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They laughed, they gathered in nooks across “campus” for private conversations, they danced and cooked together and stayed up too late reminiscing. Meg Pickard (YR 17/1992, United Kingdom) tells us the inspirational story of how a determined and creative group of Years 16 to 19 alumni conceived of and delivered a virtual reunion for the ages on multiple platforms featuring dozens of events over 10 days.

By Meg Pickard, on behalf the entire reunion organizing committee

Wherever we are in the world, the last 18 months caused all of us to do things differently and embrace aspects of “the new normal.”

For some, that meant working from home, or suddenly facilitating home learning for the next generation. For others it meant dealing directly — personally or professionally — with the fallout of a world even more in crisis than usual. At various points, we’ve been isolated in our countries, communities and sometimes our homes, and had to find alternative ways to sustain important relationships and activities in our lives.

With this global context, it’s no surprise that the 2021 30-year reunion of Years 16-17-18-19 was going to be somewhat different to previous events held at the College.

When the organising committee of volunteers first started talking about how the reunion could happen this year, we realised that despite the challenges of technology and time zones, there were also opportunities for a digital reunion to be more accessible and inclusive than ever. This year has shown that we’re connected as never before, digitally, which means precious reunion attendance barriers could be overcome: it didn’t matter where people are located, or their disposable income, or the work or caring responsibilities which make demands on precious time and travel tricky.

Although the Pearson campus will always have strong memories and associations for us — and we hope to return in future — we wanted this reunion be more than a poor substitute for a traditional in-person event. We can still connect, talk, hang out, learn from and about each other. Circumstances made our gathering virtual, but the opportunity for reconnection is as real as ever.

Instead of programming a single day or weekend event, we recognised that we would need to slot into and around people’s busy lives if they were inviting the reunion into their homes and offices all over the world. So we embraced the challenge of designing and delivering a “festival of reconnection” to take place over just over a week in August 2021. This allowed us to create a programme schedule which went around the clock (to suit all time zones), and also allowed a broader group of volunteers to take part, according to their availability.

We created reconnection spaces in Facebook, WhatsApp and a dedicated Discord server, as well as contacting alumni by email and building a dedicated reunion site for signposting. Part of this ecosystem strategy was about playing to the relative strengths of different technologies (for conversation, photo sharing and so on), but we also recognised that the platform that is most convenient for the organisers may not be the place where people feel comfortable gathering. Let a thousand flowers bloom! In the weeks preceding the reunion, there was a quiet programme of community-building activities and opportunities across all platforms (like building a shared Common Room playlist on Spotify), which helped people to feel comfortable in each others “presence” again after all these years.

Then for 10 days in August, starting with a launch and welcome on Friday the 13th, we had a programme of events and activities distributed across our digital reunion ecosystem, which during that week also included Gather@PCUWC — the virtual campus video chat experience launched at our reunion but available to alumni in future, thanks to the College Alumni Engagement Team!

Activities included live events (like topical discussions, regional or interest-based hangouts, even cooking demonstrations and a choir practice…) initiated and led by the gathering alumni, and archived on YouTube to catch up on later. There were also asynchronous activities and mini projects happening via chat or other forms of participation. Attendees could choose to participate in as many of these as time and enthusiasm permitted, as well as suggest, add and lead new sessions as the week went on.

And they did!

Over ten days, we had 41 live scheduled sessions, amounting to 56+ hours of programming across 22 time zones, all hosted and attended from people’s spare rooms, sofas, kitchen tables and holiday hammocks across those 22 time zones.

On one day alone, you could get up early to join a discussion about Indigenous rights and reconciliation, then do a workshop about exploring identity at lunchtime, followed by choir practice in the afternoon and learning about a project to track Orca communication off Vancouver Island, then round off the evening discussing experiences of neurodiversity or learning to cook a Guatemalan dessert.

At the end of a week of distributed reconnecting, on Saturday 21 August, there was a live “gala” event to bring people together in a “Big Tent Event” — a cross between a village meeting, no-talent show and mini One World; reviewing highlights of the activities of the week and featuring artistic contributions from alumni across the globe, as well as other opportunities to reflect on and renew our connections, values and experiences.

As an organising committee, we had three main aims when measuring the effectiveness of our approach:

  • Would people sign up (i.e. create a connection to the reunion and our ecosystem at all)?
  • Would they show up (i.e. be active during the event, participating in social spaces and live events)?
  • And would they step up (i.e. volunteer to host or lead discussions, get involved in production)?

The answer to all of these was a resounding yes!

Over 65 per cent of the total cohort from Years 16/17/18/19 who could have got involved, did. Around 2/3 of each year group participated in some form during the reunion week. And as well as the core organising committee of 8, 45 people got involved in the production, from leading cooking classes to creating graphic design and editing special 30 year KIT (“Keep In Touch”) submissions, as well as volunteering to guide peers exploring ideas and experiences in topic areas.

The organising committee who worked on this behind the scenes for several months to turn our shared vision into reality (or maybe virtuality?) were:

  • Tania Granadillo Bustos (YR 16/1991, Venezuela): programme development and delivery
  • Meg Pickard (YR 17/1992, United Kingdom – England): programme development and delivery, social platforms, community building, and comms
  • Catherine May (YR 17/1992, Canada-SK), Merinda McLure (YR 17/1992, Canada-BC) and Arfon Hughes (YR 16/1991, United Kingdom – Whales): gala production team
  • Hussein Waljee (YR 18/1993, Canada-AB): website/tech plus Jean François Godin (YR 18/1993, Canada-BC): setting up Discord
  • Ruben Proano (YR 19/1994, Ecuador): programme and gala production

Plus not forgetting the background support of Benoît Charlebois,  (YR 9/1984, Canada-QC), who liaised with the college where needed and arranged for the super-speedy development of our virtual campus meeting space, Gather@PCUWC, to happen in time for our reunion

So, now what? The feedback so far from participants is that they are eager to find ways to continue the conversations, as well as the rekindled relationships. People have spoken about wanting to turn ideas into actions which will carry on and grow after our festival. Already, we’re seeing discussions about education, artificial intelligence, the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) agenda and poetry continuing on Discord, Whatsapp and more.

Although many were worried about how engaging they would find the reunion, especially after a year or more of remote working in many cases, participants surprised themselves about how quickly the feeling of connection and community came back. We talked, we laughed, we rekindled old connections and forged new ones, and – in typical Pearson style – we didn’t sleep enough.

The only things missing were hugs. We’ll find a way to collect on those in years to come.