Last weekend, Columbia alum flocked from far and near to attend annual reunion events put on by the Columbia Alumni Association. His interest piqued by talk of free food and free conversation, Bwog’s resident Alumni Anthropologist Ace Bijan Samareh decided to stop by the Dean’s Day Continental Breakfast, hosted by Deantini, and ask the attendees a few questions…
Aside from 1. The pride of having graduated from what I believe to be the best university in the world, 2. The security of having journeyed intellectually with a group of lifelong friends, and 3. The profound knowledge of my place in the world, the thing I look forward to most about being an alum is the promise of brunches. Man, do they know how to eat. For Saturday morning’s “Dean’s Day Continental Breakfast”— just one of the events comprising last weekend’s Alumni reunion— Roone was filled with tables elegantly draped with white cloth and breakfast foods. Each platter foresaw my desire for palate cleansing and was decked out with fruit presented as if Wes Anderson worked for Edible Arrangements. In the center of the table stood a three-tier muffin stand to complement carafes of coffee.
I arrived at Lerner at a staggeringly painful 8:30 a.m. last Saturday to cover alumni weekend. As I was waiting to be let into the brunch, a box on the registration table grabbed my attention. It was simply labeled “1952” and contained registration packets for alumni to fill out before coming in. I so badly wanted to wait by the box for someone to pick up their packet so I could bombard them with questions. What translation of Iliad did you use? How did the war affect your perception of college? Was Bridge over River Kwai a big deal when it came out? I spent a good time pondering this, until I looked at the day’s schedule of events and saw it contained a “Class of 1942 Luncheon.” My head almost exploded. I have no shame admitting that I’m one of those obnoxious members of our generation who thinks that something is automatically cooler if it’s older (or European).
When I entered the brunch, alum were already scattered around the spread conversing. I was a bit hesitant to interrogate those simply enjoying their morning meal, but I was lucky enough to almost immediately rub shoulders with an alumni from the class of ‘87—the first co-ed class to graduate from Columbia College. Kyra Barry, CC ‘87 and the first female president of the Columbia College Alumni Association, let me sit down and ask her a few questions. Barry was inspired to attend the formerly all-male Columbia after an experience with a high school English teacher who was in the first coed graduating class at Yale. When I asked her if as an undergrad she felt any sort of pressure being a member of her historic class, she said she “didn’t think about it a lot” while at school. This surprised me at first, until I realized college is probably a lot more fun and valuable without people telling you what your four years are supposed to mean. Nevertheless, it became “much more important as alumni,” to Barry.
This comes as no surprise considering the work that goes into these alumni reunions. Until then, I had no idea how much planning goes into the five days of activities. The ramp lounges looked like administrative base camps, sprawling with blue polo-wearing-people to help you find where you’re going. On the tables were walkie talkies, binders containing various schedules and attendance sheets, and a pack of 5-Hour Energy. This year, every class ending in a two or a seven reunited with events such as the “Class of 1972 High Line Walk,” the “Young Alumni Party” at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, or a lecture entitled “Frontiers of Science: The Manhattan Project: Then and Now” (it was jarring to realize that even alumni aren’t able to escape Frontiers). Each of the many staff members was moving from event to event or helping someone out. The end product of all this work is to let each class remember their legacy in the larger context of Columbia’s history, and for Mrs. Barry, this year’s reunion definitely reminds us how important Columbia’s efforts to diversify its student body to reflect diversity in the face of pressing social justice issues.
Unfortunately, not every class witnessed so great a change as that of ‘87, but this makes them less significant by no means. And that’s part of the challenge of organizing your reunion; what separates your class from every other class? Here, phrases like “hard work”, a “changing nation”, and “intellectual curiosity” don’t cut it. To tackle this problem, for each class a board of alumni is brought together to plan its own events. This takes place a whole year in advance, which is another testament to the unspoken work that goes into alumni weekends. Sure, there were pamphlets on how to donate to the school, but it’s not so much about getting people to donate as it is to show them why they are donating.
I felt a comforting sense of significance looking around the room at the alumni of all ages as I was exiting; a group of graduates from the 50s chatting it up next to a table of eager ‘07 grads made me excited to think what will define my class after we graduate and enter the real world.
My excitement may have also been in part because I stole a muffin.