The Road Ahead

Dennis O'SheaOn a Thursday night in April, Williams seniors are summoned to Hopkins Gate. They are given candles. They line up behind a bagpiper and two strangers, both oddly clad in academic robes. They are marched across Route 2. What the heck is this, the seniors wonder.

Along Chapin Drive, they happen across more strangers by the side of the road, waving signs that say ’11 or ’09 or ’07. For some reason, these people are clapping. Down by the frosh quad, there are more people and clapping and signs: ’00, ’95, ’92 and ’91. On Mission Park Drive, it’s ’88, ’87, ’85. The strangers get older. But they all clap, all smile, and – now that the seniors start to notice it – all wear purple. By the time the parade gets to the guys with the ’60 and ’59 and ’53 signs, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

Welcome to the Society of Alumni, seniors. You’re with us now.

Then a party breaks out, and the soon-to-be alumni are back on familiar turf. For the past three years, we’ve staged this ritual when the Society of Alumni executive committee is in town. It’s a blast.

The message to seniors is not particularly subtle: On the road ahead, you’ll find lots of other Williams women and men of all ages who are happy to help, mentor and advise. And, if that’s not what you need, they are also happy to smile, wave encouragingly and be friends.

But, for me, there’s another message: Bound together as Williams alumni are by purple, by love for the college and by respect and admiration for each other, we are also quite different. Yes, we are products of a common experience. But we are all – as individuals, as classes and within other cross sections of the alumni body – the products of unique experiences as well.

Yes, we are products of a common experience. But we are all … the products of unique experiences as well.

My mother, for instance, sent me to Williams with a stack of pre-stamped postcards (which she actually expected me to mail her!) so we wouldn’t run up huge phone bills. Eventually, land lines in dorms gave way to cell phones and free long distance. Today, some students consider phone calls impolite, email a nuisance and text messaging the way to go.

So we correspond differently. We come from different places. After four years at Williams learning with classmates to think critically, reason clearly and communicate effectively, we go to different places. We move at different speeds.

Since 1821, the Society of Alumni has been remarkably effective at connecting Ephs, regardless of those differences. Our intense relationship with the college and each other is the envy of other institutions. But it is not the Williams way to be satisfied with excellence today. There is much to do to prepare ourselves to excel again tomorrow.

The executive committee is investigating how we can keep us all closely connected in the future. Among our questions: How can we better use technology? How can we marshal alumni eager to volunteer for school and student? How do we ensure that we are meeting alumni where they are, no matter who they are and no matter where they come from?

We are building goals for the next decade, and a plan to reach them. It’s exciting work. You’ll hear more about it soon. Meantime, if you have suggestions, I’m at (You younger alumni can text.)

Dennis O’Shea ’77
President, Society of Alumni