Class of 2003 at our 15th Reunion

When we arrived on campus for my 15th class reunion, I felt no tugging pangs of nostalgia. Maybe it was all the new buildings and renovations, or the fact that we were running late so maybe it felt a bit too uncomfortably like my time as a student, always rushing from one thing to another.

For whatever reason, I didn’t feel much like the prodigal Davidson daughter returning home, even though it was partly to accept an award for leadership through service — which is practically the most Davidson thing ever 🙂

I eased in. At least the 900 Room looked the same, right down to the signed pictures of Cast Iron Filter and Guster framed on the wall.

We Class of 2003 were a small bunch. Only 40 members or so (+ spouses) came, which I guess makes sense because many people have little kiddos and 20th reunion sounds a bit more momentous. While I was initially disappointed by the lack of turnout, it actually made for a fun, raucous atmosphere, as when Beth Gardner Helfrich led a spontaneous freshman hall roll call:

Winning hall: 3rd Rich with 10!

As one of the VIPs for the day, I got to meet President Quillen and thank her personally for her support, the care package she sent me, and enlisting staff to create the video last year. Not to mention the honor of that evening…

After dinner, it was showtime.

I am grateful to the friends and classmates who nominated me for the John W. Kuykendall Award for Community Service, named for Davidson’s 15th president. It is deeply humbling to be recognized from amongst the Davidson alumni who are doing such interesting and important work all over the globe.

Shaw Hipsher read the citation that will be recorded in the college archives, but embellished with personal and team anecdotes that made me smile.

Then, Elizabeth Spitz, my first friend at Davidson and Myers-Briggs-paired roommate of 3 years, read my remarks while a slideshow of race photos from the Class of 2003 alumni who joined Team Drea scrolled through:

You can watch the video below or read my remarks at the end of this post.

Shaw said later that the air in the room changed during the presentation. I felt it too, and hoped I wasn’t bringing the enthusiasm level down too much. But I think people got it (it is Davidson after all).

Afterwards, I had a lot of good conversations with friends I hadn’t seen in 15 years, as well as classmates I’d never really known. Here are two:

Monica Siegenthaler Meacham, who was on the crew team with me (I was a coxswain), told me that her PhD had focused the importance of exercise in people with spinal cord injuries and how she entered the field of neurological research principally because her mom battled early-onset Parkinson’s.

“I wanted to tell you something in person,” she said. “You used to motivate us to do our best in the boat. But this is a whole different level. Sometimes when I’m working out, I want to quit, but then I think of you and I tell myself to ‘Do it for Andrea.’”

I will take that with me forever.

Then I talked to Meika Fields, an Art major who is now a landscape architect and planner in northern Virginia. We were randomly paired to live together during our Fellows year.

“You were the first person I ever knew who talked about urban planning,” she said.

“Yeah,” her husband joked, “if you hadn’t introduced her to planning, she might not have gone to grad school, and then we wouldn’t have met and gotten married!”

Let this be a lesson that you don’t have to have a terminal illness to impact someone else’s life. On the flip side, if I’d known I wanted to be a planner then I probably wouldn’t have gone to Davidson and therefore not met MY husband. Fate is a tricky business…

When DP and I finally left the Union and walked outside, we inhaled that very distinctive after-summer-rainstorm smell which reminded us both of early morning crew practice. Everything about our lives has changed since we were idealistic college students, but not that smell. And maybe not everything.

***

PS: I must also give a huge shoutout to Jon Teel, a History major turned energy healer, who actually came to our house on Monday to perform my first-ever healing energy treatment. It was incredibly peaceful and I learned a couple of relaxation techniques that I am really enjoying. Thanks Jon!

***

My remarks upon accepting the Kuykendall award:

When you arrive as a freshman here, everything is new and overwhelming. Think about that day. You’re excited, and nervous. You know your life will change forever but you have no idea how.

Now flash forward to this day. Can you even believe we’re at our 15th college reunion? Think of all you have accomplished from then to now.

Every single person here has had amazing highs and heart-crushing lows. And then there are the things we never saw coming.

For me, six months after I completed the half Ironman, I had to start using a cane after I fell in the middle of a busy intersection of downtown DC.

A diagnosis like ALS puts your life into perspective real quick. You figure out what matters and WHO matters.

If you’re lucky, your friends rally around.

If you’re extremely lucky like me your friends and the Davidson community help you complete your life’s mission, which in my case is to end ALS.

The average person with ALS lives between two and five years. Before they die, they become paralyzed and lose the ability to talk, eat, and eventually to breathe. The fact that I am still racing four years into the disease is basically unheard of.

But, unequivocally, the reason I am able to do it is because of my friends and family and many, MANY people in the Davidson community.

Although I wouldn’t wish ALS on my worst enemy, I am a better person because of it.

My wish for you is that you can take the heart-crushing lows that happen to you, and turn them into opportunities.

And just know that if you ever need your Davidson community, they will be there for you.

Thank you.

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