A meditation on returning ‘home’

In a letter to REFLECTIONS, 2011 alumna Kelli Thompson detailed how her return to Saginaw Valley State University after years away provided a new kind of college experience. This is her story, told in her words:

Three years removed from graduation, I returned to SVSU’s campus again in 2014. Passing beneath that bold arched entrance sign and moving between the twin ponds just beyond, a familiar feeling immediately began to warm my heart:

I was home again. This was home.

When you’re a student living on campus — as I was from 2008 to 2011 — that sense of home is very literal. You share a mailing address with the university, after all. But eventually you graduate, move away and life tends to happen. “The college years” can become a cherished memory … but one that can grow more distant for people who are pursuing professional careers or considering raising families.

For a time after graduation, SVSU was simply a cherished memory for me. After graduation, I moved back home; first to pursue a postgraduate degree and later to start my job writing state and federal grant applications for the Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District. Life happened. I loved SVSU, but it was behind me.

Then in 2014, I was asked to serve as the adviser for SVSU’s chapter of Alpha Sigma Alpha, a Greek sorority and powerful staple of female leadership at the university for 20 years. As a student, I was a proud member. When, as an alumna, I was called on to help uphold that sorority’s tradition, of course the answer was, “Yes.” Yes, yes, yes.

I knew that response would reconnect me with one aspect of my college life. I didn’t anticipate anything more than that. Aside from the nostalgic reverie of being near my old haunts, I couldn’t imagine there would be much left for me to experience at SVSU now that I was no longer a student. I was wrong.

Despite my years away, staff and faculty members greeted me as if I had returned from a brief holiday break between semesters. With such a tight, close-knit campus community, making friends was easy when I was a student. What I learned upon my return was that, at this university, reconnecting those bonds of friendships was even easier.

I also was amazed by how the university continued to grow. That expansion was obvious in physical growth, academic program developments and in community impact. For example, in my three-year absence: A beautiful new fieldhouse was built alongside the Ryder Center; several STEM programs were created in tandem with some of the most successful international companies in the industry; and the level of student engagement with the surrounding region was just as active as ever.

And there was another significant change that caught my attention. With a new mission and more resources, SVSU’s Alumni Relations office strengthened its commitment to reintroducing long-absent graduates both to the campus and their Cardinal family. That initiative involved creating opportunities for alumni to meet at on- and off-campus gatherings, enjoy the many new perks available to them, and build a powerful network of people with one common connection: SVSU empowered them. I began attending these alumni functions and quickly learned two powerful benefits of such a network.

On an institutional level, an active and engaged alumni raised the esteem of the university which, in turn, raised the esteem of its alumni. We shared our stories of success with each other, and eventually, with others outside the SVSU community. The result was a growing network of people who could reinforce the value of each other’s education at this university by acting as ambassadors of its successes.

On a personal level, I gained new friends. Whether it was during a dinner on campus or at an outing organized by Alumni Relations at a Detroit Tigers game, strangers suddenly felt like longtime acquaintances after we spoke about our college experiences. Even when I was chatting to a member of a graduating class from decades ago, we could quickly build a strong rapport over a mutual affection for the many campus sights and SVSU traditions that spanned both our generations. In fact, 50 of the campus sights and traditions beloved by alumni are featured in a special photo essay beginning on page 14 of this magazine.

The photo essay’s contents offer a glimpse at the timeless nature of Red Pride. While SVSU’s campus evolved over the years, so much of its heritage stood the test of time.

When my fellow alumni and I first returned to this place after years away, we worried we would discover some strange place that replaced what we remembered. Instead, we rediscovered home.

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