As Darden’s Dean for ten years, I hosted dozens of class reunions. These events reinforced my sense that the Darden MBA experience fosters an inimitable bond among classmates. The joy apparent in the greetings among acquaintances was tangible evidence of social networks still strong despite the passage of time. Accordingly, after I left the Dean’s office I volunteered to co-chair the 50th reunion of my undergraduate class. I wanted to give something back to classmates who made the experience so rich, to honor the shared experience, and to help friends rediscover one another. The value of such ends seems obvious to me. Yet a frequent question I heard begged why one should attend a reunion. Here’s my answer.
At the outset, I advise one to suspend all the usual reasons, such as whoopee, nostalgia, and network. First, a reunion looks like a three-day long party: brunches, lunches, barbeques, golf outings, cocktail hours, big dinners, dances, and after-hours digestifs. You can party like there is no tomorrow. If you do, you’ll go home heavier, hung over, dazed from sensory overload, and regretful—there is much more than comestibles on offer, which it should be your aim to discover. Second, you might be swept by nostalgia and hoping to rekindle the warmth you felt back when. The problem is that as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again” because that place has changed, and so have you. We should hope that our colleges and universities are dynamic for the simple reason that the world changes and our schools should keep up with the change. Third, networking may be the stock advice of career counselors, but renders the reunion a transactional–rather than relational–experience. You will end up doing all the talking, rather than listening. People recoil from professional networkers. Tuck away your business cards and pay attention.
On the other hand, I think there are three big positive reasons to attend a reunion:
- Make friends. That is, make, renew, and rediscover friends. Research finds that regular engagement with friends is an attribute of people who age well. Friends and acquaintances enrich us. The pandemic has taught all of us the costs of social distance. Rather than the cost of the CDC’s six-foot prescription, I mean the loss of the kind of connectivity with others that enriches our lives in things great and small. Worse, with advancing years, one finds one’s peers are passing away; thus, one must replenish the pool of friends. Sustaining a circle of friendship takes constant care, much like tending a garden. The task of making new friends is to find some common frame of reference on which to build a bond. The shared experience of MBA years is a durable foundation for new friendship. In the hundreds of hours of calls, Zooms, and meetings for the reunion I’m organizing, I’ve met incredibly interesting classmates, whom I never really knew back then. These are people I want to get to know better. A great reunion is first and foremost about making friends. The lawn parties, dinners, and hoopla pale in comparison to the conversations you will have, the one-to-one chats and small-group gatherings where you connect with people and insights in ways that will move you.
- Make meaning. Erik Erikson, the famed developmental psychologist, argued that a person confronts new tasks as the years advance. For instance, the young professional seeks to establish a sense of mastery and competence at work and to form a lifelong bond with a partner at home. The mature professional invests in building an institution, strengthening a community, and nurturing a family. The central task of people in old age is to look back, judge what has or has not been accomplished, and draw fulfillment or acceptance about the life so lived. Wherever one is on the path of development, a reunion can help with the task at hand—not mainly in reminiscing about MBA days, but in connecting those days with what followed and the challenges at hand. We all have changed since graduation. What role did the university experience play in that growth? The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that you can’t step into the same river twice: no one at age 70 is the same person he or she was at 30. How have we changed? How are we managing those changes? What have those changes meant for others and for me? The gift of a reunion is to illuminate some insights.
- Make a society. Surveys document the slump in social trust, the erosion of norms, and the loss of respect for one another. These declines are associated with falling participation in purely civic and social organizations, such as bridge groups, singing groups, fraternal and religious organizations, and charities—to the list I would add alumni gatherings. Such organizations build trust and social capital, as Robert Putnam described In Bowling Alone. The decline in social trust and social capital has two bad consequences. The first is a weaker sense of well-being. Strong social capital appears to have greater effect on a person’s sense of well-being than great wealth or good health. The second is worse civic effectiveness. At the level of communities and nations, strong social capital promotes effective market exchange and the mobilization of resources necessary to produce public goods such as clean environment, justice, and defense. To attend the class reunion is to take a step toward building social capital and strengthening the social fabric.
The Covid pandemic has restructured—but not thwarted—the possibility of reunions. To “attend” a reunion might entail joining virtual gatherings this spring, meeting with classmates in small groups near your home, and ultimately coming to an in-person reunion at Darden after we all quell the virus. Come back to a Darden reunion. Make friends. Make meaning. And make a society.
 The famous study of Harvard graduates cites the avoidance of social isolation in addition to not smoking, avoiding alcoholism, and sustaining healthy weight, regular exercise, and stable marriage, among others. See George Vaillant, Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development.
 See Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society.
 See https://www.aei.org/politics-and-public-opinion/does-america-have-a-trust-problem/.
 “The Space Between: Renewing the American Tradition of Civil Society,” United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Dec. 18, 2019 https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/republicans/analysis?ID=78A35E07-4C86-44A2-8480-BE0DB8CB104E
 Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Norton, page 183.
 Helliwell, J. F., Aknin, L. B., Shiplett, H., Huang, H., & Wang, S. (2018). Social capital and prosocial behavior as sources of well-being. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com.
 Durlauf, Steven N., and Marcel Fafchamps, (2004) “Social Capital,” Working Paper 10485, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w10485/w10485.pdf.