This family feeling is particularly obvious at Reunions, when tens of thousands of alumni greet each other like long-lost relatives, but for me there was another reminder early this year. The Office of Information Technology’s directory service finds names, numbers and e-mail addresses for students and faculty, but it turns out that there is a lot more there than you might realize. Every so often, I run a program that extracts information from the database and converts it into a format that’s more convenient for my own weird searches. This spring, I discovered that what used to be about 25,000 items had blossomed into nearly 100,000. Most of the new entries are no more than a name or a netID, apparently for people long since departed, since they are listed only as “department unknown.”
Some 1,700 entries, however, reveal a family connection. A listing like “Jonathan Huffington Post III ’77 P09 P13” says that Huffy is a parent of a current freshman and a son or daughter who graduated last year. There are on average 140 such entries for each of 2010 through 2013, which suggests that well over a hundred students each year are “legacies,” the standard term for the children of alumni. I haven’t checked with officialdom for accurate numbers, and the OIT data is certainly not complete, but this is pretty consistent with other sources. (There seems to be no analogous “G13” notation, but surely there are grandparents as well, and in fact it would be a nice programming exercise to try to find them mechanically from the OIT data.)
This all reminded me of another aspect of family: siblings in classes. I was pleasantly surprised in my first year here to encounter two sisters, one in the fall and the other next spring. (Hi, Grace and Joyce!) I’ve kept a casual record ever since, and found that it’s not at all unusual to have a brother or sister of a former student in one of my classes. Over the past 11 years there have been 36 that I know of, including two semesters with twins in the same class. It’s only moderately embarrassing that I never could reliably distinguish between Adam and Matt, or Jessica and Tiffany, but others would certainly have had the same problem.
I’ve also run into a fair number of children of friends, even if the parents didn’t go to Princeton. If your name is Smith, you’re anonymous unless someone tells me, but if you have a distinctive name, it’s not too hard to make the family connection. Surprisingly, a modest handful of these parents have said that they learned to program from one of my books, which is incredibly rewarding, even though it does remind me all too clearly of the passage of time. Someday this comment will come from a grandparent, which might well be a sign that it’s time to move on to “department unknown” status.
I’ve also had well over a dozen students whose parents are Princeton faculty or staff. Again, if the name is distinctive, it’s not too hard to infer a connection, but usually there’s no clue. For example, last fall I was on a committee with a colleague whose family name is fairly common — not Smith, but well within the Census Bureau’s top 100. During one of the endless meetings, he casually mentioned that his daughter had graduated a couple of years earlier. Something clicked — indeed she had been in my class, but (and this seems to be an inviolable rule) she had not given the slightest hint that her father taught here. Not that it would make any difference, but in most cases, I learn of this kind of family connection only well after the fact; indeed there were two other faculty children in that same class.
Lots of schools must have a similar kind of friends-and-family experience, but it seems especially strong at Princeton. The continuity over years and generations adds to the sense of community and enriches the experience for all of us. Certainly it’s a pleasure to discover that a student that I have come to know today has a connection that goes back 25 or 30 years and perhaps even further. When you go to Reunions next month, watch for recent grads marching with their parents and their parents’ friends and everyone’s young children, all having a wonderful time. As Tolstoy said in “Anna Karenina,” “Happy families are all alike.” The Princeton family has a lot of very different members, but it seems remarkably happy, and it’s great to belong to it.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.