I turned 50 years old this year, which brought me the low point of having my first colonoscopy but also the high point of my 25-year reunion at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. It was an unforgettable weekend that left me more inspired than I’ve been in a very long time. I don’t think I’m the only one who returned home to their regular lives thinking, “I need to do this EVERY year from here on out!”
Here are reasons why the UNC Kenan-Flagler reunion gave me such renewed energy to make a mark on this world:
We are all proud Tar Heels. But we have been scattered all over the world where we are sometimes lost in a sea of orange or crimson, or – God forbid – blue #0736A4 and forget what it feels like to belong. Coming back to Chapel Hill is like returning home to your grandmother’s cooking. The Carolina Blue all around you gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling the minute you arrive. The oversized blue plastic cups at He’s Not Here. The baby-blue horns of Rameses the mascot. The entire inside of the Dean Dome. All that baby blue acts like the laughing gas they give you at that colonoscopy and helps make you relaxed and happy. (Quick trivia: Did you know that Rameses has been around since 1924, when he appeared in a hard-fought victory over VMI, and that he and his descendants have been fixtures at UNC football games ever since?)
I had sort of forgotten how smart my classmates are. Let’s face it, the everyday routines of middle age don’t always require a lot of brainpower. Mine seems to mainly consist of the keeping of lists, calling repair people and scooping cat litter. Mastering each of the 18 remote controls in our house, and remembering where I left my glasses so I can make out the tiny buttons on said controls, is pretty much all I can hope to achieve at this point in my life. To find myself once again surrounded by a group of really bright people of my own generation was simply delicious. I squeezed more deep and intelligent conversations into a single weekend than I’ve had in an entire year.
Interestingly, many of these conversations at my reunion were about parenting. This makes sense. Instead of discussing the role of theta and gamma in the Black-Scholes equation (forgive me if I keep bringing this up, but I just find it so cool that I actually once understood what that meant), we were comparing notes on slow-starting teenagers who seem to lack the ambition we believe we once had. I realized that we all approach the struggle of raising responsible kids much in the same way we tackled a Dick Levin case 25 years ago. In small group discussions we identified the problems, brainstormed possible solutions, discarded the ones already tried and found lacking, and went home with a renewed sense of where to focus our energies.
What struck me about my classmates was not just their intelligence, but their humility. There wasn’t much bragging going on about which excellent school everyone’s offspring had gotten into, even though I’m sure it made for quite a remarkable list. (Hint: one of those excellent schools was UNC.) Instead, most everyone was very honest about their parenting mistakes. We acknowledged to each other that raising kids is difficult, and that it requires the willingness to change the preconceptions you once held. It’s a process of lifelong learning – an idea which I think UNC graduates have embraced particularly well.
The most passionate stories I heard were from those in our group who had focused their lives on helping others. Making out very well on Wall Street didn’t seem nearly as great an achievement as helping underprivileged kids pass their exams so they could be admitted to college. Providing financial consulting to low-income communities seemed much more exciting than giving investment advice to millionaires. Career counseling for first-generation college students seemed vastly more gratifying than dealing with wealthy parents of entitled suburban kids who are too unmotivated to seek that advice on their own. One of our conversations revolved around the time that we realized we had gone from young new recruit to older mentor, and that we were okay with having arrived at that place in our lives. There was a palpable passion for helping others succeed, even if it meant putting personal achievement and glory aside – perhaps forever.
I only regret that there wasn’t time to hear everyone’s story.
Food for thought
The weekend’s official program was well thought-out, doled out in just small enough portions for the middle-aged brain to digest. Dean Shackelford spoke passionately about the state of affairs of the business school, which sounds better than ever before. There are new programs I didn’t even know existed, like the MBA@UNC, which has shown tremendous growth over recent years.
One thing the dean said particularly stood out to me. He recounted how he repeatedly asks recruiters why they continue to come to UNC. The answer: “Again and again, your graduates show they can work with anybody on any task.” Then there is a pause, he says, after which they add, “Without drama.”
The next guest, Tucker York (BSBA ’82), head of the private wealth division Goldman Sachs, added his view of what makes our students so desirable in the marketplace: Resilience. UNC graduates are willing to put in the work and deal with failure, he says. “You can’t take resilience pills.” Resilience, apparently, is what makes us very valuable for any organization that needs recruits to contribute from the start.
Resilience and the avoidance of drama are both qualities that have defined my life. I pride myself in these things. But I never before stopped to think what a huge part my two years of business school might have played in making me into what I am.
The food throughout the weekend was simply delicious. It seems like UNC catering has come a long way from the finger foods dished up at job fairs during our first year. Or perhaps they’ve always known that it’s a better investment to give the good food to the alumni with the deep pockets rather than the starving students. In any case, we got absolutely stuffed over three days of near-constant eating. We started out with a champagne brunch on Saturday morning, followed by a lunch of fresh sandwiches and salads which almost seamlessly segued into an elaborate wine tasting, followed by exquisite appetizers and small bites – all of this on the beautiful grounds of the McColl Building – and culminating in the flagship event, a masterfully executed reception in the Dean E. Smith Center.
It was an unforgettable evening. The basketball court was decorated with gazebos, balloons, different food stations and a collection of café-style tables and chairs. A band was playing a jaunty selection of tunes, kids and adults alike were shooting hoops, and many nice door prizes were raffled away, including a basketball signed by Antawn Jamison. I wish I knew how one wins a basketball signed by Antawn Jamison. Above all, there was food, food and more food. I am especially mourning the baby-blue cake pops and am happy I snuck out more than one box of the Chapel Hill dark chocolate pecan toffee, which will be my reward for a much-needed week of fasting.
As if all this weren’t enough, there was another brunch the next day, this time at DuBose House, a beautiful historical home nestled among blooming dogwoods on the grounds of the Rizzo Conference Center. (You might remember the late Paul Rizzo, former dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler). It was an opportunity to see our classmates one last time – or rather those that hadn’t fallen by the wayside after too many late nights out. One last time we gave in to the temptation of having two helpings of dessert after breakfast, and then we said our goodbyes.
I am that easy to please. Serve me great food around the clock, in increasingly beautiful venues, with a little bit of wisdom sprinkled in here and there, and I’m already sold on the whole thing. I definitely have plans to return next year.
Who else is in?
By Sine Thieme (MBA ’93), author and travel writer