Reflections on Friendship—and my 50th College Reunion

Many decades ago, as I was graduating from college, I noticed that on the weekends just after graduation the campus was decked out for alumni reunions, starting the 5th reunion and marching on to the 50th—and a few even to the 70th.  I remember thinking two things: “Wow, who are those guys?” And...”Will I be one of those guys 50 years from now?”

Well, the old adage seems to come true as we get older: The days go slow (especially when you’re raising kids) and the years fly by. So my first thought as I was preparing to attend my 50th Yale reunion in New Haven two months ago was: “How the hell did I get here?” Yes, age is just a number, but 50 is a big number—the Golden Anniversary of college graduation—and I was confounded by how it had snuck up on me.

Now, I understand that many college grads have mixed feelings about reunions. Some people just don’t go. Period. They’re not into nostalgia, they say, or they hated their college years, so why revisit those unhappy times? Others live too far away or simply have scheduling conflicts.

But I’m not one of those people. What I’ve realized about myself over the years is that I’m driven by curiosity, the pleasure I feel at the discovery of new stories—no wonder I became a journalist. Reunions are an opportunity to find answers to, “Whatever happened to…?” but also a time to reflect, to revisit changing relationships with friends and to explore how we’ve all evolved over the years. Besides, there are always surprises.

Friends have always been central to my life. Of course, I recognize the value of family, but I also feel that our culture tends to underestimate the value of friendships—something that came to the fore during the pandemic, when we saw the dire consequences of social isolation.

Indeed, friendship has been a consistent theme of my 45 Forward conversations, including one with long-time friend and psychologist Andrea Gould-Marks (“You Gotta Have Friends—All the Way through Life”  https://roelresources.com/45-forward-episode-3/), and another recent one with sociologist Jan Yager, the author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives (https://roelresources.com/45-forward-episode-127/).

My reunion became a moment of reflection about college friends, as well as glancing acquaintances, even classmates I never really knew while in college. As expected, I spent much of the time with former roommates and other close friends—three days, chatting over cocktails and dinner, lectures, and walks around campus, noting  the changes, wistfully, for the better, since we were students. (For one thing, there are a lot more women today—I was part of the first class of freshmen women to be accepted to Yale in the fall of 1969.) These are the kinds of life-long friends we make, no matter where we go to college or where we end up in the post-college diaspora.

Then, there was an assortment of casual friends and acquaintances I mingled with. Sometimes we recognized each other, sometimes we had to look at nametags, no longer with embarrassment. It was a bit frantic, jumping from conversation to conversation, trying to encapsulate each other’s story in a few minutes. (Retired/still working? Children/grandchildren? Staying put/moving elsewhere?) You had to come to terms with the reality that you might talk to some people for only 15 minutes and perhaps never see them again. And that was OK. I enjoyed these snapshots, being able to engage, however briefly, so people wouldn’t just evaporate from my memory.

Some of the most gratifying surprises were encounters with people I didn’t know at all 50 years ago. I had one delightful conversation with a classmate who ate meals in the same dining hall I did for four years, but we had never talked until the first day of the reunion. In the old days, we just moved in different circles. At the reunion we discovered amazing connections and shared experiences that simply did not exist when we were undergraduates. Will we see each other again? Hmmm. We live almost 2,500 miles apart. But those indelible moments showed me that reunions are as much about the present as the past, seeing people in new ways rather than reminiscing about the way we were.

There were also a couple of events at the reunion that surprised me with insights about life-long learning and friendship. One was a presentation by a psychiatrist and psychologist from Colorado who created the “Aging Wisely Project” and led a lively discussion of their research and findings, “considering the joys and challenges of old age.” Sound familiar? We talked about 45 Forward and two months later, we’ve reconnected and have started a collaboration that I believe will be the start of a rewarding friendship.

Another panel discussion that provoked an unusual discussion was about friendship and the intertwined history of two nations: the U.S. and Vietnam. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and I learned about the remarkable, little-known story of how once-bitter enemies have become genuine friends through a process of steadfast remediation and reconciliation—to the point where 87 percent of Vietnamese people today have favorable views of the United States!

Amid the festivities at the reunion there was a moment of solemn reflection, a service of remembrance for more than 130 classmates who have died over the years. One of my roommates and another close friend were among them. The last few years have been a tough period for many of us entering our later years. It’s not just the result of declining old age, of course.  Many people have lost family and friends to COVID. It’s been a sobering reminder of my own mortality,  and my struggle to understand and accept how friends—so vital, so spirited, so present—can now be gone. So, my friends: Take time to cherish your friends, whenever you can, for it is your love that remains bright, long after the bright college years have faded.

                                       —Ron Roel

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