“Happy Birthday to you!”, 15 college classmates of mine sang as we had gathered for a birthday picnic featuring Claire’s Lithuanian Coffee cake and champagne. It was my 34th birthday, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that Saturday June 4th just happened to coincide with my 10 Year Yale reunion. It was in equal parts delightful and surreal; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow managed to climb aboard a time machine.
Rationally, I knew of course that a decade had passed, but emotionally – as all my classmates were singing happy birthday to me – it felt as though we’d just been college seniors yesterday. “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale,” our classmate, the late Marina Keegan ’12 wrote in a piece for a special edition of the Yale Daily News distributed at our class’s commencement exercises.
Ten years later, being surrounded by my classmates still feels exactly like that, like the opposite of loneliness. “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team”, Marina had continued to explain, and how right she was.
Once the birthday song came to its final “happy birthday to you,” my classmates expectantly paused.
I don’t remember the words that then came out of my mouth. But with hindsight, if I could undertake another short time travel journey back to that very moment, I would have shared two reflections – a recent one, and another from a decade ago – and said the following to them:
Friendship is happiness. This is one of the lessons from our college days that is as true today as it was ten years ago. Especially, as we come out of a global pandemic, the importance of human connection, and of showing up for each other, is ever more a measure of our quality of life everywhere.
During the lockdown in 2020, I sorted through some of my old things in Switzerland. It was a quintessential pandemic moment, and I happened to rediscover a few documents all of us had received with our admission pack in 2008. Among other things, it contained a poster of the famous George Pierson quote: “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, and a society of friends.”
Rereading it made me think of all of you, and how our transatlantic friendships have enriched my life with so much inspiration, perspective and meaning. Locked down in Ottenbach, the small Swiss village I call home, I felt compelled at the time to frame the poster and hang it in my place. Eighteen months later, it’s the greatest birthday gift of all that we get to reunite here at the Women’s Table in front of Sterling Library. It’s so very delightful to be with all of you, and to know that this weekend alone, thousands of fellow Yale alumni from all corners of the world are back at our beloved alma mater.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of an observation Prof. John Loge, the former Dean of Timothy Dwight College, shared with us in 2012. I was seated with some of you in the TD dining hall when he gave us a farewell address just a few days prior to our graduation. As far as I recall, he told us:
"If you look up to the ceiling, the wooden structure of the dining hall’s roof looks like a boat that’s turned upside down. This vessel has carried your class through the past four years. It’s where many of you met for the first time in August 2008. It has since taken you to waters charted and uncharted: you’ve engaged till late in conversations and ended up in places intellectually known and unknown. Through it all – whether it was finals week or a cold winter night – this vessel gave you warm food and drinks, shelter, and safety. Most of all though, these beams above us held a space open so that bonds of friendship could be forged and nourished; some of which may last you a lifetime.
So far, you haven’t had to do much for it, besides show up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From now on though, as you are about to graduate and set sail to new ports around the world, it is upon each one of you, to build your own vessels, your own places of gathering, your own communities.
As you embark on your next adventure, I urge you to build vessels that have sturdy beams, long tables, and open seats. Remember that good food and beverages bring people together. And make sure to leave ample space for conversation and dialogue. In due time you will then see, how your vessel will be able to forge friendships too, just like our dining hall."
Dean Loge was so right back then to point out to us just how much friendships matter in life. It’s more fun in the good times – when you get to enjoy the sunshine on deck and explore new horizons together – and it’s what carries us through the tough times – when you navigate stormy waters and must confront your biggest fears.
As I stand here on my 34th birthday with all of you, ten years later, I am so glad our vessels made it back to where our journey begun over a decade ago, and that we still know exactly what the opposite of loneliness is, because that’s how I feel right now.
Image, from left to right: Carlos Greaves, Cristina Ruiz ’12, Madison Grinnell ’12, Taneja Young ’12, Vela Park ’12, Allison Rabkin Golden ’12, Jim Liu ’12, Hannah Kleinfeld ’12, Matt Lindermann, Lingyuxiu Zhong ’12, Tobias Kühne ’12, Malgorzata (Gosia) Rejniak ’12, Luis Diego Granera ’12, Shashwata Narain ’12, Chetan Mahajan