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Reunion to be reconfigured due to campus shutdown

Social during Reunion June 1, 2019. Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College, contributed by Justin Hayworth.
Grinnell College
Social during Reunion June 1, 2019. Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College, contributed by Justin Hayworth.

In a typical year, a week after Commencement has finished and students have left, Grinnell College alumni from all over the world come back to campus to celebrate Reunion. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grinnell College has canceled Reunion, and with the loss of the hallmark event, alumni and staff are working to create community in new ways.

When the College announced that Commencement would not occur, staff members at the Office of Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) had a feeling that Reunion would not take place. While it was a hard decision, DAR staff felt that the health and safety of alumni took priority and canceled the event.

“It’s directly tied to the College’s decision to move to a remote learning environment and create intentional efforts to prevent or slow the transmission of the coronavirus,” explained Jayn Chaney ‘05, director of alumni and donor relations. After the news was released that students and employees would be operating in remote environments, DAR did not feel it was safe or appropriate to bring back a thousand alumni from all over the world. “It simply felt like it wasn’t a risk worth taking.”

As with the other College closures, many are disappointed that Reunion has been canceled, especially as plans have been under-way for months. The planning process begins about eighteen months in advance, as DAR works to help classes build committees. Each class committee comes back to campus to meet with DAR staff and begin plans.

In 2020, there would have been fourteen class years celebrating their reunions. With DAR’s assistance, Class Committees hold monthly conference calls to coordinate efforts such as outreach and encouraging classmates to register. Some class committee members – the Class Fund Directors – focus on soliciting donations and picking a fundraising priority for their class. Other members focus on programming events.

“It really is a year-long process of working with the volunteers to coordinate details,” said Chaney.

Gwenna Ihrie ‘15 started planning Reunion with her co-Class Agent during the summer of 2019. Their Class Committee had planned a Mac Field Day with games reminiscent of the Grinnell Relays. Additionally, they had planned a talent and drag show for their Fifth Reunion class cluster.

“It was going to be a fun time to reconnect and get to know each other again. It has been five years since a lot of us have seen each other. [We] tried to create spaces for people to get to know each other again,” said Ihrie.

Paige Everly, associate director for alumni and donor relations is worried about how younger classes will maintain their Grinnell connections without their first Reunion. She is particularly sad for the five-year Reunion as this is when the most people can and do come back. “That experience helps to engage them with the College for a long time and help them remember, ‘This was really great, and I can make a difference as an alum,’” she said.

Like Ihrie, Sam Perlman ‘90 was looking forward to reconnecting with his class. Perlman is on his Class Committee and has been preparing for his 30th Reunion. “I love hanging out with Grinnellians. They’re smart, they’re creative, they’re engaged. Whenever I spend time with a group of Grinnellians, I feel like I always leave with a new best friend,” he said.

All class picnic during Reunion May 31, 2019. Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College, contributed by Justin Hayworth.

Chris Meyer ‘70 has been an active member of his Class Committee and serves as the Class Fund Director. The class of 1970 would have had a milestone Reunion this year, meaning that an incredible amount of planning has gone into the events that would have taken place.

For example, the class had planned for a keynote speaker and a panel to discuss the social justice priorities of 1970 and now. Due to bombings in Cambodia and the Kent State shootings, the College canceled the class’ commencement.

“What we wanted to do is talk about what has happened since we were here, where are these issues we care about today, and what still needs to be done or actions that need to take place,” said Meyer.

As part of the milestone Reunion, the 1970 Class Committee has been creating a memory book of their time at Grinnell College. Meyer noted that they will continue to add to this book and include a section about COVID-19 and how the class remains resilient.

For everyone involved, the Reunion deferral has been difficult to come to terms with.

“Reunion is this incredible moment that I think really demonstrates, in a really palpable way, the beauty and the power of the Grinnell Alumni community,” said Chaney. “And I think that it shows how enduring the relationships are that we develop when we are students at Grinnell and the importance of creating space for celebrating those relationships and for fostering them and continuing to make them a priority in our lives.”

For Meyer, he knows that Reunion is not over – it’s just delayed. “I don’t intend to miss it; I just have to defer,” he laughed. What is concerning for him is that some of his classmates will not be able to attend Reunion in the future.

“We are all in our 70s now and people are beginning to pass away on a regular basis, which is sad. And I assume that between now and June of 2021 someone who could have attended this year is going to pass away. Now with coronavirus, it’s probably even more likely that we’re going to lose classmates,” said Meyer.

Like alumni, current Grinnell Students will feel the loss of Reunion as well. There are nearly 200 student workers employed during the busiest Reunions, either for DAR, dining services, the bookstore or any other campus area that may attract alumni. Student workers participate in Reunion for a variety of reasons, but many do so for employment and rely on that paycheck.

Additionally, Reunion raises money for scholarships, internships and other student endeavors. As Everly explained, much of the fundraising has been done, but the economic repercussions and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 still has an impact. Fundraising begins up to 18 months in advance.

[While] some money has been raised, there definitely is an impact [on fundraising],” she said.

Mae Parker, director of annual giving and Jessica Herzberg, assistant director of annual giving and reunion giving do not think the deferment of Reunion will have a major impact on the accruement of donations, just change the nature of those donations.

“Alumni have been making gifts since the cancellation of Reunion 2020 to support our students through the Supporting Our Students Fund (SOS Fund), the unrestricted Pioneer Fund, Scholarships and Financial Aid and many other funds,” wrote Parker and Herzberg in an email to The S&B.

DAR has been working with each Class Committee to maintain the Grinnell College community. Currently, DAR is working to create a revised Reunion calendar that would allow all the classes to come back to celebrate, perhaps during the fall of 2020 or spring of 2021.

While Chaney is saddened at the loss of Reunion, she is confident that new opportunities will arise from the current situation.

“I think it’s going to deepen the gratitude that many Grinnellians have to be together after this time of distancing and isolation,” she said. “I think that this time presents an opportunity for us to be creative. … ‘How can we continue to build engagement and create community for Grinnellians when many need it now more than ever before?’”

DAR is working to build and maintain virtual regional alumni events. Additionally, DAR has promoted an online book club. There are almost 500 alumni participating, and Chaney hopes that the number will grow.

Meyer has been considering building connections and community with the class of 2020. “The class of 2020 joins the club they never wanted to be a part of,” he said. “It’s something that will follow you forever. You will be changed by this experience for the rest of your life, and we can say this with the perspective looking back fifty years.”

Meyer said that in some ways the class of 2020 has lost more than the class of 1970.

“When Grinnell closed in 1970, it was a decision that the students participated in and viewed as the right thing to do under the political circumstances at the time. Here, it was driven wholly from the outside, wholly from medical necessity. … [The class of 2020] lost more in some senses than the class of 1970,” she explained.

“I would hope that we can find some way to make a bond out of this and do something to recognize them and contribute when they get their commencement or their Reunion.”

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