How well do university reunions work?


I've just returned from the 25th reunion of my graduating class in Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. I had always imagined that a 25th reunion would be the "big one" so I went. In addition, while I found myself to have little in common with my high school classmates, even having spent 13 years growing up with many of them, like many techie people I found my true community at university, so I wanted to see them again. To top it off, it was the 40th anniversary of the faculty and the 50th anniversary of the university itself.

But what if they had a reunion and nobody came? Or rather, out of a class of several hundred, under 20 came, many of whom I only barely remembered and none of whom I was close to?

This doesn't mean it was a bad weekend. I still had much in common with those who came (and even had friends in the other cohorts they held reunions for such as the class of 87 having its 20th reunion) and there were interesting conversations. And it was nostalgic to travel old haunts, and strange to see all the new buildings and the continued explosive growth of Waterloo as a tech boomtown. And there were old professors and the like. They were all in a tizzy, unsurprisingly, about a study last week that declared Waterloo to be most intelligent community in the world something that is almost certainly the result of the university, and in particular the Math and Engineering faculties there. It is a top school, easily in the league of more famous cousins like MIT, Berkeley or Stanford. My classmate Mike Lazaridis, who co-founded RIM (Blackberry) and is now a billionaire and the region's tech god, has been really boosting things by both becoming Chancellor of the university and endowing a cool-looking theoretical physics and quantum computing research center both downtown and at the University.

But why such a small reunion? It would be easy to place the blame on the alumni department organizing it, and while there is certainly more they could be doing, that's not a full explanation.

  • Universities, and in particular a program in math/cs probably have a much wider diaspora than high schools or less globe-roaming fields of study. I was the only one to come from far away that I could tell, and this diaspora made it harder.
  • Perhaps unique to UW, it offers study in both co-op and regular forms. Co-op students work every other term and take 5 years to get a regular 4-year degree. As such, many of my friends were officially from other years and not sought out for this reunion.
  • In addition, for reasons having nothing to do with the co-op disparity, I had many friends from other years, other faculties and from grad school. They weren't there.
  • The alumni department claims to have addresses for 80% of the class, and E-mails for 50%, so that wasn't the source of the low turnout.
  • Our 1982 class came from early in the E-mail era, but late enough that ready contact is available to us to keep in touch with those we truly wish to make a modest effort to reach. Perhaps many felt little need for a physical reunion.
  • Waterloo is to some degree a college town, and as such most students come to it from other towns (mostly Toronto only 60 miles away) and don't live there after graduating. Does success depend on having graduates living in town?

I wonder if my proposal for a virtual video reunion might be ideal here. I suggested building this might be a great student project, of value to the university and to other universities.

So I'm also curious, was my reunion typical, or have other tech universities pulled of big, well attended reunions? If UW failed, is it because the alumni department must do more, or because the school is a young (50 years old) school without the traditions needed?

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