Hope you’ve been brushing up on your small-talk skills, because we’re right in the middle of college-reunion season, that time of year when you travel long distances to talk to near strangers. (It’s also family-reunion season, which is more or less the same thing except that you have to feel worse about forgetting someone’s name.)
The reason why these events exist is pretty straightforward — universities like money, and alumni ostensibly have some to give — but less clear, for many people, is why they feel compelled to actually attend. For all but the most school-spirited extroverts, going to a college reunion can feel like going on dozens of first dates, all at the same time: The stakes are low but the awkwardness is high, along with the pressure to seem both interesting and interested. You hope it will be fun, and then you actually arrive.
If you’ve already committed yourself to attending, though — or if you’ve already been to this year’s and are considering whether to ever go again — there are ways to make the experience an enjoyable one. Consider this a skeptic’s guide to actually having fun at one of these things.
Set an intention.
What is it you actually want to get out of the weekend? Reconnecting with old roommates? Meeting new people? Having a little time to let loose and relive the responsibility-free days of your youth? Whatever it is, there’s your goal. Everything else is secondary — if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or hesitant, use this one thing to put you on the right track.
Stalk everybody first.
The key, says clinical psychologist Jerome Short, a psychology professor at George Mason University, is to go in with the right mind-set. You don’t have to sit through classmates you don’t really know droning on about the last however many years of their lives; you get to hear about their lives, and get answers to all the things you’ve idly wondered over the years about the people you used to interact with regularly. It’s IRL Instagram stalking. To that end, Short recommends doing a little light social-media, um, research before you go to give yourself an information baseline: Who looks like they have a fascinating job? Who’s done an enviable amount of travel? Who used to be a total overachiever and then graduated and … got kind of strange? Then, instead of approaching each conversation as a blank slate, you’ll know how to target questions to keep things interesting.
Brainstorm some nostalgia points.
Along the same lines, it helps to go in armed with some references that will get people on the same page. “Think about movies or music that might trigger some additional memories” of your college years, Short says, or even a few school events that could serve as a common reference point: that bar in town that all the underclassmen snuck into, that football game with the miraculous last-minute win, that one weird school-specific tradition. You may not know what you have in common with these people anymore, but using what you did have in common can be a good jumping-off point to move past stilted what-do-you-do chitchat and into actually reconnecting.
As quickly as possible, leave.
Thinking of the school-sponsored activities on the schedule as the icebreaker, not the main event, will take some off the pressure off. There’s only so much fun to be had at an overcrowded happy hour where everyone’s wearing a name tag. Instead, “create fun that’s not taking place at the reunion,” Short says. Invite whoever you’ve clicked with to join you out later. If you live locally, maybe offer to host people back at your place for a low-key get together; if you’ve traveled, cobble together a group to do something touristy or revisit an old favorite hangout. Whatever the activity, just keep the numbers relatively small — the goal is to create a more intimate, relaxed setting, one where people can unwind a little bit from all the hubbub.
Make it all about you.
Yes, the unspoken rule of reunions is that you’re free to let your judgmental side run wild. But surrounding yourself with people from your past is also a chance to turn your gaze inward.
“We crave meaning in life. We want to make sense of, how did we end up where we are now?” Short says. “At a reunion, you’re around people who you shared a lot of past experiences with, and a common understanding of that time of life.” Mentally traveling back to visit your younger self can serve as a helpful point of comparison: Are you where you thought you’d be by now? Is the path you want for yourself different than it was back then, and why did it change? If you don’t get anything else out of the weekend, then, at least you can leave with a better understanding of who you’ve become.