Friday, August 01, 2008

Classy Notes

A few weeks prior to my college graduation, members of the alumni association at The University of Mary Washington (nee Mary Washington College) asked me volunteer as an alumni news writer for the Class of 1997. It seemed only natural to serve in this role after spending four years representing my class as their President. The assignment seemed easy; keep in touch with classmates, gather their news, write a submission two or three times a year, and hand over the responsibilities to another classmate after 5 years. Well, those 5 years came and went and I continue to contribute to each issue, easily classifying those submissions as the most important pieces I write each year.

The “job” of writing for the Mary Washington Alumni magazine is more challenging then I originally calculated for a variety of reasons. One major challenge is my inability to meet writing deadlines, a problem that still plagues me long after leaving the hallowed (and creaky) corridors of Monroe Hall. Another issue is adhering to the guidelines and ever changing deadlines set forth by the alumni publication Gestapo, who I often think would be secretly happy to abolish the long tradition of class specific news, making room for more kitschy articles that no one actually reads (sorry to break the news to any magazine editors who might catch this, but an unscientific poll concluded that most alumnus flip to the back of the magazine to read the Class Notes and the In Memoriam sections). Then there is my little type-A personality issue; if I was the kind of person who could casually volunteer for something, writing a small blurb for my alumni magazine would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, I am not the kind of person able to half-ass this type of commitment and take my duties as class representative very seriously, combing the globe over to find alumni whose post-college stories remain unwritten.

From a purely professional perspective, the importance of alumni staying connected with their alma mater and other alumnus is priceless. Studies prove that people graduating from colleges and universities with strong alumni associations and connections find more success in the business world. Simply put, it’s not always what you know, but who you know, or who happened to attend the same institution of higher learning as you. Building relationships through alumni networking is how many find jobs, promotions, sales, deals, merger opportunities, etc. Keeping track and documenting everyone’s news could trigger communication between two alumni who together create a Microsoft, Google, or Starbucks like success. That merger would certainly lead to a very nice endowment for the university.

As a public college in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Mary Washington alumni association focuses many of their official efforts in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Those of us who live outside of the I-95 Northeast corridor, as well as those who avoid alumni events like the black plague, can remain connected to classmates and the school itself through the alumni publication. Our college years are supposed to be among the best of our lives; it would be a shame to completely lose connection to those years. Whatever school you attended, whatever class you are from, remember the importance of keeping in touch with the place, and the people, that kick-started your adult life.

Over the past 11 years our class experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows; celebrating the births of a dozen future graduates in each issue, congratulating each person receiving a higher degree or a major promotion, and mourning the unfortunate losses of people taken from us too soon. What amazes me most is that many of my old classmates let me into their lives and remember to include me (and therefore our whole class) in the news of their triumphs and tragedies at each and every juncture of their lives. I often receive the birth and wedding announcements from people I knew in passing, photos from family holidays, honeymoons and African safaris. Change of address cards and emails frequently come with a written request to update their address with the school so they can continue receiving class notes. Being entrusted with keeping a class of over 800 connected with each other and the broader family of alumni is honor and privilege, one never to be taken lightly.

While most jump right to the page with their class’ notes, reading news of their friends and classmates, I have a more unorthodox style of reading. I enjoy working my way backwards, starting with the latest graduating class and ending with the class holding the honor of having the oldest living alumna. The newer classes write much of the same news now found in my article archive; graduate school, law school, backpacking through Europe, Australia and Asia, sharing apartments with dear college friends, struggling with the “now what?” dilemma. Class year by class year, the news and stories take on predictable patterns with very little variation; only the names change. The marriage years, the baby years, toddler years, little league years, and high school years are the life stories shared by so many. Those choosing a childfree or marriage-free path have their own predictable patterns of where they travel and when and when they jump off the corporate ladder for more “meaningful” work. Empty Nesters and the middle-aged jump into the “what now?” years; the life script and checklist often leaves out what we are meant to do after finishing the work and children things. Surprisingly (or not), out of all the class years, the most enjoyable reads come from those reveling in the Golden Years. Reading class news from those beyond the Gold and Silver Reunion years serves as a reminder of the importance of friendship, love, faith, and education. Some of the news is sad, as people report the deaths of their dear classmates. Even in reporting the deaths the writers of these class notes point out the amazing things the departed brought to the world. Sometimes the spotlight is on children or careers, but often the memories are focused on the little things that go unnoticed by us “young whipper-snappers”; a friend’s infectious laugh, warm smile, melodic voice, or ability to mix the perfect martini.

Reading the little joys people from the earlier classes report is amazing. Those under the 20 year reunion mark focus on big milestones and accomplishments, those past the 60 year reunion mark learned that life is filled with smaller moments worth celebrating. It would not be unusual to open up the page from the class of 1946 and read something like this; “…I had coffee with Sally Smith Brown and she is still the same old firecracker she was 62 years ago. She misses her husband, who passed away late last year, but is so thankful for the 58 years they spent together. These days Sally is surrounded by a large and strong network of family and friends. Just like at school, she always has pot of coffee on, ready for unexpected company; at least now she doesn’t have to hide her percolator from the dorm fire marshals! Don’t be too jealous, but Sally is still able to live in her own house (which she now shares with her Virginia Hall roommate Jane Brown Jones!), walk on her own (thanks to the new hip she got from Dr. Anne Madison of the Class of 1972), and breathe without the help of any oxygen despite all those years of sneaking post meal cigarettes in the amphitheatre. Completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle takes until Tuesday these days, but she still finishes it every week, a testament to her fine Mary Washington education. Sally said her joints are a little stiff these days, but she knows there is an expiration date on those joints and plans on finding that date at her weekly dance club…”

Alumni representatives far and wide love hearing news of what people are up to, especially their successes. Class notes and alumni news from decades ago remind us that life is not just about what we accomplish, but the importance of maintaining lifelong relationships and finding happiness in the everyday; with age, or reading the words and thoughts of those with years under their belts, comes wisdom.


Sachin said...

I'm glad I'm not the only who only goes to the class notes section. Have't read an article in years, honestly.

Anonymous said...

This is post is both fun and really moving! I could probably get sermon material out of it. :-)

Stephanie Shockley

Steve and Stepher said...

Keeping up w/everyone is quite the responsibility; good for you! Since I agree that it is often whom you know, you should be set for life :)

This is terrible but I can't remember a single person from my university graduating class and that was in 1999. When the alumnae news arrives I actually shred it; I don't even open it b/c I know that nothing inside will pertain to me.

I transferred to a new school in my junior/senior year and have no fond memories of the school from which I graduated. Had I been able to remain in St. Louis and graduate from from St. Louis University as I'd planned, I might be in your position...