As my fifth-year college reunion approaches, I’ve been looking forward to it with equal parts excitement and unease. Of course there’s the enjoyment of reuniting with friends who now live all over the globe, and the chance to relive some of the messy fun of college. But the formal reminder of time passed also presents an opportunity to evaluate life decisions over the past few years, which carries the risk of regret and insecurity from comparing yourself to others’ formidable achievements.
But it turns out that college reunions offer benefits that go way beyond the pleasures of weekend drinking with old friends. And those who organize college reunions say that as time passes, anxiety about how we measure up against our old classmates gives way to deeper emotions.
Jerome Short, a psychology professor at George Mason University, says that reunions can help people construct a sense of meaning in their lives. “College is usually the first time we approached others of an equal status and we decided who to spend time with and what to do,” he says. “In the college years, we had goals of identity establishment and emotional intimacy in relationships. A reunion allows us to fill in details of our life stories and consider what would have happened if we had made different career and relationship choices.”
Even those who had negative experiences in college can use reunions to gradually expose themselves to the same places, he says, and so reduce residual anxiety and anger associated with bad memories.
But while all reunions may provide these general benefits, the focus and effects of a 50-year reunion is very different from the experience after five years out of college.
Several universities said they could not provide reunion data, but both Stanford University and Harvard university reported a similar pattern for their events. Reunions shortly after college are particularly popular, followed by a dip around the 15-year reunion mark. During this time, graduates often seem to be under family or career stress and struggle to make the commitment. Then there’s a significant uptick in attendance for the 25th-year reunion. Philip Lovejoy, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association, says that the 25th reunion is “certainly the biggest” and marks a shift from previous reunions, during which alumni are more focused on their careers.
“We’ve found from alumni surveying that there’s a point around that age where people want to start to re-engage their minds intellectually,” he says. “It’s also a time when people are more settled in their lives. They’ve raised family, built a strong career, and so they’re ready to re-engage back with some of their memories.”
Leslie Winick, director of alumni and student class outreach at Stanford University, says the 25th reunion seems to be the time when insecurity about career achievement fades.
“With all these schools, a lot of alums come back with nervousness about whether they’ve accomplished enough. I’ve heard so many narratives about how ‘I didn’t want to come, I felt I had to lose 10 pounds, I’d just lost my job,’” she says. “By the 25th reunion, it totally goes away. By then, everybody’s experienced something hard. They’ve had loss, disappointment, their path didn’t go the way they thought it was going to go. My sense is as people get older, they start to get it—that life is about much more than their title or what they’re making.”
But while our perspectives on what matters in life may change, Winick says that college friendships stay intact, even after classmates go decades without seeing each other.
“When you actually come back, the experience is incredibly reassuring,” she says. “People knew you then, and they know you now.”