had been thinking about it for some time and wanted to know how to get involved with planning it. He viewed me as the “connected” one from high school and thought I would have the scoop… as I did serve as the editor of our school paper my senior year. Unfortunately, I told him that I had not really given it much thought and had no news to share with him. Being a good friend and “the former reporter” I knew it was my duty to help him out with uncovering the details and connect him with those planning it.
After a week full of phones calls and happy hour meetings with old classmates/friends, I landed the scoop… “No one from our high school had made any plans, and the members of our student council whom had pledge during their senior year election speeches to help plan our reunions had not mostly not spoken to each other since graduation,” shared a close past classmate/friend whom was also a student council rep senior year. I knew this news was not going to be easy to share with my friend, and it kind of disappointed me too as I had begun to get excited about the possibility of our ten year reunion after speaking with all my former classmates.
At this point it was Friday and the weekend was just around the corner so I reach out to my friend and asked him to meet me for dinner, as I knew this news was going to be better delivered in person. We met up at a favorite local Mexican Restaurant near our old high school… the food there was always good and its drinks excellence, which I thought may help ease the delivery of my news.
Upon entering the restaurant I found to my surprise that my friend had invited ten of our closest friends from high school and they were all there to learn of the news I had uncovered. I was speechless… One part due to seeing good friends I had not seen in years, and two because I knew the news I had to share was not going to be very good. After some much welcomed catching up, I shared the news with the whole group. I was both shocked and delighted by their replies.
That night we all agreed to take on the planning of our ten year reunion. And, I can successfully report that we hosted a very fun and successful 3-day weekend celebration. The festivities included a Friday happy hour/dance at a local resort, Saturday night formal dinner and slide show, and Sunday BBQ in the park with our classmates, their families, a piñata for the kids, and ending in a full-out water balloon fight kids vs. adults! I will let you guess at who won. This reunion will always be my favorite… well, at least until the twenty-year one rounds around, which come to think of it is just around the corner… I got to go and make a phone call.
Thank you again May for your advice and encouragement to get/stay connected with those that help us stay young and grounded, it has been really nice reflecting on this memory today! -Ben
Wow, Ben! What a great story. I love how everyone pitched in and created such a wonderful outcome. Great real-time leadership! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Excellent!!! I also remember Mom’s three C’s (Avoid unnecessary competition, comparison, and conflict) and it has helped me as well! Thank you for sharing your story, as always, thoroughly enjoyed!!!
A college professor would conclude a class by stating, “Any questions, comments or observations?” This has always appealed to me as an inviting, non judgmental way of stimulating discussion. There are some very wise thoughts that, when encouraged, need to be shared
Love this inviting, non-judgmental approach to encourage people to share their wise thoughts! Thank you Dave.
Thank you for sharing your story! I’ve been contemplating going to my 10-year reunion but have been super nervous about it. What has everyone been up to? I was shocked when I found most of my classmates and teachers on http://www.alumniclass.com – We began talking and preparing for our reunion next June!
So glad you’re excited about your reunion now, Amelia!
May, that was wonderful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.