The Quarterly’s student assistant reflects on the multigenerational relationships she’s forged and encountered at Mills in her final piece before graduating.
By Lila Goehring ’21
Mills friendships are a special kind of magic, one that is not dependent on age. I have found my home at Mills through students and alumnae who are twice or even three times my age. An alumna from the Class of 2012 recently told me that for the rest of my life, I’ll know a Mills person when I meet them. They’ll be the one in the room with a strong voice and a mind for justice. After four years, the College’s motto finally rings true: no matter the years between us, or our place in life, Mills people will always have a home with each other.
For me, multigenerational friendships are nothing new after growing up in a large, extended musical community with friends all across the country and the world. I’ve always had friends as young as five and as old as 85. Before I got to Mills, part of me even worried about fitting in with others my age. But my experiences here have transcended anything I ever thought of as “right.” My tight connections with older students and alumnae ensure that as I emerge into the real world, I’ll be surrounded by those who understand my story.
Finding My Crew
At this year’s Commencement, keynote speaker Alicia Garza—activist and co-founder of the national Black Lives Matter movement—encouraged us graduates to strive for justice in numbers. “You’ve met the people with whom you share passions and values. Hold them close, and grow your crew,” she said. “We are going to need each other.” We’ve taken her words to heart, especially while grappling with change within Mills.
Mills has gifted me a crew of my own. They fell right into my life a few months ago when the Mills transition was announced, and I suddenly found myself digitally surrounded by others who believed in the power of Mills and were living proof of it. It wasn’t long before we were on Zoom at all hours, long into the night and with Mills on our minds first thing in the morning. As of press time, the meetings are still frequent and alive with passion. I’ll be lucky if I ever work with a team as powerful—leaderful, as one member described it—again in my whole life. I could not be prouder to work every day among students and alumnae who won’t give up. They’re the faces I see every day and the voices I will hear for the rest of my life if I ever doubt myself.
Connection has been tried over this past year of isolation—and in some cases, extreme closeness. We have all had to stay at home and stay apart out of love, to keep each other alive. I have heard time and time again that college kids have it the worst—those whose lives are just beginning, who are dying to find our places in the world and have been forced to sit still. Still, I have tried to see the bright side even when it’s cloudy. Yes, I wasn’t able to experience my senior year on campus or have a full in-person Commencement, but the pieces that have fallen out of place this year may have landed just right. Yes, the future of Mills College could break all of our hearts. But in a bittersweet way, I have been gifted with a poignant and meaningful Mills experience. I am leaving the College at a moment when decades of alumnae are rising up to speak about what it means to them.
My daily connection with these alumnae have shown me a perspective that may have not have come until years later—in a room full of men when I’d innately know how to stand my ground, or in a group of activists where I’d feel at home—when I’d have my Mills experience put into focus. I get it right now. “Mills is the place where we learned to be,” an alumna from the Class of 2011 once said.
This group of activists has expanded my extended family and has showcased not only what Mills people are capable of, but that a Mills education is a lifelong commitment to our College and to justice. They’ve spoken aloud what was always true—that my voice matters, that my ideas are powerful, and that I am more than capable. But they’ve also taken care of me: they’ve showered me with care packages and made sure I was well-fed with my favorite takeout dinners during finals. They’ve become the family that I can’t wait to meet in real life. I will never forget their relentless love and the ways it kept me afloat when the world was falling apart.
Decades Apart with Una Destinatio
While walking through Sage Hall during my second year, my own name caught my eye outside an office. The staff member inside it—Lila Abdul-Rahim ’80—confirmed that her name was pronounced like mine (a.k.a., correctly), and it wasn’t long before we were regularly emailing and meeting in the Tea Shop for lunch. I had never met anyone with my name, and have only come to love it even more since coming to love my friend Lila.
It was clear from the beginning that she was a soulmate of sorts, and not just because we both existed in this world with a shared name. Our conversation topics quickly descended into the deeply existential, and still do to this day: we talk about trees, the shakiness that accompanies mortality, and the understandable stubbornness that occurs as we age, to name a few.
We talk about Mills: what has changed since 1980, what has stayed the same, and the unwavering love we share for this place that brought me across the country and brought her back after four decades. But Lila advises me in practical ways: How should I find my first job? What are the sacrifices worth making in a shared housing situation? What color of this Madewell jacket should I pick? She’s a mentor only because she’s seen it all. Otherwise, the 40 years between us mean nothing as we sit across the table from one another and shop for produce at the Mills Farm Stand each Tuesday.
Despite the strong voice gifted to me by Mills and my friendship with Lila, I wasn’t sure I had done college right as I neared my final year. I didn’t think I would walk away from Mills with a friend in my class, but wondered deep down if I still could. And then COVID happened, and suddenly Mills became scattered, with hardly any students on campus and classes reduced to Brady Bunch-esque Zoom quilts. At first, it was draining—and the time in real life, with chances to get to know my classmates on walks to the Tea Shop and in the library, had seemingly disappeared. It was just the beginning of all there was to mourn.
And then, thanks to distance learning, along came Erica MacKinnon ’21. Twenty years after leaving the College, she had returned to Mills to finish her degree while attending remotely from Detroit. Neither of us were sure how well the spirit of Mills would translate over the ether of the online, and to this day, Erica has no proof that I’m more than a head and shoulders. But I remember our beginning clearly: We met in a Zoom class, and our friendship burst to life like at summer camp: easy, all at once, I-feel-like-I’ve-known-you-forever style. We sent direct messages on Zoom like kids passing notes, and I watched her smile at my words in real time, 2,100 miles away.
Because life is best done out of order, Erica has become the college friend I’ve always needed. We made up for the lost time as private Zoom chats turned into texts, and soon we were talking on the phone for hours as if we were in the Mills Hall living room or tucked into the library. Now, we spend hours each day working alongside members of the Mills community who love this school as much as we do, who would all like to imagine its continuation long into the future. Though I forget the years that sit between us, my friendships with Erica and countless alumnae make visible a perspective I would not have gotten until long after my time here. During Reunion 2019, I hosted a dorm reception for the Class of 1969 as part of my job with the Office of Institutional Advancement, and I will always remember one alumna approaching me as she wrote a letter to the current residents of Orchard Meadow. “Would it be strange to tell them that they’ll dream about this place for the rest of their lives?” she asked.
Mills belongs to all of us. It’s the place where we learned to be, where we found our voices, and—if we were lucky—where we found our soulmates. Because of Mills, I now have a second extended family. They say the buildings at Mills are full of ghosts, but rather than scary, I like to think they are the ghosts of 17 decades of great love. “You all have always been with me,” I told another alumna and new extended family member after Commencement. Her response? “And always will be.”