The Yale Alumni Association Assembly and Yale Alumni Fund Convocation is a celebration of Yale alumni leadership and service, filled with panel discussions, speeches, breakout sessions, and more – all designed to empower volunteers to thrive as alumni leaders and provide them with the tools they need to communicate effectively with their constituents.
The headline event of the two-day gathering (Nov. 21-22) is the Yale Medal ceremony. There, Yale will celebrate five individuals for their remarkable and enduring contributions to their fellow alumni and to the university. The Yale Medal is the highest honor awarded by the YAA.
This year’s recipients are Nancy Marx Better ’84, William H. Donaldson ’53, Caroline Hsiao Van ’79, John Walsh ’61, and Scott R. Williamson ’80. Prior to Assembly and Convocation, the honorees spoke with us about what it was like to find out they had been chosen for this year’s award, the lessons they’ve learned as volunteers, and their advice for those who might follow in their footsteps.
What was your reaction to hearing that you’d been awarded this year’s Yale Medal?
Scott Williamson: Surprise! When I took the call from (YAA Vice Chair) Jerry Henry (’80 MDiv), I assumed that he was calling to see whether we might get together while he would be in Chicago on a consulting visit to a client. So, it took a moment to process that he was calling about something else. It is a very humbling honor, because every step of the way has been made possible by others supporting Yale and its missions.
Bill Donaldson: I was honored and surprised to hear that I had been awarded the Yale Medal. There are so many alumni deserving of it. Recognition from one’s alma mater is always heartwarming.
Nancy Better: I was incredibly surprised, so much so that I had to ask Jerry if I could pull my car over to the side of the road and return his call.
Tell us about your service. How did you get started? And why do you continue?
Caroline Van: I began volunteering with YAA in my senior year as a quarter century fund rep and as an ASC (Alumni Schools Committee) interviewer in Chicago. I became a YAA delegate in the late 90s, took on a variety of leadership roles with our club in Hong Kong as well as with shared interest groups, and was privileged to join the YAA Board of Governors in 2013.
The greatest satisfaction for me comes from the warmth I feel when someone else feels empowered, energized, or uplifted, even a tiny bit. It’s truly my pleasure to help build a sharing community with good values, and to make our lives more care-driven, rewarding, and fun.
Scott Williamson: I started my service through the Alumni Schools Committee in the 1980s as a way to do something for Yale that reflected my own good experience back in the 70s. I told the ASC director to count on me whenever and for whatever was needed. Then one summer, I was thanked for volunteering to be the Chicago ASC area director! That led to an ex-officio position on the Yale Chicago board of directors, two separate two-year terms as its president, service as a YAA delegate, member, and executive officer of the YAA Board of Governors, and countless Yale friendships.
One way or another, I’ve stayed involved because I love staying connected with the Yale community, in some form giving back to Yale, serving my local community, and helping change lives. And I still love interacting with the kids, whose energy and enthusiasm are infectious and provide a constant reminder that if I apply myself just some fraction of what these kids are doing, then I can accomplish whatever I want, too.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of giving back to Yale?
John Walsh: The work I’ve done at Yale has been exhilarating, a kind of late-life missionary phase I hadn’t planned on. The big reward is the close contact I have with students who are learning to use the [Yale University Art Gallery] collections. I should add that serving on the board of the Gallery for 40-plus years has had professional rewards: it’s kept me in regular contact with remarkable curators, educators, and directors, all professional peers of mine. I had a close-up view of the transformation of the Gallery during the directorship of the amazing Jock Reynolds, and then the successful handover to his successor Stephanie Wiles. If there was ever any doubt about the Gallery being the finest and most effective university museum anywhere, there isn’t any longer. It sets the standard.
Nancy Better: The most rewarding aspect of my service to Yale has been the opportunity to connect with an extraordinary array of talented individuals. Each of these people sees Yale through a different lens, and I’m fascinated by how Yale has shaped their experiences. Whether I’m answering a high school student’s questions about the residential colleges, sharing tips with an international parent on life in New Haven, asking a professor about her academic research, or encouraging an alumnus to make a contribution, I never get tired of engaging with Yale. It’s exciting to see the university evolve over time and gratifying to participate in the process. Serving Yale has always felt like a privilege, and never like a chore.
Bill Donaldson: I was a scholarship student at Yale from Buffalo, New York. I can’t begin to explain all that Yale gave to me in terms of a start on a most rewarding life. I have tried, but I can never give back in proportion to that.
What advice would you give to current students and younger alumni looking to follow in your footsteps?
Nancy Better: Just do it! Raise your hand soon, and often. Yale offers hundreds of volunteer opportunities for alumni, ranging from a local day of volunteer service to organizing reunions, interviewing applicants, and soliciting funds for critical needs like financial aid. Dive in, encourage friends to join, and you’ll soon find leadership opportunities flowing your way. And if Yale doesn’t have a platform to support your particular passion, don’t be afraid to contact the YAA and suggest launching your own initiative!
John Walsh: Keep in touch with your teachers. Most of them really do have a stake in your life and career. The best advice I got at Yale was during office hours with people I thought would be too busy to be interested in me. [Professor] Marie Borroff got me to stop fooling around and take myself seriously. John Hollander – who was also in the English Department, where I was a major – told me I’d be better off in art history and got me into graduate school. Don’t underestimate what your teachers can do for you, or how important you are to them.
Caroline Van: The Yale family enables something special to happen: you can make a lifetime of people-to-people connections no matter where you land in the world. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet with alumni locally and globally in order to share camaraderie and build intellectual and artistic activities with a diverse community of scholars, students, alumni, and the YAA team. This opportunity to make old and new connections has truly become a fountain of energy for me, a happy support system, and an inspiration to make the world a better place through giving back.
Bill Donaldson: Appreciate the value of a Yale education in and out of the classroom. You will always be part of the Yale family. Begin to look for ways to give back; there is no one way. Small or large, the difference you can make giving back will be worth it to you, as much as to Yale.