Getting Green Again: Remembering our Class of 1991 25th Reunion at Dartmouth College

I have been meaning for quite some time now to write a piece about my experiences at the 25th Reunion for our class of 1991, held on June 16-19 2016 at Dartmouth College. Several hundred '91s joined the reunion and it was quite an experience to see so many faces I hadn't seen in 25 years or more, and to rekindle memories and re-experience some of the youthful vigor of our Dartmouth days. 

 Class of 1991 group photo on the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall

Class of 1991 group photo on the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall

I went to the reunion with an agenda: I wanted to find out, both for myself and for others, what the experience of attending this liberal arts college in the hills of rural New Hampshire means to us 25 years later. A question I frequently asked people at the reunion was: In what ways did your education at Dartmouth influence you both in your career and in your personal life? The answers were interesting, and sometimes surprising, and they all seemed to converge on a few common themes.

It was surprising how easily I was able to recognize so many people after 25 years. While some of our classmates both looked and seemed very different, others didn't seem to have changed one bit. Some of them have been my Facebook friends for years and of course there are some who have been close friends over the decades, but even people who I'd never really met at Dartmouth or barely knew were instantly recognizable, and that, coupled with being back on campus, brought back a flood tide of long submerged memories of my own college experience. I would say that out of the 1000 people who were in our class, I knew around 20 of them very well, 50 of them well, another 100 or so somewhat, and the other 850 were almost complete strangers, though I could recognize their faces in an instant. Yet even though people at the reunion had a tendency to coalesce around their original groups, whether fraternity brothers or sorority sisters, athletes, dorm neighbors, and so forth, there was a pervasive sense that we are all part of a large family.

 Lunch on the lawn in front of Baker Tower

Lunch on the lawn in front of Baker Tower

During our three-day reunion, the campus itself was astoundingly beautiful. We had blue sky weather the whole way through, and though the mid-days got a bit hot, they were never unpleasant. At night the temperature dipped down and I found myself making use of the green down vest that had been given us as a gift. I was housed in a single dormitory room, which led to more memories of college life, especially when others came in at odd hours of the morning and had late-night conversations in the hallway (ear plugs sure came in handy).

 1991 class tent

1991 class tent

I spent a lot of time in the class tent, schmoozing and boozing with other '91s. At night, the beers flowed copiously and old habits came back. It seemed that everyone was 21 again for a spell. 

I attended a few of the talks and other events by day. One of the standouts was Taylor Keen. A Native American classmate living in Omaha and teaching at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University, Taylor gave a talk on Native American tribal sacred geography, cosmological beliefs and astronomical knowledge.

 The view from atop Baker Tower, looking out at Wheeler (my freshman dorm) and other buildings on the Dartmouth campus

The view from atop Baker Tower, looking out at Wheeler (my freshman dorm) and other buildings on the Dartmouth campus

I also had the opportunity to climb up to the bell tower of Baker Library and catch the view of the campus from there.

It was great to catch up with several classmates with whom I've been friends for decades, particularly my classmates from our Chinese language and history courses who like me became Asian studies majors, and also other friends I hadn't seen in a while. I found to my surprise that I had an instant bond with the members of the men's swim team. Though I'd only been on the team during my freshman year--my extended travels in China the following year basically put an end to my swimming career--I discovered that the experience gave us all a special bond and over beers we shared many fun memories of our freshman year on the team. Unfortunately I missed the big swim the others took in the Connecticut River--but maybe it was for the best. What was truly inspiring was that several of the members of our men's swim team are still swimming an hour or more a day. That is true dedication to the sport!

The folks who attended our reunion seemed to be divided into two groups: those who brought their families, and those (like me) who came alone. While it was nice to meet the families of old friends, I have to admit it felt good to fly solo. Of course I would have preferred to have my wife and daughters attend, but the timing didn't work out. As it happened, I really enjoyed being able to go where I wanted to and stay up late (sometimes til 1 or 2 in the morning) and not have to worry about what to do to keep the children occupied. I could see tensions building up among married couples with kids, but overall they seemed to be having a great time on campus and there were plenty of events to keep the kiddies busy.

 At the front steps of the Chinese Language House (formerly the Asian Studies House) with fellow '91s Tina Yen, J.D. Optekar, and Alan Seem, and our Chinese language professor, Dr. Susan Blader (白老师)

At the front steps of the Chinese Language House (formerly the Asian Studies House) with fellow '91s Tina Yen, J.D. Optekar, and Alan Seem, and our Chinese language professor, Dr. Susan Blader (白老师)

I was able to see some of my former professors, who are now colleagues of mine in academia. I attended a special gathering organizing by Chinese Language and Literature Professor Susan Blader at the Chinese Language House (formerly the Asian Studies House) where I had lived for two years as a student. That house was a crucial part of my Dartmouth experience. We lived together with a Chinese professor from Beijing Normal University and spoke Chinese whenever possible. We also cooked Chinese food every night, on a rotation basis. It was there that I learned how to cook Chinese style and I still apply those skills to just about every dish I make, including spaghetti.

 With Professor Blader in the Chinese Language House

With Professor Blader in the Chinese Language House

I also remember fondly the Chinese noodle hour that Bai Laoshi (Prof. Blader) used to organize on a weekly basis, where she'd make up her signature dish of sesame noodles. The folks at the Asian Studies House were like an extended family, or perhaps a co-ed fraternity house (I didn't join a fraternity and never regretted that decision). We used to play ping pong in the basement, including beer pong, a Dartmouth favorite. Along with my classmate Alan Seem and his family, I also stopped by Professor Blader's home after the reunion ended. We have kept up over the past 25 years, and this year she was retiring after 38 years of teaching Chinese at Dartmouth. I credit her above all others for sparking my lifelong interest in Chinese language, culture, and history.

 In the math dept with Dr. Robert (Bob) Norman

In the math dept with Dr. Robert (Bob) Norman

I also stopped by the math department to visit with Prof. Bob Norman, with whom I once studied math and statistics. He is now over 90 years old, long since retired, and yet he still goes to his office at Dartmouth every day to research, write, and meet with students. Talk about a lifelong passion for one's subject!

During college, I took many math courses and nearly became a Math and Social sciences major, but eventually I chose Asian Studies owing to the passion I had for learning Chinese language, culture and history, and the support I had from my professors to go onto grad school. These profs included Dr. Pamela Crossley, an expert on the Manchus and the Qing Dynasty, with whom I took two of the most challenging and rewarding courses at Dartmouth.

 Our panel on liberal arts education with Dr. Aileen Yingst, Manish Kejriwal, Dr. Pamela Crossley, H. Andrew (Andy) Ranson

Our panel on liberal arts education with Dr. Aileen Yingst, Manish Kejriwal, Dr. Pamela Crossley, H. Andrew (Andy) Ranson

During the lead-up to the reunion, I offered to organize a panel on liberal arts education and its enduring value--a subject that has come up quite frequently in discourse on academia. My involvement with building a liberal arts degree program at Duke Kunshan University inspired me to bring together several classmates to talk about what our education has meant to us over the past 25 years. I also asked Dr. Crossley to join us and she kindly agreed. I was able to round up three other panelists from our class of '91, including Andy Ranson, one of my oldest and closest friends from Dartmouth (who also studied Chinese though with a different teacher, Prof. Mowry or Mao Laoshi). Other panelists included Dr. Aileen Yingst, one of my fellow singers in the Chamber Singers, and Manish Kejriwal, a good friend of Andy's who eventually returned to his home country of India to build businesses there. The panel, which was held early in the morning, attracted a fairly small yet extremely engaged audience. I only wish that somebody had recorded our discussion. Overall we agreed that our liberal arts education gave us the tools, skills, contacts, and resources for building fairly unique career paths as well as the flexibility and adaptability to meet the myriad challenges that life (both professional and personal) had thrown us since we left the hallowed halls of Dartmouth and the fragrant hills of Hanover 25 years ago. Only part of our discussion revolved around courses we had taken and majors we'd pursued. Much of the discussion was about the social life and extracurricular activities as well as the personal adventures we'd had, including study abroad. Andy Ranson was a passionate singer in college, and a member of the Dartmouth Glee Club. Aileen and I also were both members of the Chamber Singers. This was one of my greatest experiences at Dartmouth, which I recount in another blog. We mused on how these experiences and others, such as serving as drill instructors for the Chinese language program, had given us tools and techniques that can be broadly applied to many different fields of endeavor. 

 With fellow '91 Chamber Singers Aileen Yingst and Anne Gore

With fellow '91 Chamber Singers Aileen Yingst and Anne Gore

During our panel, Andy Ranson described how the technique of backwards buildup developed by legendary professor John Rassias for teaching foreign languages and used by all drill instructors came in handy when he was preparing for operatic performances.

 With Andy Ranson on the main quad of Dartmouth College

With Andy Ranson on the main quad of Dartmouth College

Andy went on to develop professional-level skills and experience in opera singing (which his dear departed mother used to do). Using the backwards buildup model helped him to memorize long scores and librettos. As he explained it (and this is something my piano teacher Steve Sweeting once taught me), he found it best to start with the third act and work backwards, otherwise the tendency was to focus on the earlier acts and neglect the final one. It worked wonders for him and was a great example of taking a skill set learned in one context and applying it to another. While he found that he needed to take on other work in order to raise a family (and he now has a beautiful family with two nearly grown teenagers), he continues to perform opera, demonstrating the Dartmouth dictum of "work hard play hard" as so many of our other talented alums have done.

Aileen also discussed the Chamber Singers and the experience of working together with a group of people to achieve the high quality that our director Melinda O'Neal brought to our practice and performances. This experience has helped her with her career as a planetary scientist and a contributor to the Mars missions. Manish talked about how his liberal arts education has benefitted him in the global business world, and Pamela Crossley rounded out the panel by carrying the discussion into the broader framework of higher education.

Throughout the reunion, some of my best conversations were with people I hadn't known during my years at Dartmouth. I happened to sit down next to Walter Palmer '90, whose wife Sandy is a '91, and his family during one of the lunch events (his daughter Sophie is a current Dartmouth student). At around 7 feet tall, he is unmistakable. He was well known on our campus as a star member of the Dartmouth men's basketball team, and he went on to a career in professional basketball, starting with the Utah Jazz in 1990. When I asked him how his liberal arts education had influenced his career, he told me how his experiences studying abroad and learning a foreign language had enabled him to develop a career as a professional basketball ball player in Europe. While other pros from the USA were recruited by European teams, few of them had the ability to last in countries where English was not the primary language, and in cultural environments that were alien to them, and many returned to America after only a few months abroad. Owing to his experiences as a student at Dartmouth, Walt was able to thrive in this environment. He then went on to build a union of players in Europe to represent their interests, and now he works with many different athletes in the USA to help them understand and advocate for their rights. What an amazing story this was and how well Walt's story represents the best of what a liberal arts education can offer to an individual and to the world.

Another interesting conversation I had was over breakfast in the class tent with another ’91 who is a brain surgeon. When I asked him what course at Dartmouth had the greatest influence on him, without missing a beat he answered that it was a course he'd taken on Beethoven. I was surprised, since I expected it to be a science course, but he said that ever since taking that course, he had developed a passion for analyzing the structures of music. His current obsession was with hip-hop and rap, and he uses the same techniques he learned all those years ago in his course on Beethoven.

I could go on and on with many other examples from my reunion conversations of how my fellow Dartmouth alums used their skills to take unique career paths and enrich their inner lives—the life of the mind as our then president James O. Freedman emphasized—but these are the two examples that really stood out for me.

 Jake Tapper and Shonda Rhimes, two of our most prominent '91s, getting ready for a conversation on stage with Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon '77

Jake Tapper and Shonda Rhimes, two of our most prominent '91s, getting ready for a conversation on stage with Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon '77

The reunion event was superbly organized and executed, as to be expected from a college that prides itself on alumni support. The organizers did a fantastic job of providing a wide variety of activities and events. The ceremony honoring 1991s who had passed on since we graduated was a solemn occasion that reinforced our identity as a large family and an occasion to reflect on the precious fragility of life. I was also touched by the speeches and videos given during the large gathering of alumni presided over by President Hanlon in the big auditorium in Hopkins Center, including the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from current students who have benefitted from the largess of our alumni body. It was fun to see two of our most prominent alumni, Jake Tapper and Shonda Rhimes, take the stage and hold a conversation on contemporary culture and politics, and then to see Jake chugging a beer in the class tent with the rest of us like we were all back in our fraternity days.

 Backed by our Class of 1991 alumni representatives and reunion organizers, President Hanlon congratulates us on what will turn out to be the biggest class gift for a 25th reunion in Dartmouth history

Backed by our Class of 1991 alumni representatives and reunion organizers, President Hanlon congratulates us on what will turn out to be the biggest class gift for a 25th reunion in Dartmouth history

It was also inspiring to see how much support our class of 1991 gave during the drive to provide a class gift. While I have given back to the College in other ways over the years, this was the first time (embarrassingly, I admit) that I also gave money to the College, but it certainly won't be the last. And finally, it was nice, though not surprising at all, to learn that our class gift of over 8.1 million dollars exceeded that of any previous 25th reunion class gift in Dartmouth history.