Coming home. Homecoming. This is a tradition centuries old and even older for species such as birds who migrate thousands of miles to return to nesting sites.
I was thinking about the attraction of human homecomings last weekend when I attended Franklin College’s annual fall celebration by the same name–Homecoming. A past student of mine had returned to campus from Colorado for her fortieth reunion. Other alums had traveled from the east coast or from Texas. The majority came from towns in Indiana or nearby states.
Instinct explains why birds return to ancestral nesting sites, but that hardly accounts for why humans travel for family reunions and college homecomings. I tried to pay attention at last week’s festivities, looking for clues as to why so many alums returned to a campus in a small Indiana town where most lived for fewer than four years.
Some of the reasons that people return to college and university campuses are well-known. Many returns to campuses and nearby bars to be with friends from their pasts. It moves me that some alums want to reconnect with their professors, sometimes to just to say, “Do you remember me?” and at other times to say, “Thank you.”
Last weekend, I reconnected with quite a few alumni who’d brought their children. Some wanted their children to see where their parents had once been students. Others openly admitted that they wanted their children to consider attending Franklin College.
But the more I thought about why so many return for homecomings and reunions, the more I found myself thinking about the power of stories in our lives. From the first nursery tales we heard to our first encounters with numbers (“If Jill has five pennies and Jack has four pennies, how many do Jill and Jack have together?”) to our first morality lessons (“Why is it wrong for Jack to take Jill’s five pennies?”), we have been surrounded by and grounded in stories.
The most important story, however, for each of us is the story of our lives. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I headed? These are questions that we all wrestle with, not just once, but many times over our lifespans.
Stories on TV can wrap up in an hour. Even with a five-hundred-page novel, we know that the trials and adventures of the main characters will wrap up, usually neatly, by the last page. And in both the brief TV drama and the lengthy novel, in the end, we can see what was the key scene or turning point in the story.
Determining the key turning points in our own life stories is far more difficult. Given that most college students enroll as teenagers fresh out of high school and graduate as young adults, perhaps the crowds that swell campuses at homecomings recognize that those four years were some of the most significant in their lives.
“Here, I didn’t just change my academic major; here I changed my life goals.” “Here, I met friends who remain close to me years and decades later.” “Here I realized that the world is a lot bigger, a lot more complex, and a lot more interesting than I knew growing up.” “Here, I studied with a professor who saw more potential in me than I saw in myself.”
I am sure homecoming means something different for someone who graduated the previous May than for the alum who returns for her forty-year reunion. But what all alums and past faculty and staff members have in common is this: “This small piece of ground, the buildings on it, and the relationships I made here helped make me the person I am. And for that I am grateful.”