I graduated in 1971 from Randolph-Macon Woman's College, a liberal arts college in Lynchburg, Virginia. The college is now co-ed and has recently changed its name to Randolph College. I've just returned from my 45th reunion, and out of a class of about 140, we had 22 women return, some for the first time since we graduated. I've been back for reunions before, but this was the first time I stayed in the dorm with the other “girls.” This provided a quality of fellowship I hadn't experienced when I attended only the planned events, primarily because of the impromptu gatherings in the dorm between the last event of the day and bedtime, during which we laughed and cried, reminisced and shared our lives with each other.
The three-hour drive home gave me a chance to reflect on the rich experience and wonder why it seemed so profoundly special. Here are a few of the life lessons I learned:
1. There's a strong bond from shared experience.
The four years we shared as college students comprised a formative time in our lives. They included daily steeping in the values and principles of the institution, high standards of academic endeavor, and clear expectations of our responsibility as educated, relatively privileged young women. The late sixties and early seventies were years of great political unrest and social upheaval. The Vietnam War was raging, peace protests and sit-ins were being staged on college campuses around the country, and Civil Rights were yet to be fully realized, especially in the southern town of Lynchburg. While our class members formed a continuum of choices made around these various issues, the fact that we lived through them and faced them together created a shared experience that has become an unspoken bond between us. We know who we were and what we did together, so even decades later, we have been able to pick up where we left off and build a new relationship based on that foundation.
2. Life is a great leveler. We're not as different as we thought we were.
The things that seemed to separate us in college (opinions about the Vietnam War, looks, fashion, money, politics, marijuana use, etc.) are just no longer divisive at our age. The life events we've all been through make us fellow travelers on life's rocky road, and we felt the instant recognition forged by those experiences:
• We've all faced life's ups and down.
• We've all had wins and we've all had losses.
• We've all had trials and tribulations.
• We've all known disasters and disappointments.
• We've all done what we could to make a difference in our little corners of the world.
Some had become physicians, attorneys, and judges. Others pursued their interests, academic, and creative passions as artists, historians, writers, educators, and musicians. One was an Army pediatric nurse who became a high level military advisor. Many have worked tirelessly in their communities for charitable, educational, and civic organizations and causes, serving on boards and town councils, and various leadership roles. I felt an enormous affection for these wonderful women and who they've become. In all the ways that matter, they are examples of Vita Abundantior—the life more abundant.
3. Many old assumptions were wrong.
At an earlier reunion, one of my classmates confessed that I had intimidated her when we were in college. Certainly I had my own opinions about some classmates who were different from me. I know now, of course, the really beautiful girls were also smart and deserved better than to be thought of as “party girls.” At our age, inner beauty is far more important anyway, and physical beauty fades. I know now that those who were using marijuana and drugs—or participated in protests—should not have been dismissed as rebels or trouble makers. They were, in fact, courageous in standing up for what they believed, pushing boundaries, and trying new things (even if some might have been ill-advised). Those who were shy have become strong, and those who were strong are sometimes weaker than we supposed. One of my classmates who attended on scholarship because of financial need admitted she had a chip on her shoulder about the students she felt were “better off” than she was.
It's easy to be dismissive of someone who's different. We so often make assumptions about them, but often those assumptions are wrong.
4. We can't take anything for granted.
22 of our classmates have died since we graduated—more than in some classes older than ours. We found this quite sobering, and it was a grim reminder that no matter how old—or young—we are or how healthy we believe ourselves to be, life can end in a heartbeat. We tried to honor these 22 classmates by pulling out our year books, finding their picture, and sharing our memories of them or what we knew about their lives since graduation. We felt their presence.
While that may seem somewhat morbid, we found it empowering. When you don't have time to waste, you take your priorities more seriously. You focus on things that matter. You appreciate the good things in your life, including friendships.
I'm really looking forward to our 50th reunion.
You don't have to have gone to college to learn the lessons I learned from my college reunion. They are lessons we can learn from thinking about other groups we've been in for a long time: elementary or high school classes, the military, social clubs, civic clubs, small towns, and even families. Step back and think about those people you've known from these connections. What other lessons can we learn?
Try taking these lessons to heart and reconnecting with someone from your past. You might just find a new best friend in someone you thought you didn't like years ago. At the very least, you'll bust up a few misconceptions you had about who they were and what they stood for. And who knows…maybe they'll find you're way cooler than they thought you were back then too. We can always hope…
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