Rethinking Effective Alumni Engagement


Rethinking Effective Alumni Engagement

November 3, 2015

The University of Arizona recently held its 101st Homecoming. It was a wonderful celebration of the UA community, and we welcomed many many alumni back to campus for the weekend. Early fall is homecoming season, and most other colleges and universities around the U.S. have likely held their events recently as well, so it is a good moment to reflect on the importance of alumni engagement and the relationship that alums have with their alma mater.

The next generation of University of Arizona alumni

Effective alumni engagement can be a challenge, partly because once students graduate and leave campus, they take on a whole host of new responsibilities that often occupy space in their lives once held by commitments on campus. At the UA, for instance, it has become apparent that we need to do a better job of creating a culture of alumni engagement while students are still here so that graduates know and feel that they are part of a broad community of learning even after they receive their degree. There is also the important question of alumni satisfaction, and we often focus on whether graduates feel that their education (and the money the invested in it) was “worth it.” This is a high stakes issue for many students and their families as well, as the impact of student debt on life choices can put pressure on whether a degree will open doors for post-baccalaureate success. The emphasis on student engagement at the UA and similar efforts at other universities helps to address this important concern before students graduate, but neither the degree nor the knowledge and experience it represents are guarantors of success. This poses a potential problem for universities because if student and alumni satisfaction is low, the argument goes, demand for the university or college will decrease, and monetary support will languish, and thus alumni satisfaction is an important indicator of a university’s success and effectiveness.

But universities are not factories and students (or their degrees) are not products. The relationship is much more complex than this, and alumni engagement that is effective and that meets the needs of both alums and the institution needs to be attuned to the impact that they have together. This perspective is sometimes obscured by the focus on alumni engagement understood in terms of contributions made to the institution (whether time, money, or other resources). As a result, even constructive efforts to create more effective and substantive alumni engagement can come across only as efforts to create more effective solicitation. As Ryan Catherwood argues, universities cannot have a “pay it back” mentality for their alums, who instead need to be engaged on their own terms, and not simply as resources to be solicited (“Three Paradigms for a Successful Alumni Engagement Strategy,” Alumni support and giving is indeed crucial to the success of a university, but if we focus only on encouraging alumni giving we miss the fact that alumni already contribute to the university in some really significant ways, not least of which is their ability to help drive achievement of the university’s mission by using their education to act in the world. By recognizing this implicit support for the university’s mission we can also give alums reasons for greater active engagement in the lives of current students and recent graduates.

So what alternatives are there?

Engaging alums on their own terms can mean remembering and recognizing that a university’s impact in the world comes in part through the success of its graduates. If student learning is a primary outcome for an educational institution, what students do with their knowledge, how they continue learning, and the innovations that they create in the world are important extensions of the university’s work. These contributions should be praised and emphasized, because the university exists largely for and because ofits students—past, present, and future. Alumni achievement is thus an important indicator of the success of the university’s educational mission. For instance, UA graduates make up a community of visionaries that has changed the world in significant ways. The recent discovery of water on Mars was made by former UA student Lujendra Ojha, who earned an undergraduate degree here and worked with Professor Alfred McEwen of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Principal Investigator of the HiRISE camera on the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which Ojha used to make the discovery. Ojha has said that his initial observation of dark streaks on the planet’s surface was “mostly accidental”. However, he has turned that (happy) accident into a potential career in planetary science and is earning a PhD in the Georgia Tech Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department. Thus, even if the confirmation of Ojha’s initial observation was not made here at the UA, his work is still creating world-changing impact in part because of his UA undergraduate education. While most alums are not going to make discoveries that change the way we understand our solar system, universities and colleges need to recognize how their success carries forward the mission and impact of our institutions even when it is made at other universities or in other settings. Because of this kind of potential, it is in each university and college’s best interest to continue engaging graduates. 

There are many different ways that universities can continue to support and engage alumni. For instance, the UA’s new Alumni Career and Professional Development lab is a means for member of the UA community to support each other’s career goals. In operation for around a year, the program allows alums to post jobs and to participate in webinars for professional development and networking. The UA Alumni Association also uses a social media hashtag, #HireACat, that it uses to promote Wildcats hiring Wildcats. One example of the success of these efforts is a new job for Raul Graciano ’15, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. Raul met Don Zipperian ’82 ’84 ’87, vice president of PACE Technologies, through an Alumni Association Career Lab meet-and-greet. Working at PACE Technologies—a Tucson-based metallography company—allows Graciano to apply his mechanical engineering degree as a product engineer, and both alums say that the meet-and-greet was a great way to make their connection when other outlets were turning up dead ends. 

When I speak at commencement, I often emphasize the potential that UA students have for leadership. Stories like Lujendra Ojha’s and Raul Graciano’s illustrate the importance of that mindset for alumni engagement as well. While the two stories are not necessarily unique to the UA—scientists commonly train at many different universities, often building an international scientific network that is crucial to the work they do, and networking opportunities for graduates is an important component of what many alumni associations do around the country—understanding and supporting the ways that alums carry out their individual potential is crucial for realizing the intergenerational potential of an institution with the reach and scope of the UA. In turn, with the kind of involvement that we see in Don Zipperian’s hiring of Raul Graciano, alumni have the ability to remain at the heart of the UA community, not just giving back, but taking an active, visible part in the life of the academic and professional community that enables the success of current students and that of alums as well.

Giving Alumni a Voice: The Importance of Tradition

While the UA looks toward the future it is also rooted in its past, and we should always be sure to look back to recognize the large community of past UA students who have contributed to this university and built it into what it is today. Local chapters of the UA Alumni Association, Homecoming, and alumni communications efforts like the Arizona Alumni magazine are important and not uncommon ways of encouraging alumni engagement. These and other means of talking with and listening to alums helps create an expansive, multigenerational community in which all members understand that they played a significant role in something much larger than only themselves—something that supported them from the past but that they also helped propel toward the future. (Indeed, a new interactive feature in The Chronicle of Higher Education points to the importance of campus traditions at colleges and universities across the country).

Equally important, alums are often among the best suited to advocate for the university, not because they are satisfied customers, but because they can still be part of the university’s community of learning and simultaneously be professional leaders in other areas of our society. Just as alumni success illustrates the importance of a university’s educational programs, their advocacy brings the impact of the institution to the attention of policy makers and the general public in a way that the university would not be able to do on its own.  A few recent efforts at the UA illustrate this means of engagement:

  • Cats at the Capitol: A showing of over 60 UA alumni at the Arizona State Capitol for Red and Blue Day during the 2015 legislative session allowed alums to connect with various legislators and members of the governor’s staff. Attendees were able to voice their concerns about the state of higher education and to advocate for the UA. Similar opportunities to talk with legislators about the UA and higher education were facilitated by Wildcat Wednesdays throughout the session. Building on this effort, the UA Alumni Association is planning a “Cats in the Capitol” Legislative Day for the start of the 2016 Arizona Legislative session to visibly demonstrate the support that the University has in the state and to let their representatives in the state legislature know that higher education is an important component of Arizona’s well-being.
  • Backyard BBQ’s: To continue building relationships with state legislators and connecting UA stakeholders to lawmakers, the UA’s Office of Government and Community Relations has been hosting events in the hometowns of legislators in conjunction with the Alumni Association. These events are designed to engage state leaders in their communities, outside of the environment of the capitol, and to highlight the UA’s presence and impact in communities around the state. These events capitalize on bringing area alumni together to engage with their legislators and to hear from UA leaders about the state of the University and how they can help advocate on its behalf.

These are just some examples of effective alumni engagement and some ways of thinking about the symbiotic relationship that alumni and their universities should have with one another. The research university as a community of learning is a unique kind of organization in our society and it creates a unique kind of intergenerational community where impact emerges from the shared space of tradition even if the participants in that tradition follow different life paths, identify with different communities and professions, and live in different places all over the world. Attending to the impact of that tradition as part of the university’s mission achievement, recognizing the contributions of alums, and encouraging their continued active participation in the life of the university are just some ways to begin rethinking and refashioning what alumni engagement is and can be.