My Tenth Alumni Reunion

June 1, 2023 · Words by William Dib
Stained glass at Rex at the Royal, Philadelphia.
Photo by William Dib

Last month, it was my university class's 10th reunion. Ten. Whole. Years. I flew into Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, for, well, some brotherly love. To see the faces of those beautiful souls with whom I shared my university journey. Those who could make it, of course. But even those who couldn't make it, I thought of them. As one dear friend later put it to me: "My heart is full". So was mine. And here we were, in flesh or in spirit, back at the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a city within a city. But calling it a campus, while accurate, is an understatement. After all, for the better part of four years, this was not my campus. This was my home.

Our reunion not only coincided with this year's graduation ceremony, and its orbiting ring system of family and friends, but also with a weekend-long concert of none other than Taylor Swift – an event that had the entire city on party high alert. And in the midst of all this chaos, it was challenging to take inventory, let alone process, the sheer breadth and depth of emotion that filled the air.

Reunions are a unique breed of social events. They're not ordinary catch-ups where one discusses the latest gossip at the office, last weekend's short-lived romance, or the flash sale at their favourite clothing shop. They're different. And while at times it may be oppressively tempting to ask "So! What are you up to these days?", I found myself eager to ask something much deeper. I just had not found the right words yet. So I settled for half-jokingly saying: "Please don't give me the lame, LinkedIn version. Give me something else." Most times, we both laughed and they did give me something else.

That's what we were both there for. At least, I hoped so.

After the evening party, as the glitter and confetti slowly fell to the ground, I sneaked away from the crowd. I wanted to walk around campus. Not like a tourist. More like a nostalgic architect: visiting every building individually. Just me and the buildings; I wanted to be alone with them. Except I was no architect. I was, for all intents and purposes, a tourist. An alumnus, sure, but a passerby nonetheless. Not only that night, but perhaps throughout the four years I spent there, too. I stepped carefully in front of each building until I stood directly facing its façade. I looked up and we gazed at each other. Silently. Silent as we may have been on the outside, however, my head swirled on the inside with so many questions.

"How are you?"

"What have I missed in the last decade?"

And most importantly:

"Do you remember me?"

As I wandered around aimlessly looking for answers, I had a lump in my throat. The kind that goes away if you cry. Looking around, in every corner, I watched the past play out in front of me like an old film. I saw my twenty-year-old self, innocent and ambitious, heavy backpack on his back, sleep-deprived, marching like a resolute soldier from building to building so as to arrive on time. Or to leave on time. Refuelling in the nearest cafeteria. And repeating. Inside the buildings, I saw myself in lecture, frantically taking notes of subjects of which I remember nothing. But the faces, the voices, the smiles, I remember those more than anything else.

I wondered if I had lived my university chapter right. I had more questions for myself than for the buildings I had lovingly visited. What was all the stress for? Should I have spent more time looking up at the night sky marvelling at the stars? Is that the purpose of those four years or is it to chip away at your uniqueness until you become the perfect fit for the corporate mould? And, above all else, if all that one remembers at the end of it all are the faces, voices, and smiles, then why fit any mould at all?

So many questions. And yet, so few answers.

As I made my way back, I spotted another wanderer. She walked and looked around in a manner eerily similar to mine. We didn't know each other, but I recognised her from the party earlier. I needed no encouragement to start a conversation.

"You were at the party earlier," I interrupted her walk. "I haven't seen campus in years. I'm walking around and reliving the memories."

"Same. I needed to walk myself," she explained.

In that moment, I realised how rarely we walk ourselves. We walk the dog. We run errands. But how often do we walk ourselves? Not for the superficial maintenance of the walk. But as an attempt, no matter how modest, to cleanse our minds and our souls.

I confided in my serendipitous, fellow night wanderer that I feared my lasting legacy in this magnificent place would be no more than the database record with my name on it. Almost surprised, she asked me why that mattered. "To leave my fingerprint behind," I dug myself even deeper. She didn't seem convinced, but I was.

This was no small consideration. It was, in fact, much deeper and scarier than that; if I hadn't left even a dent in my alma mater, a grand and magnificent institution as it may be, what chance do I have to leave a dent in the grandest and most magnificent institution of all: life?

"You were born, weren't you?" she asked quizzically. Even in my tipsy state, I could tell it was rhetorical. "You already left a dent in this world," she continued. I don't know if it were the serenity of the night, the reminiscence of the past, or the warmth of a comforting stranger, but her words resonated. Only for a fleeting moment. She seemed convinced, but I wasn't.

On my way back to Montréal, I stood in the airport's terminal staring at the plane outside and, later inside the plane, at the clouds outside. To one degree or another, directly or indirectly, we are all seeking material wealth and stability in some form. However, a decade after throwing my graduate cap in the air, I realised that the questions that grip me most tightly are those that cannot have a dollar sign attached to them. Questions of family, purpose, love, and destiny.

Just when you think you have figured it all out, or at least started to, life shows you a deeper, more complex layer. It's humbling. Life smiles at you.

But at least, as I write this last line, I'm smiling back, too.