How alumni active in their college can enhance the student experience and be a catalyst for increased institutional reputation

An edited version of this article was published as “Alumni can be the catalyst for college renewal” on page 7 of Issue 13 (Volume 49). This is the full version, originally delivered at the 2014 Collegiate Way Conference at Durham University, England.

alumni scarves

Photo by Jenny Fisher.

This paper will suggest opportunities for alumni to infuse their energy into college life with a view to enhancing the student experience and enhancing the reputation of the university.

Enhancement of college life addresses:

  • a strengthened sense of belonging;
  • students as future alumni;
  • informal vs. formal community interaction;
  • mentoring based on both life skills and career preparedness;
  • and a renewed academic environment, with partnerships between faculty, students and alumni that inclusively build the university’s intellectual capital.

Reputational outcomes will describe how the colleges can:

  • foster students as future ambassadors of the university and post-secondary education more broadly;
  • create an atmosphere to attract students;
  • strengthen the sense of town and gown; and
  • nurture the concept of lifelong learning.

The Literature

There is an impressive body of literature addressing the involvement of alumni with their alma mater. We read about institutional advancement and human capital. The literature deals primarily with alumni satisfaction, and with alumni as both fundraising targets and prominent and successful products of their alma mater.

The literature on university and alumni involvement also identifies and promotes universities’ sophisticated communication strategies to keep alumni informed with the expectation that they will become more engaged. These strategies are becoming even more effective as the strategic use of social media platforms grows more robust. Note that engagement retains a bias toward financial support.

But there is something missing. Simply stated, the research is virtually silent on how alumni interact in the life of their university. The future needs to endorse and champion opportunities for alumni to reengage with the university and to nourish not just the experience of current students but also a more integrated alumni, faculty and student experience. It needs to identify and build on opportunities for alumni in their alma mater as they progress through their life. And it needs to recognize the vested interest alumni have in the reputation and advancement of their university.

What is the Issue?

Alumni are a largely untapped resource for universities. The percentage of active alumni on a per-university basis may range from three to ten percent, and in Canada, where 4.7 million people hold university degrees, that is half a million people who have something to offer.

Maria Gallo, in an excellent article on alumni engagement, speaks to four phases in the life cycle of an alum: affiliation, affinity, engagement and support. The first two are normally passive stages, and the last two are active and potentially interactive.

This paper is about facing that challenge by forging the future of a college system through aggressive involvement of alumni as clients, suppliers, collaborators, partners, sponsors, volunteers and consultants. It is about establishing a vision for alumni involvement that is relevant, mutually beneficial and evergreen.

The College is the Future Vehicle

Nowhere can such a renewal – and sustainment – of involvement be accomplished better than at the college level. Why colleges? Because colleges, from the very beginning, provided a living and learning experience that underpins the institutional imperative of educating critical-thinking, politically active, globally aware and responsible citizens.

As one of our most prominent student leaders has said, the university is like the trunk of a tree, with the colleges forming our roots and the students who become alumni our branches.

Strong colleges, whether in a traditional collegiate university or not, are superior vehicles to provide a university with something badly needed … a sense of being different. Colleges that have a unique identity and provide the much needed balance of community and scholarship, academic and personal growth, will give any university a competitive advantage to attract prospective students.

A university with a robust college system is fundamentally different from a university without one. One of our international alumni wrote to me that “the college experience is a unique selling point. The relationship with my college is perhaps the most unique and important part of my undergraduate experience … alumni who can explain how unique the college system is to a prospective student are gold.”

The Vision or, why do we care so much?

My university is Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was modeled after Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and, yes, Durham, and it was based on a vision.

The founding president, Tom Symons, set out to establish a university that was like no other in Canada — a university designed, from the ground up, to express and embody the ideals of friendship and community. In all its academic, administrative, organizational and even architectural details, Trent University was conceived to fulfil the ancient ideal of a community of scholars, and to nourish the spirit of friendship that animates every true community.

Trent aimed to foster community and fellowship between students; between faculty; and, above all, between students and faculty. In its college system, Trent hoped to create communities where students and their teachers would not only learn together but also work, eat and live together, and develop conversations and relationships far beyond the classroom, and the narrow confine of individual disciplines and programs. In its emphasis on small-group teaching, Trent hoped to create and model genuine dialogue between students and between students and their teachers, the kind of dialogue on which all real learning depends.

This vision saw the use of gowns in all aspects of college and university life: worn to class, to dinner, on the streets. It promoted a sense of academic inclusion through the college common rooms, bolstered by the role of academic college dons, and featured colleges with an interactive residence life where first- through fourth-year students lived together. The result was a sense of community and belonging, loyalty, allegiance and identify that endures among graduates to this day.

What do Alumni Bring to the Table

A university alumni association – my alumni association – is a community of communities of diverse interest and experience:

  • international alumni
  • graduate student alumni
  • indigenous alumni
  • college-based alumni
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Questioning (LGBTQ) alumni
  • alumni affiliated with disciplines
  • alumni who were and are leaders
  • and finally, alumni whose careers were based on a style of learning and thinking and not just a specific discipline

Alumni communities are multi-faceted, multi-directional, and replete with post-university life experiences that need to be shared with current students.

A Changing College Model

The college model at Trent is in transition. As with the university, the model faces challenges providing an environment that responds to fiscal uncertainties, governmental interference and mandate, and a hugely competitive marketplace. The model is based on four functional pillars: sense of community; academic strength; life, learning and career skills building; and student support. The result will be a stronger college system more relevant in today’s environment. The challenge is how to do that and at the same time inculcate traditional values, the values alumni share with their alma mater and the values that will draw them back. As alumni it should be our legacy to facilitate and expedite that change.

Colleges will need to go beyond the safe house of brick and mortar buildings. Most students live off campus. A lot never live in residence and if they do, leave residence after one year. Trent was built and nurtured on the concept of town and gown, in a community that provided unconditional financial and emotional support. Can the college experience be restricted to an on-campus edifice? I would argue that a strong college has a visibility and presence both on- and off-campus that provides students as a community of learners with options to meet and dialogue on their own turf, in informal and formal settings optional to them. And alumni can help make that happen.

Where do alumni fit? What is the potential role of alumni in building a college environment, to help meet the needs and expectations of all students, including part-time students, off-campus and senior-year students, non-residential students and graduate students? And, more importantly, what’s in it for them?

Let’s look at four opportunities to be explored:

Intellectual Homecoming, or, alumni as clients

Alumni should not be expected just to give back; they should also be given an opportunity to benefit from an interactive and interdisciplinary college life … their college.5 It is not just about being asked to give a lecture, or lead a seminar or simply mingle with students. It is also about continuing education, being aware of what is happening at the college in all aspects and having the option to participate and, at the same time, reconnect with faculty. It is the opportunity for alumni to enjoy an intellectual, social, cultural and interactive homecoming.6 And, it promotes the sense of lifelong learning to current students who see alumni who continue to grow and use the college as one vehicle to do that

Mentorship, or alumni as suppliers and collaborators

At our last alumni council meeting on Nov. 1, we reviewed a number of goals and objectives for the next term. A constant theme resonated throughout every discussion as a powerful and achievable tool to capitalize on the potential of alumni. The theme was alumni as mentors. The discussion spoke to:

  • mentorship options with a reasonable structure that are broad-based, assisting in career preparedness, by relaying real life experience and showing what can be achieved by example,
  • mentorship that draws alumni back to their college to help students just like they were helped, to relive and revive our sustained commitment to social justice and the emergence of our graduates as influential global citizens.
  • Mentorship that follows the same pedagogical model of large-, medium- and small group teaching and individual supervision

Different communities of alumni bring different strengths. For example,

  • international alumni, including exchange student alumni, who bring a different perspective to the value of higher education
  • graduate student alumni, with a level of academic credibility not quite at the level of tenured faculty, but exemplary of what Trent students can achieve
  • indigenous alumni, ensuring that the culture and spiritual underpinnings of our first nations become part of a college-wide education

Event Planning, Communication and Management, or alumni as sponsors, volunteers, participants or consultants

Ensure that in the planning of college events, alumni are involved respecting the skills and commitment they will bring to any event, with articulated roles that are interactive but not interfering; as an example, on moving into residence day, alumni providing a reassuring welcome to parents who often look like deer in headlights, while the student begins to forge a new beginning as a collegian.

The College as a Virtual Gathering Place

Common rooms have always been the centre of activity. My brother, also a Trent alumnus, wrote this to me: “in the junior common room of life, we all have something to learn and the learning never stops. When we exchange what we learn and absorb the value of a world through others’ eyes, we grow.”

This suggests that we need to create a new strategy that:

  • rebrands and rekindles the sense of loyalty to draw alumni back, not on the basis of nostalgia but on the basis of the mutual benefit of giving back and receiving in return;
  • promotes a mix of formal and informal interaction between alumni, faculty and students, on- and off-campus, the idea of the porous classroom we heard yesterday.
  • respects and integrates a variety of alumni communities supporting multi-cultural and interdisciplinary interests;
  • revisits the benefits of an increased town and gown relationship with colleges taking a lead role as an integrated team; and
  • fosters students as future alumni and ambassadors for the university anywhere in the world, to promote the idea of an exceptional college-based experience in the minds of prospective students.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Can one university do this on its own? The answer is “no”. Rethinking the interaction of alumni in colleges is a relatively new challenge and certainly, my review of university alumni associations in Canada suggests that we are just now beginning to think through what is such a seminal task but, individually to this point.

I offer two overriding considerations, both collaborative opportunities and both mutually beneficial to alumni communities anywhere interested in becoming an interactive and integrated partner in the university they call their alma mater.

First, the opportunity to twin. Churches and cities twin, all around the world. There are synergies to be found by twinning alumni associations: college to college, university to university (and in particular collegial institutions). What a superb way to create a collaborative environment to build common plans and programs, share challenges and their resolution.

Second, the leadership that Durham University has shown in inaugurating this conference and, in fact, holding a specific session on alumni relations and involvement, deserves to be commended. I suggest that we establish an international working group on alumni involvement, perhaps as part of a future international association of collegiate universities.