The Science of Friendship

by Jon Milhon

I was about to leave my office and head for the first day of my Cell Biology class to go over the syllabus. The course has gained a reputation as rigorous among the students. At the first meeting, I tell them everything they need to know and try to calm their fears. Before I left my office, I posted a question on Facebook asking for previous students’ advice for the new ones. Within minutes, many had replied. Some were funny, others dead serious, all of them good. I read each one to my students so they could hear what a bunch of high school teachers, physicians, physical therapists, and physicians’ assistants said about how to succeed.

Over the next week, comments kept pouring in, and I noticed a trend—many came from a group of close friends who graduated in 2006. They all took Cell Biology together in 2004, and that experience formed bonds that still exist more than 10 years later. They talked about the value of great study groups and great friends and the pranks they pulled on faculty.

About a week into the Facebook conversation, I posted another question: What would it take (besides wads of money) to get the Milhon family together with the graduates from 2006? Chris Teitzel, who lives in Seattle, gave the defining response: “All I need is a time and a place. I would move anything to be there.” I was shocked. People felt so strongly about their experience here that they were willing to travel from all over the country to reunite for one night. First, I needed a date—a tall order considering they were all professionals with busy schedules and families, but after three weeks of negotiation, we planned it for early November. The location was easy: my house. I had hosted a party to celebrate graduation for this same group, and the thought of doing that again sounded perfect.

Many of these students had not seen each other since graduation, though social media provided some contact. Over the years, I saw a few who live locally, and some, like Russ Buhr and Sara (Klemin) Marlatt, I saw while on a family vacation to the East Coast, but most of the group I had not seen since graduation day a decade ago. I felt like a kid at Christmastime. It couldn’t come fast enough.

Of course, Chris was the first to buy a plane ticket. Heather (Faw) Davenport was apprehensive about flying from St. Louis with her baby daughter and without her husband, but her presence was a nonnegotiable. She was the only student who took all five of the courses I teach. She also started a tradition I cherish. When she gained acceptance into the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Duke University, she sent me a pennant for my office wall and encouraged the rest of the class of 2006 to do the same. I have since amassed a wall of university pennants representing my students and their academic accomplishments over the years.

The day of the reunion confirmed that these friendships hadn’t missed a beat. Crazy Nate Cowing and Anthony Walls carpooled from Ventura County with Nate’s family. They told a story of how a patient whom Anthony saw in his hospital in Ventura ended up as Nate’s physical therapy patient in Santa Barbara. Nate and Anthony are also new dads, and after knowing these guys in college, the reality gave everyone a good laugh. Suzie (Val Hal) Bruenig and family came up from San Diego—I had shared coffee with her every week during her entire senior year. Russ, chief resident in internal medicine at UCLA, had just finished being on-call all night when he picked up Chris from the airport. Heather Dingess lives in the area, and Lauren (Horvath) Leporini flew in from Sacramento. Suzie, Heather, and Lauren are physical therapists, and I loved hearing their stories. It was like watching my kids, all grown up and amazingly successful. In conversations over homemade ice cream, I heard about great accomplishments in graduate school and I listened to lessons learned as new professionals committed to making a difference in the world. I am so proud to have had even a small part in the process.

We missed those who could not attend: Stephanie (Armitage) Oliva and her husband, Jonny ’03; Emily (Maarschak) Walls; Sara Marlatt; Jennifer Stripe; Lauri(Robertson) Marsh; Jeff Pryor; and a few others. But we’re talking about doing it again next year, and I’m already looking forward to it.

As I think about our reunion, what strikes me most profoundly is not the achievements of the individuals in that class, not their dedication to their fields and their families—I expected nothing less from such bright and gifted students. Rather, I am taken aback by the sense of family that began in my classroom and matured and deepened over the years. Seeing these people interact like family —laughing, joking, teasing, celebrating, sharing—illustrated the long-held value at APU of community building. And while I know that similar relationships form in classrooms, residence halls, and small groups throughout campus every year, I am humbled and blessed to call this special group my family.

Originally published in the Fall '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.