Reunions Behind the Scenes

Sept. 6, 2023

"Reunions Behind the Scenes" was originally published in the September 2023 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The special bond Princetonians share is one we treasure every day and renew joyously at Reunions. Even as our attention in Princeton turns to the new academic year and to welcoming new students (a.k.a. alumni-in-training), the warm glow of our most recent gathering lingers on campus and fortifies us until we meet again next May. I asked a few colleagues to share some behind-the-scenes reflections on how the magic is made. – C.L.E.

Mibs Southerland, Director of Reunions, University Advancement

I’ve worked on Reunions since 2005, and the event continues to evolve. Planning starts at least a year in advance. This past year, more than 24,000 people registered to attend and we hired over 1,000 student workers. To give you a sense of scale, the University set up  135 tents, 3,400 tables, 30,000 chairs, and nearly 33,000 square feet of dance floor all over campus. The P-rade, of course, is the biggest event of the weekend, and we are always brainstorming ways to make it more efficient (under three hours is our goal). At 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, I walk the route down Elm Drive with Facilities staff and some of the P-rade marshals to make sure everything is ready. Following Reunions, we have a debrief to talk about how we can make the event an even better experience. Colleagues at peer schools often ask me how we do it. The answer is teamwork. Our dedicated alumni volunteers, our supportive University staff, and our enthusiastic student crews are committed to hosting a fun, safe, and memorable celebration. Organizing Reunions is like playing in an orchestra. Everyone knows their part, and we all come together when it’s time for the big show!

Donna Pilenza, Director of Residential Dining, Campus Dining, University Services

Imagine hosting an outdoor dinner party for 24 friends. Now multiply the guest list by 1,000 and expand the party over a long weekend and you’ll get a sense what Reunions is like for Campus Dining. In 2023, we served over 43,000 meals from Thursday night to Sunday morning. Our largest food purchases included 1,321 pounds of fruit salad, 1,664 pints of strawberries, and 1,125 pounds of halal ground beef. Almost all of our dishes are made on campus, from the University Bakeshop’s orange-and-black shield cookies to the mahi-mahi and hanger steak prepared by our Dining chefs. We love collaborating with alumni to incorporate their Reunions themes into the food. For example, the 35th Reunion “Life’s Great on Route 88” evoked a cross-country road trip featuring Chicago-style pizza, a St. Louis barbeque, and a Southwest-inspired happy hour. For the 10th Reunion’s music theme, we created a food tour with items like “Green Day Beans” and “Paella at the Disco.” One of the most unique items I’ve ever seen was at this year’s 45th. An alumnus printed individual potato chip bags with every class member’s yearbook photo!

Kenneth Strother Jr., Assistant Vice President, Department of Public Safety

Over 420 people are assigned to provide security at Reunions. We train for all kinds of situations. We review the P-rade route to make sure there is ample space for attendees and good pathways for people to evacuate in case of an emergency or severe weather. The coordination between our staff and alumni volunteers is exceptional. A DPS police officer is responsible for managing safety at each Reunions tent. One of the most important things we instruct staff to do is find each Reunions chair on site and work together. Princeton is a close-knit community, and DPS staff are fortunate to get to know many students personally. Duncan Harrison Sr., our associate director of support services in Public Safety, has worked here 40 years and often says the most rewarding part of his job is meeting the children—and now grandchildren—of alumni during Reunions.