Finding a place in the community of alums despite past harm

Anri Wheeler

I am a third-generation Williams College graduate. I didn’t grow up “bleeding purple” or attending reunion with my family. I felt no pressure to apply, though I know the privilege legacy confers. My four years at Williams were among the darkest of my life. Today, I enjoy visits back to campus. One crucial lesson I have learned since leaving the Purple Valley is how seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time: simultaneity.

I graduated in June 2003, seeking to put as much distance as possible between myself and campus. Receiving the Williams-in-China fellowship made that easy to do. But Williams came with me — in solicitations for class notes and donations, and the alumni magazine in my mailbox. I’d joined a group of thousands worldwide with whom I share an alma mater and, in many cases, little else.

Mine is also a story of reconnection. Over time, I found footholds in the connections I made with fellow Ephs: a classmate convinced me to attend Homecoming the year after graduating and I reconnected with the entry-mate who would become my husband; a friend brought me to a Williams Boston Association (WBA) board meeting as a way to meet people after moving to Cambridge and I stayed on for years, becoming vice president; I was invited to serve on the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni (EC).

Last month, the latest issue of [ITAL] Williams People (the magazine with class notes and alum news) arrived through my mail slot. Marking the end of the bicentennial of the Williams Society of Alumni, the issue included snippets of 15 of the 200+ stories submitted by alums to a call by the bicentennial planning committee, an effort for which I volunteered. Among them were two that cited traumas (including sexual assault) as reasons for why the writers have never returned to campus.

Those snippets are not my stories to tell, but in reading them I was transported back into my own experience. The dread I felt walking into the dining hall for fear of who I’d run into. The tired “Madonna-whore” binary upheld by the misogyny and heteronormativity that permeated campus. The boundaries of consent stretched to breaking points I didn’t think to question because I’d been socialized not to. Those I wish to avoid most are not on my reunion cycle, but plenty who called me words (or wrote them on the whiteboard on my dorm room door) that don’t bear repeating are. Despite experiencing these situations myself, I too said and did things that helped the wheels of patriarchy glide along their well-paved course.

 As I read last month’s Williams People I was struck with a familiar inarticulable feeling. Something was missing. It was not enough to print a handful of painful stories. In planning meetings for the Bicentenn­ial, a theme most important to me was that of “grappling” — facing the parts of the College’s past that are not points of pride, and the alumni who feel disconnected as a result. What form does such grappling take? I don’t have simple answers, and must acknowledge the strides that have been made on campus thanks to the hard work of many. Can similar efforts be applied to a group as amorphous and vast as the Society of Alumni?

 One of my answers lies in the alums I’ve met or grown closer to after graduating: the former WBA President now my forever date to Williams functions; a JA to my class now godfather to my daughter; my EC cohort turned forever partners in processing dispatches from campus and beyond; a grad school classmate, 12 years my junior, who welcomed me into the Williams Asian & Asian American Network (WAAAN); current and former Alumni Relations staff; my assigned-by-chance fellow PTA co-chair, now my closest mom friend. They join my closest friends who’ve been there since our undergrad days, friendships that defined me and continue to buoy me through ongoing pandemic exhaustion. They, too, have complicated relationships with Williams, also not my stories to tell. 

As I filed out of graduation, one of the blue floral kitten heels I’d worn to senior prom four years earlier broke. It snapped in half as I descended the “Climb high, climb far” stairs in front of which so many photos were taken. At the time I was annoyed and sad, but I laughed it off. Today, I see a fitting metaphor for the ways Williams broke me. I was silenced and hurt. I silenced and hurt people too.


My Williams is not built upon memories of sledding on trays from the dining hall or Mountain Day — I participated in neither. I barely know the chorus to “The Mountains.” My Williams has evolved into a group of incredible people — some who experienced hurt while at Williams who have never been back, some who loved Williams and now live near campus, and every permutation in between. They keep me coming back to myself. They’ve helped me recultivate key roots of my college self, once nurtured by a few professors and a Health Center employee who listened when I needed it most.

A wise colleague shared with me a phrase she uses during her workshops that’s stayed with me: Don’t freeze people in time. Let me be clear, I am in no way suggesting anyone needs to forgive or engage with an abuser. Nor do I peddle in oversimplified calls to reconnect with Williams (or any site of trauma).

I share this quote as it has helped me extend grace to my 18-22-year-old self. To remember the joys of my college years and see the pains through the lens of the myriad iterations of myself I have moved through since. 1999-2003 Williams was not a home to me. And yet, within the textures and folds of my alumni experience I have found — and fought for — one. I volunteer for Williams, fueled by a desire to continue to push the college to be better.

My Williams today is not a place, it is people: my chosen family who hold me up, see me, and love me. They’ve allowed me to finally taste, as my EC cohort-mate Qadir calls it, the “purple sauce.”

Anri Wheeler ’03 is a writer and antiracist educator who lives in Cambridge, Mass.