In the Land of Orange and Black(outs): A Reflection on Connection

There are three reasons I go back to Princeton for Reunions: old places, old profs, and old friends.

Old places is the easy part to revisit—I actually took a drive to Princeton a week before Reunions to show a friend around from out of town and hit my old haunts. I can see everything I want to see and do everything I want to do in the stretch of Princeton earth bordered East and West by Harrison and Alexander and North and South by Hulfish and Route 1. 

Old professors pose more of a challenge, with some off on sabbatical adventures and others taking full advantage of the time between the end of exam period and the academic ceremonies of class day by fleeing the boozy kibbutz of Reunions. Still, every year I’m able to get coffee with at least three faculty members who influenced my time at college, consistently with my tirelessly cheerful Latin American history professor, occasionally with my hopelessly British translation professor, and this year, for the first time, with my incomparably stylish Arabic literature professor. 

Old friends are the toughest. It’s not a major reunion year for me this year—my major rationale in coming back was to see people in the class of 2010 who came back for their 5th reunion--given that the people I care most from the classes of 2009-2016 about are well dispersed across the country and even better dispersed outside of it. Maybe I’m doing business school all wrong that I don’t have the free time to hit up London, Chicago, Houston, D.C., Istanbul, and Pittsburgh to see friends. Or maybe I’m doing business school all right by optimizing my mad dash of reconnection at the competitive price point offered by one roundtrip flight and one wristband purchase to gain entry to Princeton Reunions. (Some of the people I love best are in Boston, but even those I don’t see too often; amusingly, I saw one Boston friend of mine three times in 24 hours in Princeton, whereas I’ve seen him three times total in the past three years living two stops away from one another on the Red Line.) 

At any rate, even with your friends within meters instead of miles from you, they can prove impossible to gather. “I’ll see you at the 5th [Reunion]!” may as well be considered code for, “Here’s hoping that we run into each other later (or maybe not?), but unless we coordinate further, I won’t be seeing you for the rest of the night or time here!” Whether it’s because one of us is too drunk, one of our phones has died, one of us has gotten engaged in another conversation and lost track of time, or one of us is subtly trying to avoid the other is anyone’s guess.

The fact of the matter is Reunions is a revolving door of connections and missed connections. And if there is one theme that comes up for me about this place after this weekend, it’s connection. Connection is important. While I’ll probably take on the networking connotations of the word for the purposes of the MIT blog, for the purposes of this one, I mean genuine connection. 

I believe we all crave connection. The difference is levels of awareness of that craving, and I’d describe mine on the level of “Spidey sense.” I noticed that hardest part about Reunions for me has been creating new connections and nurturing the old ones in a conscious, fulfilling way. So this year, I tried a new approach with what little bandwidth I could spare after the late nights of tent-hopping and early mornings of coffee dates.

I’m a firm believer in the power of storytelling to develop connections that go beyond the surface. The thing I’m proudest to be involved with at MIT is my role coordinating a community storytelling event called The Yarn (if you generally enjoy the things I say on this blog and have 17 minutes offhand, you might like watching my Yarn here.) So after a year of relative success in cultivating an environment of greater openness and authenticity at Sloan, I figured I’d try the same within my circles at Princeton. Throughout the weekend, I asked as many people as I could get to stop and pause for an important moment from their college experience, sailing the seas of beer in search of stories. 

It was interesting to see the most salient memories of college that people carry along with them. I got plenty of one-word answers and some slightly longer “rah, rah” ones that would have been appropriate for a sidebar column in the Princeton Alumni Weekly—neither bad nor good, just simple for my tastes. But I also got some gems. One story about a friend’s night out seeking a corkscrew was so epic it would have made Homer proud. Another friend’s story about his auditions tribulations, concluding with getting into the singing group of his dreams, would have had you humming along with happiness. The two stories I shared in turn will have to become posts on this blog sometime soon. Less bleary-eyed and better rested, I will have to decode my Moleskine scrawl and write up the things I heard in a way that does them justice. 

I can only imagine what else I’d have learned if I’d had the time to talk to more people this reunions weekend, if I’d made the time or had the courage to talk to more people during my college career.I was impressed by things I heard from people I didn’t know too well, and delighted by the new things I heard from the people I thought I knew best. The story from one of my best friends about his last night at Princeton was so eloquent that it brought me to tears. 

The initial inspiration for this post was from my friend who told me about the #ifiwere22 initiative (see more here). And if I were 22 at Princeton again, there are a lot of things I’d have told myself. “Your first job doesn’t matter.” “Your pedigree doesn’t matter.” “Your relationship status doesn’t matter.” I could go on.

But if I had to pick one thing and one thing only to tell my younger self, 22, or better yet, starting out at Princeton, 18 again, if there were one thing I wish I’d learned at Princeton sooner, it would be this. And turn the word “classroom” into “ office,” and as I embark on a summertime journey this Thursday out to San Francisco, this is the thing I need to remember most:

It’s that the things I’ll learn outside the classroom, outside the office, out in the world, the things I’ll learn from others: those will be the things that will have mattered most. 

And the best news--it's never too late.