Princeton Reunions

This past weekend, I attended my five-year college reunion at Princeton.

“Princeton Reunions” – the annual celebration of alumni hosted right before commencement in June – is supposed to be a big deal. All through undergrad, you hear people talking about it. The tradition started in the 1800s and the party gets bigger every year. Highlights of the celebration include the P-rade – where tens of thousands of alums march through campus chanting, cheering, and drinking excessively in the midday heat – and the $50,000 fireworks show that rivals Fourth of July fireworks in most midsize cities. In addition to the big events, Reunions is best known for the near-continuous drunken tent parties organized around each of the “major reunions” (multiples of five).

Most importantly, for many alums, Princeton Reunions is truly a home-coming, to “the best old place of all.”

I’m not much of a party-goer or drinker, and I always felt a little bit out of place at Princeton as a college student, so I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going back for my class’s first “major reunion.” Especially with my lackluster grad school experience, I felt like the whole weekend was going to be awkward, at best.

Jay and I arrived on campus Thursday afternoon, before most of the events and parties started for the weekend. We spent the day walking around campus, visiting our old stomping grounds and exploring new buildings. It was a beautiful summer day with perfectly blue skies and we had a lovely time. We visited my old chemistry lab and Jay’s department in the engineering building. We stopped by the Italian market where I discovered my love of arancini and the hole-in-the-wall Asian joint where Jay ate lunch every day senior year (they remembered him!)

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We also checked out the official Reunions schedule, which is chock full of academic talks and alumni-faculty panels on a diverse set of topics. Thursday afternoon we attended our first event, a panel on “Escaping the Echo Chamber: Overcoming Intolerance and Conformism in Academia.” Moderated by conservative intellectual and professor of jurisprudence Robert George, the panelists discussed the high concentration of liberals in academia, across disciplines, and the increasing “fragility” of students who shout down dissenting opinions or protest provocative (usually conservative) speakers.

I’m really glad we decided to attend this event. I realized that I have adopted a lot of the behaviors that these professors – most of them liberals – find troubling. I think of political opponents as “morally abhorrent” and “beyond the pale.” I react viscerally to their beliefs, certain that I am right and they are wrong, without taking the time to articulate my reasoning. This tendency to extreme, emotional reactions around issues of policy is bad for intellectual discourse, and it’s bad for democracy.

After the talk, we went to dinner at Blue Point Grille, our favorite “fancy” dinner place from when we were students. It was just as good as I remember. Later in the evening, we met up with one of Jay’s best friends from college, finding a quiet table at the 40th reunion tent to talk.

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The following morning, after visiting a few more of our old haunts – Lewis Library, and the Woody Wu Fountain (my favorite place on campus!) – we attend a talk by Alan Blinder on his new book, “The Lamppost Theory.” The title refers to a quote that goes something like this: “Politicians use economics like drunks use lampposts, for support rather than illumination.” He talked about the disconnect between academic economics and political discourse. He was disheartened, concluding from his decades of experience in public service that politicians and the public were never going to come around to economic literacy, never going to make rational choices, so it was up to economists to be more persuasive.

In the afternoon, we went to another panel. This one was about the Princeton AlumniCorps and Project 55, which facilitates service projects by alums, including the Safer Foundation in Chicago. Next, Jay and I split up for our respective department receptions, reconnecting with our classmates. This was probably the most awkward part of the evening for me. I felt like I didn’t remember anyone, but I spent some time hanging out with my best friend from college (who was also in my department.)

After the receptions, Jay and I met up for a talk by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, who served in the State Department under Secretary Clinton. She spoke about her new book, “The Chessboard and the Web,” about the role of nation-states (chess pieces with formal boundaries) and other agents like individuals, corporations, and organizations (the web) in the interconnected world. It was a fantastic talk. Slaughter is a passionate, articulate speaker.

After the talk, we went to a reception for the retiring head of our old residential college. There, we met tons of people we knew, people we met in our initial must-make-friends phase of freshman year. I reunited with my freshman year roommates for a quick photo and was happy that most of the old awkwardness had evaporated. We were all just there to enjoy the weekend. It was interesting to learn that most people were on the trajectories they planned as juniors and seniors in college: consulting jobs, professional school, start-ups. It seemed Jay and I were in the minority with our major career overhauls.

By the end of the day, my introversion’s reserve of social grace had been thoroughly depleted and I was ready withdraw and recharge. Though the parties rage until 2am, we turned in around midnight.

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The following morning, we got up early to attend a discussion with Ted Cruz, senator from Texas and alum of the class of 1992, and his undergrad thesis adviser, Robert George. I wasn’t initially planning on attending this talk because I disagree with Ted Cruz about basically everything. If you’d asked me to describe him last week, I would have said things like “Ted Cruz might not be the devil, but not for lack of trying. Seriously, he’s the fucking worst. A selfish hypocrite, an opportunist, and a disgrace to Princeton’s motto of service. Fuck that guy.”

But, after attending Thursday’s panel, I tried to be more open-minded. Political opponents are not necessarily evil or stupid. Most people are just trying to do the right thing. I felt like I needed to seize this opportunity to be open-minded and challenge myself.

It was a pretty uncomfortable experience, first chuckling at Cruz’s harmless jokes, then listening with increasing distress as he gave advice to liberal Democrats on how to accept their defeat and move forward. I learned that his father and aunt were freedom fighters in Cuba. I heard about how his half-sister died of an opioid overdose. I listened while he parroted some lame Republican party-line stuff about Dems obstructing Supreme Court nominations. He’s a smart guy. He’s clearly well read. And I still disagree with everything he believes.

The Cruz discussion was our last academic event of the weekend. Though most young alums don’t attend many talks, I’m glad we went to a few. I ended the weekend feeling intellectually engaged and refreshed. It was a much needed reminder that, outside of the screaming match of the mainstream media, there are brilliant thinkers – left and right- tackling society’s great challenges.

Over lunch, we reconnected with Jay’s old roommates and chatted about life. One recently graduated from law school, another from med school. A third is currently at Harvard Business School. It was fun talking to him about the ethics classes he’s taking, including some fascinating thought experiments about fairness in redistributive tax systems. (He introduced me to the work of his professor Matt Weinzerl which I’m pretty excited about reading.)

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The afternoon was time for the P-rade, the main event of Reunions. Every class lines up along the central road through campus and, over the course of three hours, each class marches down the parade route, starting with the oldest, cheered by the younger classes who tack on the to end of the parade in chronological order. This year, the oldest class represented was 1937, with one alum returning for his 80th reunion.

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The Old Guard classes, 60th reunion and older, are my favorite to watch. It’s incredible to be part of such a long legacy. Just like the first time I attended the P-rade, as a senior in college, I started to tear up a bit watching the Old Guard and their families walk past.

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After the P-rade, we had a little bit of time to hang out before the fireworks in the evening. Jay and I got dinner at the campus center, indulging in the incredibly unhealthy foods that sustained us in our younger years. I got a shrimp quesadilla and Jay got the chicken tender and fries with honey mustard. Sounds basic at best, gross at worst, but it was surprisingly delicious. That’s the power of nostalgia for you.

(As a side note, they say that smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. After this trip, I have to agree. From the food to the lecture halls to the stores around campus, everywhere we went I kept remarking, “Holy crap this smells exactly the same as it did back when we were in school!”)

We walked around a bit more, seeing the old and new stores along Nassau Street, before returning to our favorite place, the Woody Wu fountain, to watch the kids playing in the water as the sunset on Robertson Hall.

Last but not least, we watched the fireworks. Princeton has some of the best fireworks, beautifully choreographed and filled with little surprises, that I’ve ever seen. I have a lot of concerns about the role of a highly privileged institution like Princeton in a world that is increasingly economically stratified, but – damn – if you’re going to spend a bunch of money on something purely fun, spend it on fireworks!

As we left campus that night, knowing we probably won’t return for another five years, we felt a strange combination of sadness and sweetness. I get it now, I think, why Princeton Reunions is such a big deal.

They say you can never really go home, and I think that’s true. It’s never going to be quite the same, especially not for a family home that only lasts a generation. But if your “home” – your emotional home – is a place like Princeton, characterized by both permanence and dynamism, centuries old traditions blended with insatiable intellectual curiosity and constant improvement, then maybe you can go home, sort of.

Princeton existed before me, and it will probably exist long after me. I am a small part of it, while it is a big part of me. The institution, the network of people in that institution, know this, embrace it, and celebrate it. Regardless of where I go or what I do, I can always come back here. I will always be welcomed home.

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