Alumni return, reconnect, reengage at Brandeis reunion
Classes celebrate five-year reunions, alongside reunions for the Justice, the AAAS department and the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program.
BACK TOGETHER: Alumni reconnected with their class and other members of the Brandeis community at the 2018 reunion.
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Genovese, Photo by Heratch Ekmekjian and Ashley McCabe
Every year, approximately 1,000 to 1,200 alumni and their families return to the Brandeis campus to reminisce and reconnect with this special institution they once called and still call home. Between May 31 and June 2, Brandeis will be welcoming the five-year class year reunions back to campus (the 4s and the 9s), including the 25th reunion for the Class of ’94 and the 50th reunion for the Class of ’69.
Vice President of Alumni Relations Patsy Fisher is looking forward to welcoming alumni back to campus. “Reunion provides a fantastic opportunity for alumni to reconnect with life at Brandeis and with one another to relive their experiences when at Brandeis,” Fisher said in an interview with the Justice. “That nostalgia is intangible.”
That nostalgia could not be more evident than between Denise Silber Brooks ’84 and Lewis Brooks ’80. Denise, who is currently chairing the 35th class reunion, and Lewis, who has been a class volunteer collecting slide shows and photographs for Brandeis reunions and is the incoming president of the Alumni Association, met on campus during a reunion in 1983. Lewis was returning to Brandeis for the Class of ’78 reunion to show his collection of slideshows when he realized he forgot an extension needed in Schwartz Auditorium. This is when Lewis met Denise, who was still a student and chairing the committee he needed assistance from. They returned to campus again to get married.
Their daughter, Hannah Brooks ’16 continued their family tradition and went to Brandeis. Lewis recalled that their daughter even dressed in the Ollie costume to interact with students and alumni during her time on campus. “Brandeis is my happy place,” Denise recalled, and she looks forward to being on campus, “back in a place and in an environment so special, so good and so welcoming.”
Takes a village
To put the reunion together, “it takes a village!” Fisher exclaimed. Organizing the reunion is “not top down, but more volunteer-led,” she said. The Alumni Office contacts past students from the classes celebrating that year or shared interest groups to volunteer as chairs. “There has to be a tie in to partner with us to make program effective,” Fisher said. In addition, Fisher highlighted the dedicated teams and staff that work on reunion to bring the program together, to make logistical arrangements, to work on the invitation, website and communications and to manage collateral issues.
Current students are also an integral part of reunion. For example, Sage Rosenthal ’19 has been working with Alumni Relations since her sophomore as a liaison and coordinator for this year’s and last year’s reunions. “As a coordinator, I have never felt more pride in the amount of work and effort I have put into this huge event.” She added that “everyone wants to be on campus during Alumni Weekend, and those feelings are incredibly contagious.”
Being part of reunion also had an impact on Keri Lehtonen ’19, who started participating at reunions her freshman year. “I was able to find a community of students that were so passionate about the school, and I was able to learn just how much of a positive impact Brandeis can have on your life from alumni.”
But, in the end, the key to the success of reunion are the alumni. “We hope what alumni do is the outreach, peer to peer outreach, to drive attendance,” Fisher requested. “It is really, really critical.”
Class years and special reunions, too
One initiative Brandeis has worked on is including special reunions as part of the annual reunion. Therefore, instead of having just the class year reunions, which has brought back a smaller number back to campus, last year, Brandeis expanded the reunion to be for all classes. The goal, Fisher explained, is to “encourage alumni to come back.” Attendance was flat or falling and “we have to innovate to drive attendance and engagement,” Fisher explained.
So last year, Brandeis saw the attendance number climb — not for class reunions but for special reunion groups, according to Fisher. This year, in addition to the class year reunions that remain first and foremost for recognition and celebration, the special reunions this year feature a media reunion — including the 70th year anniversary of the Justice and the 50th anniversary for both the African and African American Studies and the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program.
However, this has created some dismay and confusion amongst alumni.
Betsy Sarason Pfau ’74, who has worked on all her class reunions since her 15th and co-chaired her class 25th, 30th, 40th and now 45th this year, expressed some alumni concerns with the new format because it “has confused many would-be reunion-goers, who now probably won't attend because the weekend isn't just for them,” Pfua said. “My committee is already getting that feedback, but in part that is because our classmates are not reading the registration material carefully enough to see what is special just for our class.”
Fisher believes it is one of messaging. “Last year was our first year with this change and the message got a little muddled,” Fisher said. “We are not changing the model,” she explained, but the need to communicate better that they are “honoring class reunion but also know we are erecting a bigger tent.”
“We are not taking anything away from class reunions, but where there is a special event, we want to make sure there is an opportunity to gather,” Fisher explained.
The Brooks agree with this new format. Lewis explained that a major part of reunion for him is the “sandwich years” surrounding his graduating class. “I wish I could have seen them,” he said. Denise admitted that the initial reaction was that the special reunion diminished the 5-year cycle, but her observation is that it does not diminish it at all but increases the amount of alumni coming back.
Brandeis has “reunion down to a science,” Pfau expressed. There appears to be a unanimous agreement that the Saturday tradition of the Ralph Norman Barbecue is a reunion favorite. Pfau reminisced how young classes likely do not know that Ralph Norman was the campus photographer.
According to a Brandeis archives blog post, “Before Brandeis officially opened in the fall of 1948, a portrait photographer with a studio on Newbury Street was hired, on a contractual basis, to document the emerging university. In 1950 Ralph Norman became Brandeis’s first university photographer and was well on his way to becoming one of the most beloved members of the Brandeis community.” The archives explain that “in 1950 he decided to throw a barbecue for the first graduating class (Class of 1952), and it was so popular that it grew to become an annual event attracting hundreds.”
Another popular event is the alumni college that spans the whole weekend. Alumni college is always excellent,” Fisher said. Regardless of the year graduated, alums have an academic connection to reconnect with faculty and academic engagement, she said.
Other events highlighted are the Saturday Night Fire and ‘Deis Gala Celebration and the afternoon speech by University President Ronald Leibowitz. Along with the special reunion throughout the weekend, Brandeis also holds an open house — Visit the Maker Lab: Building a Culture of Innovation the 'Deis Way, which provides an opportunity to the Brandeis community to learn about emerging technology and innovation to improve the world.
From a student’s perspective, Lehtonen said that her favorite event has to be the class dinners. “I love going to the older alumni's dinners and watching alumni reunite with one another after not seeing each other for a while.”
Some alumni wish that some other events were consistently part of reunion. Pfau stated that from over the years the reunions she chaired, it was important to keep the class year photograph. The important event that Pfau really wishes Brandeis would have is a class dinner, rather than a whole alumni dinner. For some alumni, Pfau explained, “not having a special class dinner is a problem,” as some alumni are not seeing enough events specifically tailored for individual classes.
What reunion should mean to the Brandeis community
Reunion, Fisher explained, is the “best opportunity [for a] large engagement of the year.” “Every college needs goodwill [and] support of the alumni” and Brandeis “needs to encourage deep engagement to make a connection,” Fisher continued. “Alumni engagement is important to the success of Brandeis and its endeavors.”
If alumni could leave with one message about reunion, Fisher stressed that alumni should “reengage, refresh and reunion” with their fellow alumni. “Have a reunion [the alumni] won’t regret,” she said.
Rosenthal encouraged “alumni to come to Brandeis with arms wide-open willing to accept the changes and evolution of the university, while understanding that the values we were founded upon are still maintained in the students.” She observed that “buildings may have changed, majors may have been added and professor[s] come and go, but I always like to encourage alumni to look at Brandeis now through the students, because they are the ones that truly shape our institution.”
Pfau reminded alumni to “give back to the institutions that created us” and to “come back and say thank you in some way, shape and form.” Pfau’s wish for alumni is to “connect to whatever you liked about [Brandeis], see what changed, this is where you grew up and became what you are today.”