Short month long on traditions, old and new, for Yale alumni

In New Haven, New York, Paris, Palo Alto, and even Phnom Penh, there are a lot of Yale alumni meeting, connecting, and celebrating this February.

Even during the campus’ shortest, coldest month of the year, Yale alumni go long distances to engage with their alma mater, with each other, and with local communities throughout the world. Over the course of this February’s 28 days, over 8,000 alumni will have taken part in more than 100 alumni events from Pierson College to Pittsburgh, the Rockaways to Rwanda, and Chartres to Chicago.

Yale has long been an innovator in alumni relations, according to Mark Dollhopf ’77, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni. (AYA) “Yale is thought to be the first college, starting in 1792, to identify alumni on the basis of their affiliation with specific undergraduate classes, the basic step in organizing alumni affairs.”

Nearly a century ago, on Feb. 22, 1914, “Yale inaugurated an innovation in the university calendar” with “Alumni University Day” according to a report in the next day’s New York Times. The newspaper noted: “Fully 300 graduates, largely from New England, spent their Washington Birthday holiday enjoying a programme that included addresses by President Hadley, Secretary Stokes, Treasurer Day, Dean Jones, and Director Chittenden, a dinner at Alumni Hall, and this evening a general smoker.”

Yale’s sons and daughters have taken this tradition of innovation in alumni relations to new levels in the 21st century. Alumni now connect not only on the basis of their graduating class or school, but also on shared interests and identities, and gather in the service of both campus and community.

February alumni events started, appropriately, with the first night of Feb Club 2013,  as nearly 1,000 graduates representing classes from the 1950s to the 2000s and virtually every degree program gathered at the Yale Club of New York City in midtown Manhattan.

Described by organizers as “Yale’s truly social network,” the worldwide alumni Feb Club Emeritus traces its origins to a casual conversation in October 2007 among a few members of the Yale College Class of 1987. From an initial plan to have one social event in New York in 2008, they set forth that year to try and have 28 parties over 28 nights in 28 cities.

The idea proved to be a hit — with the first series held in 35 cities in the United States and beyond, attracting more than 3,000 revelers. If it’s true, as the saying goes, that anything that happens more than two years in a row is a Yale tradition, the global Feb Club has proven to be a particularly robust one — with the 2013 version taking place in 120 cities in more than 20 countries and on six continents.

Some of these Feb Club Emeritus alumni gatherings attract hundreds, some dozens. But whether they are in Hong Kong or Bozeman, Montana, Montreal or Madrid, say the organizers, there are three simple rules:  “1) No speeches; 2) No fundraising;  3) It’s just a party.”

A festive spirit also prevailed on Feb. 2, when 500-plus alumni and friends gathered at the Yale Club of New York City for a special tribute to Yale President Richard C. Levin ’74 Ph.D. The evening, hosted by club President John Musto ’91, was an opportunity for Yalies in metropolitan New York to offer their regards and gratitude to Yale’s outgoing president for his two decades of leadership.

The celebration also gave Yale’s president a chance to have fun with tradition. Attendees received a special blue bead of farewell at the beginning of the reception. As Levin revealed in his brief remarks, these beads represented a twist on a “tradition” established at the beginning of his presidency, when students in the Yale College Class of 1997 presented him with blue beads as a sign of welcome after his first Freshman Assembly address in 1994. He later presented blue beads to the students in that class during his Baccalaureate Address at their graduation ceremonies.

“We were delighted to celebrate Rick Levin for all he’s done,” said My Luu ’96, president of the Yale Alumni Association of New York. “During his tenure, alumni relations have flourished, including a special focus on major cities, like New York, where our community of 17,000 Yalies is the largest base of Yale alumni in the world.”

On Sunday morning, Feb. 3, a set of alumni gathered to uphold Yale’s longstanding tradition of service, with members of the AYA’s board of governors and others joining New York Cares for a special Yale Day of Service project in the Rockaways as part of the ongoing recovery efforts from superstorm Sandy.

“Graduates of Yale understand that we have been given great gifts in our education, and those gifts should be shared in service,” said Anne Kornfeld ’86 M.F.A., a service program participant. “I’m proud that the AYA values such community engagement and helps us all be real Yale ambassadors in action through the annual Yale Day of Service in May, the Yale Alumni Service Corps, and other initiatives.”

The second weekend of February was set as the date for the second annual reunion of Yale’s LGBT alums, organized by Yale GALA, Yale’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender alumni association. One of the largest and most longstanding of the shared interest groups (SIGs) in the alumni association, GALA had been ready to welcome nearly 400 alums back to campus Feb. 7-10 — but winter storm Nemo blasted through New England, forcing the campus to shut down and the reunion to be cancelled. Organizers, who are now working to reschedule the reunion, note that GALA offers numerous opportunities to socialize and serve, including participation in upcoming benefit concerts co-sponsored with other Yale groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles in April.

The weather was more cooperative across the Atlantic, with alumni leaders convening in Paris Feb. 12-17 for the Yale Global Alumni Leadership Exchange (YaleGALE). Just as the University overall has become globalized in this century, the alumni association has been growing its international efforts, with YaleGALE as a cornerstone program.

First held in 2008 in Australia, YaleGALE gives alumni a venue to share insights and experiences with leaders from other universities. This year’s delegation to Paris was the sixth since then, following engagements in Japan (2009), Turkey (2010), China (2011), and Israel and the United Kingdom (2012). Featuring a welcome by alumnus Charles Rivkin ’84, the U.S. ambassador to France, the Paris edition of YaleGALE marked the program’s fifth anniversary.

Back on campus, Pierson College was home once more to generations of alumni who gathered for the first-ever reunion of that undergraduate college. Like alumni from Ezra Stiles College, whose all-classes reunion in October was the first such event in Yale history, 300 Piersonites of all ages gathered to herald the 80th anniversary of the college’s construction and the 19 years of service by outgoing Master Harvey Goldblatt ’77 Ph.D.

“AYA volunteers and staff have built a vibrant program of five-year reunions for Yale College classes, with close to 7,000 people gathering over the two weekends after Commencement every year,” noted Stephen Blum ’74, senior director for strategic initiatives at the AYA.  “Our new tradition of residential college reunions offers another way to strengthen the special kinship that is a Yale hallmark and to have alums on campus while school is in session and students are in residence. We look forward to an ongoing series of college reunions.”

While Piersonites gathered, another set of current students and alumni mixed and mingled Feb. 15-16 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Out of the Blue (OOTB), Yale’s pop/rock a cappella group. Fully half of all OOTB alums returned to sing and celebrate, making for an “OOTLoveFest to be remembered” according to a post on the group’s Twitter channel.

Out in Illinois, YaleWomen, the newest — and fastest growing — of the alumni SIGs, held a kick-off event for its Chicago chapter on Feb. 19 at the Women’s Athletic Club. A global network formed following the “2010 Celebrating Yale Women: 40 Years in Yale College, 140 Years at Yale” event on campus, YaleWomen has already established chapters in Connecticut, Colorado, Boston, Cincinnati, New York City, Los Angeles, northern California, Seattle, and Ontario, Canada.

Back on campus, February’s final weekend will bring the fourth Student Leadership Forum hosted by Students and Alumni of Yale (STAY). Another innovation of the current generation of alumni relations, STAY brings together current students and graduates for service, mentorship, and social events. The leadership forum allows alumni speakers to share insights with a blended group of 50 graduate, professional, and undergraduate students. In just one year, alumni have used these forums for leadership development with more than 200 students, many of whom are expected to be the alumni leaders of tomorrow.

“Whoever you are, wherever you are, there’s a special place for you in the Yale alumni association,” said Jimmy Lu ’77, chair of the AYA’s board of governors. “Whatever your interest and passion, whether you are a current student or were at Yale as an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student, there’s a way for you to connect, to have fun, and to make a difference. If you think about what we’ve done in the coldest, shortest month of the year, just imagine what we can all do as the days get longer.”