It’s one of Yale School of Medicine’s oldest and most beloved traditions: The first weekend after Memorial Day, graduates gather in New Haven for Reunion Weekend, when they catch up, reminisce, attend lectures, and generally have a good time.
That tradition, like so many others, fell by the wayside last year. Facing the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Yale canceled the 2020 Reunion Weekend. The school resolved that that would not happen again, said Erin Shreve, YSM director of alumni affairs and giving. There would be a 2021 Reunion Weekend. The only question was: would it be in-person, virtual, or hybrid? The school settled on virtual.
Partnering with the larger Yale Alumni Association, Shreve and her team set to work moving everything from the Dean’s State of the School address to class get-togethers online. They worked closely with each class to set up virtual socials and other events. Shreve noted that numerous members of the medical school community pitched in to coordinate the weekend’s activities.
“If one person hadn’t pulled their weight, it wouldn’t have worked,” she said. “There were dozens of people behind the scenes.”
The hard work paid off. The 2021 Reunion Weekend, held the weekend of June 5, proved a smashing success, attracting one of the highest participation rates in the event’s history, Shreve said. Preliminary figures show that of the just over 900 invitees—graduates are invited back every five years—over 350 registered to attend, she said. “The classes really took ownership,” Shreve said. “They did a great job getting the word out.”
Richard Moggio, MD ’71, who led the planning for his class’ 50th reunion, called the event a big success and credited Shreve and other Yale staffers. His class’ reunion attracted 40 alumni—an excellent turnout. The retired cardiac surgeon from Pound Ridge, N.Y., admitted to some trepidation beforehand, especially around the use of technology: “My personal nightmare was pushing the wrong button and accidentally cutting Dean Brown’s discussion with our class short,” he quipped. But his fears proved unfounded.
“The Yale planning team did a remarkable job,” Moggio said. “They created a great framework in which alums could swap impressions and catch up.”
Susan Ryu, MD ’76, also said that she, Richard Kayne, MD ’76, Alfredo Axtmayer, MD ’76, and other classmates were very happy with the weekend. Both Ryu and Moggio reported that the Zoom sessions led graduates to interact with a far wider group of fellow alumni than they normally would. Each leader held a session at which alumni were to provide brief synopses of their careers, only to see them give in-depth and in some cases deeply personal accounts of their lives. Both said that was one of the highlights of the online format.
“In person, what happens is you go back to the same group you hung out with,” said Ryu, a semi-retired ophthalmologist from Palo Alto, Calif., who helped organize her year’s reunion. “What happened in Zoom is [that] you are sharing your story with all these people. I think people were touched that they were hearing from classmates whom they might have barely said hello to in school.”
Another upside to online reunions: people who live far from New Haven were able to attend, said Yin Ho, MD’96, MBA. One member of her class attended all the way from Australia. “I have a feeling we ended up with more than we would have in person,” said Ho, who organized her class’s reunion.
The two big events of 2021—the pandemic and the national reckoning on race—dominated the weekend’s speaking events. In her State of the School address, YSM Dean Nancy Brown, MD, Yale College ’81, told alumni that the medical school has stepped up its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all areas—including recruitment, mentoring and retention of faculty, student enrollment, and patient care.
“This has been a year in which we, and all institutions, have turned inward to think about how we develop an inclusive environment and how we can continue to enhance the diversity of our faculty,” Brown said. “We developed a strategic plan around diversity and equity. The features of that plan are designed to create an inclusive environment.”
In what Brown described as “a hub-and-spoke model,” each department now has a vice chair of diversity. This group meets monthly to share best practices, she said. In another action, the school moved portraits of past deans that had been located outside the dean’s office down the hallway to make room for recurring exhibits that “reflect some of our more modern history,” she said.
Brown praised the response of students, faculty, and researchers to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the pandemic’s peak, YSM doctors did “heroic” work in Yale New Haven Hospital, while students volunteered to help staff the vaccine program—which was so successful it inspired a visit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brown said. Members of the school community also conducted a trial of the Pfizer vaccine, developed a COVID test, and have done cutting-edge research on the virus.
Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, delivered a presentation on some of that research, focusing on Long COVID, a debilitating condition afflicting millions. “This is a major crisis going forward,” Iwasaki said. “Even after we contain COVID with a vaccine, there will be millions of people suffering from the long-term consequences.”
The weekend also featured lectures on coping with stress created by the pandemic and honing observation prowess to improve diagnostic skills and fight implicit bias.
Will virtual events become a permanent part of the event? While it’s too early to say, Shreve thinks this year’s event combined with experiences over the last year will create an expectation for online components in the future. “People have come to anticipate the ease of clicking in to a session or a panel at their convenience,” she said. “So I do imagine we would have some sort of virtual component.”
Alumni Ryu, Moggio, and Ho all thought that the school should consider adding some other online features to alumni affairs, such as virtual get-togethers between the five-year reunions. “I think it’s something they should think about,” Ryu said. With new remote technologies firmly entrenched in communications patterns across the globe, it’s likely that how YSM alumni connect and stay in touch has changed for good.