Toward a More Perfect Williams

Illustration of balloons in the shape of 200 with banners and streamers.

By Laura Moberg Lavoie ’99 and Aroop Mukharji ’09
Illustration by Carmen Segovia

Marking the alumni society bicentennial.

In 2021, the Williams Society of Alumni (SoA)—the world’s oldest alumni association—celebrates its 200th birthday.

We are humbled and honored to lead more than 100 alumni volunteers and Williams staff in organizing a yearlong commemoration of this milestone in our shared history as Ephs. We stand at the crossroads between the SoA’s storied past and its unfurling future.

The bicentennial is an opportunity to celebrate our colorful history and to honor the bonds that unite Williams alumni with one another, transcending geography and generations. It has long been envisioned as an inclusive enterprise to highlight the power of our Eph family and our ages-old tradition of supporting one another.

But now, as 2020 comes to a close with all of our lives upended, this work takes on sharper focus. Our bicentennial year will arrive in the context of a pandemic and a charged, vital national conversation about race, racism and anti-racism. The conversation is complex. Each of our lived experiences is uniquely our own but also part of the greater story of what Williams, and thereby the SoA, has been—and what they will become.

In this light, we share parts of our own stories.

I, Aroop, had a lovely and supportive childhood in Kansas City. I witnessed and experienced a few racist incidents (“At least I am the right color,” “You cannot sit with us”), but I never thought much of them at the time. The stereotyping of Indian-Americans and Indian culture (“Your house smells weird,” “Your food looks like vomit”) also felt innocuous. I think of those experiences now in a different light. Subconsciously, and deepened by pop culture, they engendered a feeling of flaw.

Williams was the first place I fully began to take pride in my identity—as an Indian-American, as a child of immigrants, as a Kansan. Pride in the darkness of my skin. That was largely because of the loving and accepting community at the college, which reinforced my family and friends. But that process was also complicated and uneven. Even at Williams, there were shortcomings: religious and racial epithets scrawled on dorm dry-erase boards; a Facebook group started by students called “Finish your drink, there are sober kids in India;” and so on. Poignant reminders that despite how far we’ve come, we still have a ways to go.

For me, Laura, 2020 stirs in me forces that have quietly shaped my entire life. I am a half-Japanese woman. The most common question I’ve been asked throughout my life is, “What are you?” as people try to decipher my heritage. One of my earliest childhood memories is bewilderment at hearing older boys scream, “Chinese [email protected]#$#@$” and belatedly realizing they were referring to me. My Williams application essay was about being labeled “the white girl on the bus”—as a member of one of the country’s oldest voluntary desegregation programs, I commuted from my middle-class, inner-city neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., to my almost-all-white suburban high school.

My identity has always been a complicated experience of feeling and being “other” while being granted access to in-group spaces where I don’t always feel I belong. During my freshman year at Williams, I had a friend demand to know why I had not “told him” I was Asian; senior year, I was one of two non-Black
singers in the Williams Gospel Choir and got invited to parties at Rice House—a majority-minority space that white students rarely, if ever, entered. At Williams, I struggled to find where I fit, but eventually I came to see my label of “other” as a gift in my ongoing quest for belonging.

These are snippets of our stories—two among a multitude that we hope Ephs from all walks of life will bring to light during the SoA bicentennial, which begins in January. Our goal is to honor what is honorable in our history—and there is much. Our aim is to shed light on areas where progress must be made—and there are many. Our hope is to help create an alumni community we all can call home.

By sharing our individual experiences and by channeling our collective effort for good, the Society of Alumni can continue striving together toward a more perfect Williams.

You can share your story and learn more about the bicentennial at alumni.williams.edu/200.

Portrait of Laura Lavoie

Laura Moberg Lavoie ’99 is co-chair of the Society of Alumni Bicentennial and serves as a vice president and associate agent for the Class of 1999. She is director of philanthropy at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.

Portrait of Aroop Mukharji

Aroop Mukharji ’09 is co-chair of the Society of Alumni Bicentennial. He received a Ph.D. in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and is now a postdoc fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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