Homecoming: From 1921 to today and beyond
The year was 1921, just three years removed from the Great War and the flu epidemic that had devastated much of the world, and as McGill was getting set to celebrate its centennial anniversary, the University sent out a call to its graduates to come back to their alma mater for what was described as a “Victory Reunion”.
Remarkably, about 3,000 alumni – nearly half of all living McGill graduates at the time, flooded back to Montreal, filling the downtown Capitol Theatre to capacity to hear from Principal Sir Arthur Currie. The McGill News reported at the time that graduates “were coming into town by every train and from all parts of the country.”
Fast forward nine decades, and the spirit of that first ever McGill Homecoming celebration is alive and well, as the events of the past weekend have demonstrated. Once again, 3,000 guests — alumni, friends, parents and current students — took part in more than 70 events over four days on both our downtown and Macdonald campuses.
From the always-popular Leacock Luncheon, where keynote lecturer Andy Nulman of Just for Laughs fame entertained 1,000 guests with a satirical look at what McGill might look like if he were Principal, to the dozens of Faculty cocktails, reunion dinners, Classes Without Quizzes and walking tours, graduates from all over the world returned to their alma mater to reconnect with McGill and with each other, to rekindle friendships of long ago and revisit the classrooms, professors and neighbourhoods that played a starring role in the most formative years of their lives.
One particularly special event was the inaugural Prestige Scholars dinner on Saturday evening, which celebrated 35 years of prestige scholarships at McGill and brought together past winners and current recipients in a moving and generation-bridging tribute to academic excellence.
Of course, the celebrations of the past weekend take place against a backdrop of seismic changes taking place in the way in which universities connect with their alumni. The rise of Internet technologies and, more specifically, popular social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, are enabling people to connect with anyone from their past at the click of a button, in a sense undermining the very need for organizationally-sanctioned reunions.
A colleague of mine recently told me about a spontaneous high school reunion he attended which was organized by one of his former classmates entirely through Facebook. A group was set up online, emails were sent out, and a bunch of high school friends ended up meeting for dinner and drinks, without their alma mater getting involved at all.
This rise of do-it-yourself connectivity is an issue that alumni associations across North America have been dealing with it for several years. And it’s a question we grapple with here at McGill, where Homecoming Weekend is such an important milestone on the university’s fall calendar.
Are social media platforms – the very same tools that we use aggressively and effectively to build and sustain connections with our global alumni communities — also strangling the life out of old-fashioned, come-back-to-campus reunions? What can we as an organization do to ensure that our Homecoming celebrations are enticing enough to lure thousands of our graduates back to Montreal, as they did this past weekend and as far back as 1921?
The celebrations of the past weekend, and the smiling faces we saw on so many of our graduates as they reconnected with people and places at a very personal level, remind us all of the power of face-to-face contact and remind us of our need to keep the spirit of Homecoming alive for another nine decades, and beyond.