‘Tis the season of graduations and reunions. With all these reminders around me (particularly from friends on Facebook), I thought I would put my 2 cents in re: the alumni experience. I am very proud to be part of the academic communities that nurtured my development. After all, they chose me and I chose them. When I was enrolled, I was fully engaged and involved beyond academics, whether it was in extracurricular activities or in building great relationships with professors and classmates. Graduation was fun too, a wonderful ritual to mark the achievement of an important milestone. The speeches were always meant to be inspirational. I love to watch or read graduation speeches from time to time to get a dose of motivation. In fact, I’ve blogged about it before.
The experience as an alumna, however, has been less than ideal. As much as I have wanted to remain connected post-graduation, my relationship with my alma maters has been superficial, based only on a few transactions over the years. The only touch points have been through newsletters and social media updates (mostly one way), and almost always around the topic of fundraising. I get it—it’s expensive to run schools, and tough to fund scholarships for worthy students. I have written donation checks, on and off, here and there. Every time I gave money, the next appeal was for even more. This was a big turn off for me. I think many schools (like my own) have not given enough thought to the alumni experience. If they did, donations would come in more easily, I predict. Not every alum wants a relationship with their schools, but some people (like me) would love one. So, as always I am here with my two cents on how to improve the alumni experience.
1. Engage with alumni. What I mean by this is to have a real relationship. Get to know people and leverage what they are doing. Ensure they know the school (as in the students, administrators, professors, or at least the alumni office). Since going independent, I’ve had less flexibility with my finances. However, given my background, I have offered my services in lieu of donation. For example, last year was a reunion year for me. As I planned on attending, I offered to volunteer as a coach for the 1-1 career development sessions. I was ignored. No “yes, please” or “no thank you.” Nothing. Then I heard that the sessions were overbooked with not enough slots for people that wanted them. That made me upset enough to raise a concern during reunion to one of my class officers, who introduced me to the staff from the alumni (ahem, fundraising) office who were polite, but did not follow up. This spring, I received numerous calls from the alumni office for donations. When we finally connected live, I asked if there was a way for me to provide some feedback before considering my donation for this year. A supervisor sent me an e-mail telling me to call the different offices on campus, putting the onus (again) on me. I haven’t found the time to call. Consider this blog posting as my feedback. Earlier this month, I tweeted about Stanford’s d.school study on reimagining the undergraduate education experience and suggested that it could extend to the alumni experience. I tagged both my schools offering to help with it. No response. Surely someone at the school would want to engage with me, but I don’t know them yet. If I were on the other side, I would make sure I connected with alums whether they were big donors or not, and especially when they reached out.
2. Develop a “helping culture” amongst alumnus and the school. There are some companies who have strong alumni networks, particularly among the big consulting firms. They do a better job than most schools do. My rationale is this: If alums are accustomed to receiving help from their school and helping each other based on their association with the school, then they would be more willing to help the school when needed. A few months ago, I sent an e-mail introducing a fellow alum to someone in her field, offering them a network connection with a former international business executive. I asked to keep them in mind should any partnership opportunities arise. There was no response. When I attended an alumni event a couple of months later, I approached her and mentioned the e-mail. Her response was a curt, “I don’t get involved with recruiting.” I replied, “Well, I thought it would be good for you to know this person if you ever had a business need.” I walked away, surprised at her rudeness. She just declined a great network connection. A helping culture would compel alums to respond to network requests.
Schools, you start this culture by helping others first. I have found that doing so builds good karma, whether or not the people you help are grateful. When I help people, I do so without expectation of payment or return. I encourage people to pay it forward to others. In doing so, you not only build good will among people, but a good reputation, and a willingness for others to help you when you need it. Schools can build this from scratch, starting with a few people and building from there. As long as effort and expectations to help are sustained, a new norm can be supported. Everyone wins in a helping culture.
3. Evolve and Innovate in partnership with alums. The business of education has become tougher and more challenging. In addition to financial concerns, there is the challenge of educating students to be the leaders and workers needed in the future. In order to do this, a school must anticipate future needs. Technology has enabled learning to happen in various ways through different channels, but schools have been slow to adapt. Many schools have sequestered themselves from these challenges and continued on with their heads in the sand. Instead, they should be connecting with the outside world. The easiest way to do this is through their alumni. Stanford University does a great job of this, partnering with and even sponsoring startup companies through their alums and others. Their website boasts of over 6,000 companies “founded by members of the Stanford University community…Companies such as Cisco Systems, Google, H-P, Sun Microsystems and Yahoo!” More schools should be partnering with the outside world to continuously improve their education experience and to sponsor intellectual pursuits that lead to innovation. “Change or die” has become quite apropos for many institutions of higher education. Many schools have closed, lost accreditations, or dried out their endowments. The schools that survive and build their reputations are the ones that are paying attention and dedicating effort into this.
A good place to start would be to examine the alumni experience, beginning with the senior year of school. I think once schools start to see things from the alumni point of view, they might find some learning for themselves.
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