ALTF Student Success Series | Beyond Time, Talent and Treasure: The case for transforming alumni engagement in Australia

1st April 2019

Student success blog

As part of our Student Success Blog series, ALT Fellows contribute to the conversation on sector wide issues around student success in higher education. In our latest post, Professor Jessica Vanderlelie shares her insights on transforming alumni engagement in Australia.


As thousands of new students start their degrees at universities across the country, graduates from the 2018 cohort, are finding their way in a world vastly different from the campus they called home. The graduate transition is arguably the most daunting and laden with expectation. As Katherine Schwarzenegger so aptly wrote in her 2014 book, I Just Graduated Now What?(Pp. 5).

“There were no feelings of great elation or relief among the many hugs and cheers. Instead, there was a feeling of total panic and paralyzing fear of the unknown. Picture a frozen smile on the outside melting into panic on the inside. Of course I was happy to be done with school, but I was in an unexpected state of shock. Every hug and congratulations on my graduation was complete with the question “What’s next?” The ink wasn’t even dry on my diploma”.

Indeed, you only have to mingle at a graduation ceremony to hear that age-old question and see the looks of apprehension on the faces of new graduates as they walk across the stage. It is at these same ceremonies that you may also notice the looks of satisfaction and a ‘job well done’ on the faces of the academics on stage.  These staff played a vitally important role by not only sharing their knowledge, but by creating the kind of student experience that lays the foundation for a vibrant alumni community.

The connection between a supportive student experience and successful alumni engagement is something well known to our Alumni Professionals (Button-Renz, 2010), yet the rest of the sector is only beginning to connect the two. All universities place significant emphasis on building a supportive and engaging student experience, and the relationships academics build with their students are key to these efforts. Yet when it comes to engaging with our alumni, the power of these relationships is often undervalued by academics, or worse yet, allowed to lapse as time from graduation extends. If we are to transform the ways in which we engage with our alumni, it is imperative thatacademic staff continue to play a role in developing and maintaining connection to our graduates.

The barriers that make it difficult for academic staff to continue to engage with alumni include workload, inability to maintain connection and a perceived lack of support from the central Alumni Office. These factors are real, though the biggest barrier to engaging with alumni is historical. You only have to look to the United States to see a vastly different model for alumni engagement. Every student on the campus knows they are an alumnus, as do their families – and they have a T-shirt to prove it. When we return our gaze to Australia the significant number of first generation students in our universities and a different culture around philanthropy, means our academics themselves may not have a strong understanding of the value of being an alumnus.  A quick poll of colleagues down your own corridor, will reveal statistics similar to those robustly measured by the Barometer of Alumni Sentiment, that less than 20% of alumni remain connected to their institution.

To strengthen our connection with alumni, I believe we need to consider the ‘world’ of a new graduate, challenge our notions of having ‘done our job’ at graduation and facilitate connection beyond our requests for time, talent and treasure.

Through my National Learning and Teaching Fellowship I explored the challenges facing academic staff and alumni professionals when engaging alumni and developed the Engaging Alumni for Employability Good Practice Guides. These guides offer insights to where we are going wrong and what can we do, the top three insights are detailed below.

Issue 1 – We’re waiting too long

Often, in institutions across the country, the first explicit reference to the word alumni occurs during the graduation ceremony. When we consider that over 50% of students are the first in their families to come to university, we are missing an important opportunity to help our students understand the benefits of remaining connected to their university and the vast network of alumni they are connected to across the globe.

Solution– Begin talking about what it means to be an alumnus from orientation and provide opportunities for students to connect with alumni across their degree. This will ensure that students see the value in the alumni network and develop the confidence to draw upon this important connection to industry.

 

Issue 2 – We let them go

Students develop strong connections to their School and academic staff during their studies. The importance of maintaining these relationships is often lost by Schools as they work with their current cohorts and shift the responsibility for maintaining connection with alumni to the Alumni Office.

Solution– Encourage the formation of discipline specific alumni networks that are connected to the larger alumni network. This allows graduates to maintain easy connection to academic staff and students and sends a strong message to alumni that the University is committed to maintaining a relationship beyond requests for money.

 

Issue 3 – We keep secret lists

Academics play a fundamental role in supporting a thriving and sustainable alumni community, however few of those interviewed during the Fellowship were working closely with their Alumni Office. Worse still, the majority kept their own secret list of alumni, separate to those maintained by the Alumni Office. Ad hoc engagement practices increase the risk of overburdening alumni and damaging these important relationships.

Solution– Support academic staff to work in close partnership with the Alumni Office and provide professional development opportunities for academics in relationship management, event planning and online networking.

Alumni engagement is not rocket science, it is about developing authentic and meaningful relationships. By building stronger connection with alumni, we have the power to enrich curriculum with the voices of ‘those that have gone before’, support our students to understand what it means to be an alumnus and offer alumni a rewarding opportunity to contribute to the development of current students.  In return we will unlock their intelligences to support the curriculum and enrich employability initiatives, ensuring graduate capabilities in future cohorts.

To find out more about the Fellowship and to access the Good Practice Guides visit the Fellowship website www.engagingalumni.com.

 


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Professor Jessica Vanderlelie is the inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Success at La Trobe University. Jessica is a passionate academic that has been recognised for her expertise in Biochemistry and supporting the student experience.  In 2012 Jessica was awarded the Australian Award for University Teaching (early career) and in 2015 began her National Learning and Teaching Fellowship titled Engaging Alumni for Student and Graduate Success. Jessica’s leadership in higher education is widely regarded and she recently received the 2018 AFR Emerging Leader Award in recognition of her leadership and innovative approaches to supporting student transition and graduate success.