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Over 1,100 Cornellians tuned in for Spirit of the Hill Saturday night, featuring performances by several student groups plus an alumni gospel choir.

Spreading Big Red spirit around the world with Virtual Reunion

For the second year Cornell Reunion took place online, bringing together alumni from across the globe. Cornellians from six continents tuned in June 10-13, with alumni from Ithaca to the United Kingdom to Japan joining in the celebration.

Content from the weekend has already been viewed by thousands of Cornell households. Many who would not have been able to travel to join Reunion events in person were able to participate online this year.

“If there’s one thing we learned from the pandemic, it’s how wonderful it can be to connect with so many of you virtually,” Michelle Vaeth ’98, associate vice president of Alumni Affairs, said in a video to kick off the weekend’s events. “No matter how long it’s been or how far away you are, you can always come home to Cornell.”

Clash of the Cornellians, June 11’s trivia game, featured interactive polling that allowed audience members to play along at home while rooting for the four alumni contestants. Jeff Weintraub ’91 won the game, with 2,500 points.

Throughout the weekend, Cornellians enthusiastically engaged with one another in more than 170 online events, including panel discussions and performances, virtual happy hours and trivia games, and a special celebration of the Class of 2020.

And 1,234 Cornellians made gifts totaling more than $179,400 toward undergraduate scholarships while registering for Virtual Reunion events.

“While I know we all look forward to our next opportunity to meet in person on campus, Reunion 2021 was another wonderful opportunity to reconnect with fellow alumni, near and far,” said volunteer Erica Healy-Kagan ’05, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Cornell Association of Class Officers. “Reunion provides such a unique opportunity to engage with not only our own classmates, but also so many other incredible Cornellians, to share our love of our alma mater.”

“It was a great weekend of fun and fellowship, and a chance to honor the Cornell Black Alumni Association’s legacy,” said Morris Melvin ’75, co-chair of the CBAA 45th Reunion. “It’s always a good time when you can get together with friends, many who may not have attended in person.”

Events inspire conversations

Several of the weekend’s events aimed to start dialogue that will continue long after the weekend’s conclusion, on topics of diversity and equity. These included The Future of Cities event, moderated by David Folkenflik ’91, media correspondent for National Public Radio; a panel discussion focused on the challenges women face in positions of leadership; a series of Mosaic events; and more.

In Friday’s discussion about women in leadership, panelists included President Martha E. Pollack; NBC News’ Kate Snow ’91; chief executive officer of AT&T Business Anne H. Chow ’88, M.Eng. ’89, MBA ’90; and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10 (D-Kansas). Aleena Ismail ’21 and Liz Davis-Frost ’20, MPA ’22, moderated the discussion and asked each panelist to speak about their experiences and career paths.

“There’s no such thing, for women I know, as balance,” said Snow, when asked about balancing home and work life. “You’re never going to be perfectly balanced between home and work. I’m so thankful things are changing and we’re having these discussions now.”

“Balance is bogus,” echoed Chow. “You have one life. In your life you have professional objectives and you have personal objectives, and you cannot separate the two. Life is an optimization equation.”

Panelists shared candid personal stories about the importance of caring for one’s own mental health, recognizing unconscious bias, speaking up and practicing self-care – no matter what career path you follow or what position you hold in an organization.

“You are not alone,” said Davids. “None of us know what we’re doing. Really, we’re making a whole bunch of educated guesses. Push past the doubt.”

June 12’s Mosaic Forum focused on racial injustice. Noliwe Rooks, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor in the American Studies Program, Africana Studies and Research Center, in the College of Arts and Sciences, moderated the panel, and asked panelists to share their thoughts about systemic racism and advice for how we can all take a stand.

“None of our efforts are perfect,” Rooks said, “But Cornell has, in this moment, embraced a campuswide conversation.”

Panelist Zohra Ahmed, assistant professor of law at the University of Georgia, said the work to create change is ongoing and includes grassroots actions like having conversations, sending letters and mobilizing within community organizations. It’s “small, patient, meticulous work,” she said. “It’s not glamourous… . We have to remain mobilized.”

Connection across class years

Events also helped connect Cornellians across class years, with attendees spanning the Class of 1946 to the Class of 2021. Many students also participated in events like Spirit of the Hill on Saturday night, some as featured performers with the Glee Club and Cornell Chorus, Big Red Band, Yamatai and more.

More than 1,100 alumni tuned in to watch and listen, and many expressed the pride they felt after watching each performer. “Events like this remind me of what an amazing privilege it was to go to this incredible university,” David Hoff ’81 posted in the event’s chat feature.

The Class of 1946 had a record-breaking 75th Reunion this year, made possible by the fact that classmates could join the event online without needing to travel. Eleven Class of 1946 members tuned in from across the U.S.

Other classes experienced a similar boom in attendance. “The [Zoom] breakout rooms enabled our classmates from across the world (U.S., Canada, Mexico, U.K., Spain, Singapore) to spend a little time reconnecting with one another,” said Jeff Berg, MBA ’81, who attended virtual events for his Johnson Class of 1981. “Many of the participants would not have traveled back to Ithaca for an in-person Reunion, but Virtual Reunion enabled 50-plus classmates to attend.”

“Reunion has always been about celebration and community,” said Kate Freyer, director of Reunion and Campus Alumni Engagement Events. “This year more than ever, we saw generations of Cornellians use Reunion to rally around some of their youngest members, the Class of 2020, and today’s students, to show them the magic of this Big Red support network.”

Celebrating the Class of 2020

To wrap up the weekend, Cornellians gathered June 13 at a virtual ceremony for the Class of 2020, celebrating the unique journey of these alumni. The event featured remarks by Pollack, deans from each college and several well-known alumni – including appearances by Jimmy Smits ’82, Snow and Bill Nye ’77.

“This has been an extraordinary year, but you got through it,” said Nye. “Here we are, and you all will tell stories for the rest of your life about getting through this.”

Nye offered advice for the Class of 2020, saying, “Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. Respect that, and learn from that, and use that knowledge to make your life better and make the lives of the people around you better.”

“Class of 2020, you are the best of us,” said Snow. “We celebrate your resilience and your triumph over the last year.”

“All of you have moved on from your lives as Cornell students into your lives as Cornell alumni,” Pollack said. “I truly look forward to welcoming all of you back to Ithaca at many in-person Reunions to come.”

Many of the featured Virtual Reunion events were recorded and are available to view on demand.

Kaitlin Provost is a writer with Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development.

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Abby Butler