Ask an Alum: Building Communities in Uncertain Times

Cap and Gown Ask an Alum Series #3,  June 11, 2020

Building Communities in Uncertain Times

by Ellen Merrick Petrill, ’77, ’78

On June 11, 2020, Stanford Cap and Gown invited members and guests to join the final of three virtual events in our Ask and Alum series.  This event focused on building community, featuring Negin Behzadian, ’17, MS 18, Vinita Kailasanath,BA MS  ’04, JD ’10, and Beppie Weintz Cerf, ’79.  Over 45 people participated to hear about building community and joined in breakouts to share their questions and experiences.  


In this event, these Cap and Gown leaders exemplified how each of us find our way to make a difference in our surroundings by building community.  They talked about finding community, building work relationships, being intentional, and using social media apps.  Breakout groups met afterward and shared experiences and discussed opportunities with each other.  The participants of this Ask an Alum event each took away examples of how they could make a difference in their communities as well. 


About our alumnae speakers:

Negin, BS Bioengineering ’17, MS Electrical and Electronics Engineering ’18, now living in the Los Angeles area, is an Electrical Engineer focusing on streamlining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) conditional labeling of cardiac implantable medical devices at Abbott Labs, building on research and experience at GE and Stanford in medical devices and medical imaging physics and engineering.  





Vinita, BA Human Biology ’04, MA Biological Sciences ’04, JD ’10, mother of two and living in Palo Alto, is a Partner with law firm Arnold & Porter, focusing on commercialization and protection of intellectual property, data and technology-driven transactions for leading and emerging companies. 









Beppie, BA Communication ’79, mother of four and living in San Carlos, CA, is a devoted volunteer and grandmother of five.  






Where and how do you find community?

Negin:  Negin graduated and moved to Milwaukee, WI then to Phoenix, AZ where in both places, she knew no one.  At first, Negin sought people who looked like her, attended Stanford or similar caliber schools, or were interested in engineering.  Negin found few; none led to on-going relationships.  Then, Negin took stock in what matters to her and what gives her personal fulfillment.  Through a roommate, she found Beyond STEM in Milwaukee, an organization working to expose and inspire children in communities under-represented in STEM professions. Through this connection, Negin gained personal fulfillment and made new friends that led to deeper relationships.  When Negin moved to Arizona, she found a similar way to reach others through friendship and mentorship.

Vinita:  With two little ones, her husband, and just becoming partner in her law firm, Vinita found her world small.  When the pandemic shelter-in-place happened, she thought, “Who has time to bake bread?” As a new partner in her law firm and a new mom, Vinita finds that she is being looked to as a role model. This connection has expanded her community and given her a voice in her firm’s robust diversity & inclusion efforts  to recognize the different needs and goals for each community.

Beppie:  Beppie and her family moved 14 times since she graduated 40 years ago.  She tapped into her “inner freshman” when meeting new people, asking basic questions like, “Where do you live, where did you grow up, do you know…?” Carol Benz’s mom, Kay Benz, a mentor to Beppie, encouraged Beppie in her new environment to “accept every invitation you receive,” at least for a year or two, and then decide which events and groups to devote more time to.  Beppie didn’t always put that advice into action but found it helpful to say yes, and also learned to say no.  Beppie found friends in the parents of her kids’ friends.  Beppie noted, “You have to work to make the connections, especially when they ride a school bus to school, which is very isolating. Value that school directory and call the friend’s parents to set up playdates.” Beppie was a leader in Junior League in Southern California before kids, where she appreciated the connection with women. She continued to connect with women through Junior League in each of her moves.  When she moved back to the Bay Area, Beppie reconnected with Cap and Gown and especially enjoys the robust, multi-generational community, from students to alums of all ages.  Video conferencing is the saving grace of the COVID era, enabling connecting with friends and family no matter where we live.


Have you built community through the workplace?  How does that work?

Vinita:  “At work, my role has changed over time and now as partner, I can serve as a sounding board and advocate where I was the beneficiary in the past.  The multi-generational relationships at work and outside work in organizations like Cap and Gown can bring perspectives that help me address different outlooks, like cynicism.  They also offer the opportunity for me to serve as a conduit between different career stages in the organization, to help bring understanding among the different stages.  Technology helps bring different generations together as never before.”

Negin: Because of the built-in mutual interests and goals from working on projects together, Negin found the work community natural.  Plus, Negin joined nearly every affinity group at GE.  “While I may not accept every invitation as Beppie recommends, I am good at sending out invitations. I value my communities for the different things they give me – you don’t get everything from one.” Negin went further than just joining organizations; she became the connector, bringing groups together to expand conversations around diversity and inclusion to achieve more than what an individual affinity group could achieve.  She told us, “I am helping to balance voices, so that everyone can be heard, and diversity and inclusion are prioritized.”  Negin urged that these actions should not only come top down, but bottom up as well.  


When did community come naturally and when did you need to be more intentional?

Beppie:  A difficult move was to Concord, Mass, when I was 8 months pregnant with our fourth child.  I didn’t know a soul and was just trying to get by with three kids under age 6.  When we moved away just 9 months later, neighbors said, “You’re moving already?  I was planning to get to know you in 10 years.”  What?  That culture makes it hard to make friends!  Beppie’s advice:  “Never say you’re just temporary in a new town or they will write you off immediately as not worth getting to know.”  Especially in New England, it seems.


In their last move back to California, kids grown, Beppie became intentional about community.  She reached out to the Stanford community, including Cap and Gown.  Also, after being broken into, Beppie started Neighborhood Watch in her neighborhood.  “Through Neighborhood Watch and people hanging out on their front lawns during COVID, we’ve gotten to know our neighbors.  Another silver lining (along with video connecting) of COVID.” 


What is your favorite social media app for staying in touch with family and friends?

Beppie:  Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom.

Negin:  Instagram and Cardinal Circle, where Stanford people with similar interests or experiences can connect.  Monthly Zoom gatherings with friends, with whom we keep each other accountable with respect to current issues and our collective responsibility as leaders and members of various communities.

Vinita:  Not on social media, but connecting via Zoom with my law school class for our 10th reunion year.  



After the speakers, participants joined breakout groups to meet other Cap and Gown members and guests to share what community means to each of us, what speaker advice and tips held most value, and ideas on how to connect with others. 

The Ask an Alum Series was organized and implemented by Cap and Gown Board members Eleanor Walker, ’15 and Nancy Wenke Price, ’80, and Board president Carol Benz, ’85.