A Reunion of One’s Own

Connecting in the digital age

When I arrived at Harvard in 1979, one of the campus wonders was the Science Center, shaped, according to legend, like a Polaroid Land camera. Imagine: a camera that produced pictures on the spot—memories captured instantly, in color even! In the basement lived the Main Frame and its terminals; techno-geeks trekked across campus to use them, while the rest of us wrote our term papers on typewriters. There were no cell phones or voice mail; “text” was still something you read, not something you did.

Fast-forward 29 years. The Science Center still stands, but its innards have innovated; now it is wireless, as are all the dorms and Houses. Freshmen enter with laptops, cell phones, and an fas.harvard address; many sport iPhones and Blackberrys. There is no need to wait for the Freshman Register: most students have connected virtually even before they arrive, checking each other out on MySpace.com or hi5.com. They are already “friends” with their roommates and their roommates’ “friends” on facebook.com—a “social utility” in the terminology of today’s technology. Once on campus, they can use H-Link, a Web application that connects their courses and classmates with their Facebook accounts. Thanks to Facebook’s inventor, Mark Zuckerberg (who might have commenced with his class of 2006 mates had he not followed in Bill Gates’s footsteps and dropped out), Harvard students these days are all connected—at least technologically—for life.

By my fifteenth and twentieth reunions, technology had caught up with our class: we had a reunion website and e-mail had replaced “snail mail.” But in this, our twenty-fifth-reunion year, we underwent a technological makeover. Class-report entries could be submitted on line; we had our own blog. When a Class of 1983 Reunion Facebook group sprang up, within 24 hours I had dozens of “friends” and began catching up with people I hadn’t talked to for years. I saw pictures of them, their partners, and their pets. I found out that one of my roommates was divorced, one had gone blonde, another gray. I knew what they were reading, where they were traveling, what music they liked now. People I hadn’t thought about since graduation found me on line and said hello. I was having a reunion, and it was only February.

I began to wonder: in the digital age, do we need real reunions? Why bother coming back to Cambridge at all? You can watch Commencement on screen, without suffering in the blazing sun or pouring rain, without being trampled by parents desperate for a glimpse of their child’s $180,000 head. You can tour the campus virtually—even using the Wikipedia link to discover all the people who ever lived in your freshman room—and impress your family without buying a lot of expensive plane tickets. Camped in front of your computer, it doesn’t matter what you wear, where you sit, or with whom. You can avoid the trophy wives, the genius children, and the humble Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners. You will not risk being remembered for things you aren’t anymore. When you think about it that way, who would ever go back?

I would. I have never missed a reunion. But I should admit that I am the class secretary, the one who, for some reason, believed as a senior that I wanted to help connect classmates to each other and to Harvard for life. Since graduation, I have served on every reunion committee, all of my local Harvard Club boards, and countless Harvard and Radcliffe Alumni Association committees. I helped form a Radcliffe Shared Interest Group when the Radcliffe Alumnae Association disappeared along with Radcliffe College. I understand this behavior to be atypical; my sister Caroline ’84 is more representative. I had to sign her up for her own fifth reunion, which she had no intention of attending. I paid for her registration, I ordered her sweatshirt, and I even made her fly back from China. She had a surprisingly good time, and went on to serve on her own twentieth-reunion committee.

But for those who can’t or won’t leave home for Cambridge, the virtues of the virtual are many. Harvard at Home (www.at-home.harvard.edu) “brings the best of Harvard to you”; courses like Michael Sandel’s celebrated “Justice” are now being offered on line; Crimson Compass (http://post.harvard.edu/alumni/html/crimsoncompass.shtml) is Harvard’s on-line career networking service. Without waiting five years for a reunion, you can connect immediately with like-minded alumni, thanks to the Harvard Alumni Association’s Shared Interest Groups (SIGs), class websites, and list servers (www.haa.harvard.edu). You can reach out with ease across classes and Houses, geographical barriers and time zones.

The emotional obligations of on-line friendships are fewer; it’s a circumscribed relationship. “Reunions used to be an event but now they’re an environment,” notes writer R.D. Rosen ’71. “You don’t just parachute in and it’s over. You can almost not show up and have a better time. There’s a tacit understanding that you’re not strangers but you’re not friends. You don’t have to feel rude or regret that you have to tear yourself away from a conversation: with e-mail you just stop; no hard feelings.”

Given the convenience of 24-hour-a-day, year-round, virtual connections, why do thousands of alumni still flock back to campus each year? Some return enthusiastically, others reluctantly, convinced only by a close friend willing to be a security blanket. They come to wear lobster bibs, to shake hands with the president, to recapture the intellectual exhilaration of old times. Some come to spouse- or job-hunt, or to show off their new or well-preserved physiques, Rogaine manes, burgeoning bank accounts, and offspring. This year, some may be drawn, no doubt, by the presence of J.K. Rowling, who has created a universe at least as compelling as cyberspace.

But most of us return to reconnect—to be together, the way we used to be, and to rewrite or reconfirm our internal narratives. Rosen, who coined the term psychobabble, considers it “a moral imperative” to connect with his former self and to interact with “witnesses” to his past. “I feel—maybe because I’m a writer—that your life is a narrative, subject to analysis. Revisiting your life through the people who once populated it, who may see you more clearly than members of your own family, is a privilege. At a recent reunion, several classmates told me things they remembered about me—and I didn’t recall any of them. The story of my life became a little clearer to me.”

While the wonders of the Web abound, there is simply no substitute for partaking in person of the best the University has to offer as it struts its stuff for you on a glorious June day. “Facebook and other social networking sites have revolutionized the notion of ‘connecting,’” affirms Nancy Sinsabaugh ’76, M.B.A. ’78, chair of the HAA’s Classes and Reunions Committee. “But nothing will ever replace the thrill of walking into the Yard, running into a classmate you haven’t seen in decades, and giving them a hug and feeling the years melt away so that you feel, once again, like a student at Harvard.”

Physical reunions have spawned socially productive encounters in all senses of the word. When Dan Rothstein ’77 spoke at a twenty-fifth-reunion symposium about the idea of microdemocracy—bringing more low-income citizens into the demo-cratic mainstream and into the voting booth—several audience members took action. Melissa Berman, of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, put him in touch with an interested funder, and other classmates hosted events to spread the idea. At our fifteenth reunion, when I thought to introduce two doctor friends—an endocrinologist and a neurobiologist—they discovered overlapping research interests and ended up writing a paper together. (They were the only two guys I knew who worked with transgenic mice.)

Romantic connections are also common: on our reunion committee alone, Marianne Delpo Kulow met her husband, David Kulow, at our fifteenth reunion, and cochair Tony Hollenberg met his wife, Judy Levenfeld, serving on our fifth-reunion committee. “I am happy to say that I would have not met my wife via Facebook. I would not have stood up to the two-dimensional scrutiny,” quips Hollenberg. “The technology connections are great at providing a good opening act for a reunion, but let’s hope we are still interesting enough to make the real reunions the place to be.”

Would Tony and Judy have met on a conference call? I think not. I feel reunions exist in a sacred space like Delphi, as classics professor Gregory Nagy would say, where mystical and important things happen if only you make the journey and the sacrifice. Reunions are a place of possibility, where the rules of daily interaction are temporarily suspended, where the unpredictable and unexpected reign. There are brief yet intense encounters with people you may never see again: the depth and immediacy of the bond arising from knowing each other over time and place a long time ago, an instant intimacy created out of context.

Cyberspace is an interesting place, but I remain a fan of the pheromone, thanks to E.O. Wilson. I want to come back to campus and dance with the guys I danced with, and those I didn’t. I want to be at Pinocchio’s with friends, telling the truth to each other late into the night. This time I will bring my digital camera, but I also want the immediate gratification of moments captured and developed on the spot—in color even.

Crimson Digital

Alumni associations everywhere are jumping on the virtual bandwagon. A recent “webinar” on “Understanding the On-Line Social Medium” for development professionals bears this out: the agenda included overviews of how Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, Wiki, blogs, and other social-networking and media-sharing websites can enhance the alumni experience. “Without technology, personal and professional alumni networking would not have taken off so dramatically nor spanned the globe so effectively as we see today,” says Sally Williams-Allen, M.A.T. ’65, a Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) adviser and the former director of alumni relations at the international business school INSEAD, who is now a global consultant in alumni engagement and international community-building. And virtual connection becomes increasingly important as Harvard’s student and alumni bodies become more international.

Philip Lovejoy, deputy executive director of the HAA, says the redesigned post.harvard.edu site, to be rolled out in 2009, “takes the best features of the best social-networking sites and applies them to the alumni experience... so you can interact with and connect to the Harvard communities you choose: a class, SIG [shared interest group], Club, region, graduate school. What’s radically different is that you’ll be able to customize the way you relate to your classmates, fellow alumni, and the University.” Alumni can have personalized home pages with a calendar of local Harvard events, their alumni contacts, and their choice of photographs. Reunion sites will be revamped; instead of static lists of who’s coming and who’s waffling, alumni will be able to click on names and pictures and convince old friends to come back.

Ellen Gordon Reeves ’83, Ed.M ’86, is a teacher, writer, and editor based on the East Coast and in Paris.

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