Life Marches By

Co-authored with Morton Schapiro

This time of year, hundreds of thousands of alumni are returning to campuses for homecoming and reunion celebrations. For college presidents, the parades that accompany these occasions provide a singular opportunity to watch lives march by. Literally.

First up are the recent graduates -- full of hope and idealism. Some of them are vigilantly looking around for someone to date or to hire them. To their eyes, the campus looks pretty much as they remember it, and some are dismayed that it remains so familiar. Where are the bold new buildings and state-of-the-art training facilities they're accustomed to at their health clubs?

Then come graduates from 10 years out -- often pushing strollers, beaming from their postgraduate educational and professional successes. Many are excited by the upgrades to the dorms where they lived, even as they lament that the improvements weren't in place before they graduated.

The 25-year graduates have a very different look. Some are veterans of the inevitable challenges of life; others are proud to show their classmates what they have achieved. They seem to get in the most trouble during reunions, being young enough to recall the excesses of dorm life and to try, for a weekend, to relive them. Unfortunately, the cleanup after they leave can be quite costly.

The 50-year class is most eager to reconnect with old friends and to discuss the great days at their beloved alma mater. Perhaps this is because they wonder how many more reunions they will be fortunate enough to attend. To them, some of the changes prove quite disturbing: Organic gardens providing fresh produce in the dining halls? Air-conditioning in the classrooms, where sweating through exams in May was an annual rite of passage? And what the heck is a Pilates room, they ask when they tour the new gym?

As we presidents stand there, smiling and waving, a thought invariably comes to our minds. Most any change disappoints some alums, while others are happy about not only what they see on campus but much more broadly.

We find ourselves reflecting on what makes some of our graduates more satisfied with their lives than others. Obviously, good health and good luck make a difference. But we are struck by how much when they graduated seems to matter. The Greatest Generation is largely gone now, but it wasn't long ago when we saw them reveling in the glory that came with that name.

On the other hand, what of the Vietnam War generation, especially those who didn't even get to attend a graduation ceremony because theirs were canceled in the wake of antiwar protests and the tragedy at Kent State? First of all, we notice their relatively small numbers attending homecoming and reunions. Perhaps they are still alienated from their colleges after having been there during such trying years, or maybe it is their disappointment that the changes they anticipated in society and in academe haven't been fully realized.

Then there are the millennials, raised in the shadow of September 11, 2001, many with a mixture of cynicism and an abiding desire to heal the world. And of course it isn't just age that distinguishes the classes: The more recent the class, the greater the number of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. If you want to witness the changing face of American higher education, all you have to do is watch an alumni parade go by.

Regardless of gender, generation, race or ethnicity, there are lots of smiles on the faces of those who return to campus. They tend to be a happy lot. Partly this is a function of self-selection. If you're disappointed with the realities of your career or relationships, or having trouble making ends meet, you're not as likely to attend your college reunion.

But at every homecoming we find ourselves pondering what it is about the many alums who do attend that makes them such a joyous bunch?

The classic Grant Study, which included following the lives of students who entered Harvard around 1940, produced some clues on the nature of happiness. One key to a satisfying life is the ability to find positive outlets for feelings -- "mature adaptations" in the words of the study. Aggression might translate into participation in sports, for example. At the same time, it is important to be able to delay present gratification for investments that in the future will yield the largest benefits. Surprisingly, factors like childhood temperament ("Were you a happy, well-adjusted child?") proved not to be all that important in the long run.

Therein may lie a deeper motivation for happy graduates to return to campus for homecomings and class reunions. It was here that they developed -- in classrooms and dorms, on sports fields, in late night cafes -- the foundations for a satisfying life. They left not only with practical and interpersonal skills that allowed them to build and sustain careers and relationships but with much more. What ultimately may have been more valuable is that they experienced successes and failures in a range of endeavors, with people very different from themselves, in a relatively safe and supportive environment.

Colleges are not the only places that afford young people opportunities to mature. But it is difficult to think of anywhere that generates as many lifelong friendships and enduring memories. The urge to come back again and again is the strongest evidence of the power these places still hold on our hearts and lives.

We say all of this from both our perspectives as presidents and, of course, as aging alumni ourselves. Indeed, a year from now we will be witnessing the same homecoming parade from different angles. One of us will be returning for his 40th reunion to his alma mater, which just happens to be the campus the other one leads.

One of us will march. One will witness. We will both learn a lot about the lives on parade, including our own.

Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College, in Oregon, where he is also a professor of sociology. Morton Schapiro is president of Northwestern University, in Illinois, where he is also a professor of economics.