International alumni relations: one size fits all?

International alumni relations: one size fits all?

The university is like an onion, and at the centre of this onion lies the alumni. Each ring of the onion has some relationship to the whole, and each ring represents the various parts of the university, all of which have an interest in a relationship with the alumni. At the core is the individual alumnus’ personal relationship to the institution. With this metaphor in mind, is it possible to create one alumni strategy that fits all?

Differing viewpoints

The individual student or alumnus has a unique relationship with his or her university. The alumnus views the relationship with the university as a personal, bi-lateral relationship. The student/alumnus believes that any person that he or she speaks with and who works for the university is ‘the university’.

The university, on the other hand, tends to group students and alumni into categories. To some degree, the university views them in a stereotypical way and almost as a third person pronoun, ie ‘the students’ or ‘the alumni’. In reality, the alumni group is made up of individuals who often times resent stereotypical classification. Using the onion analogy, each ring of the onion represents a certain constituency or interest of the institution, with each successive ring encompassing a larger group of constituents.

This short video from King’s University College in Edmonton, Canada introduces the concept of alumni relations to its alumni constituency. Alumni Manager, Josh Noble, presents the video. He is explaining his role and the role of an alumni relations programme within the college. Josh begins by stating that alumni relations is about events and tracking alumni. I would posit that it is so much more. Those engaged in developing good alumni relations are really about reinforcing the institutional mission and values.

Just to put this in context, King’s University College is an independent college of 700 students from across Canada and 16 other countries. It is a Baccalaureate institution, teaching from the Christian perspective. I use King’s as an example to explain the cultural and institutional contexts of alumni relations and why one size does not fit all alumni.

Cultural and institutional contexts

The King’s University College video mentions several institutional contexts for the alumni relations programme. The concept of alma mater is introduced, or ‘nurturing mother’. The college remains interested and concerned about its alumni after they complete their studies at the institution. The relationship is a lifelong one. Most colleges and universities, when speaking of themselves in relationship to alumni especially refer to themselves as alma mater. In the King’s University College instance, the institutional values of education, faith and the relationship of one generation to the next are highlighted.

The cultural and institutional contexts become the platform on which alumni programmes are built. In the case of King’s University College, the events that Josh describes provide a reflection of the values of King’s University College. The institution desires a lifelong relationship and is concerned about the welfare of its students and alumni, as a nurturing mother would be.

Josh also describes the events that the alumni relations’ office sponsors for King’s alumni. These events also reflect the values of the institution. When dealing with international alumni in particular, it is important to recall why the alumnus came to the institution in the first place – to experience the cultural and institutional values of the institution. The alumni events used to attract international alumni should reflect institutional values while being respectful of the values of the alumni’s home countries.

The whole onion

Each part of the university has an interest in a relationship with alumni. Using the onion metaphor, the closer to the centre of the onion, the more intimate the relationship with the alumnus. The significance of the rings of the onion is determined by the alumnus. The importance of the relationship of the university to the alumnus is a given. How that relationship develops is determined by components of the university.

The closest relationships of the alumnus are often times with members of the faculty from the academic programme studied. Other relationships that could also be important to the alumnus include the advisers from the international office.

Extra-curricular activities can also be an important ring in the onion. Twenty-five years ago at my alma mater, Bridgewater State University, when I was serving as Director of Alumni Relations, I helped to form the Alumni Chamber Choir. This alumni group celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. It is comprised of alumni who were members of the university’s choral society as undergraduates. Most of them were not music majors, but were brought together by the love of choral music.

The concept of ‘mattering’

Alumni want to know that they matter. It is a fundamental human need. A ‘nourishing mother’ shows that her offspring matter. The alumnus views the university as the other half of a bi-lateral relationship. It is not unusual for an alumnus to give credit for his or her success to the university. Alumni activities often reinforce the concept that alumni matter to the university. Alumni awards programmes, features in alumni magazines, invitations to significant university events all support the idea that alumni matter to the university.

The concept of mattering transcends cultures. It may be expressed in different ways and different degrees of intensity. It is important to determine, in the case of international alumni, how mattering is expressed in their culture or offered in the home culture of the university. At the end of the day, we all want to know that our existence on this planet mattered. The attainment of a college or university degree is among the most valued indicators of mattering. Alumni want to celebrate their achievement.

To the question of one size fits all for alumni relations programmes, there are two viewpoints: the viewpoint of the university which looks at alumni as a constituency and in a somewhat stereotypical way, and the viewpoint of the alumnus which views the relationship as bi-lateral and personal. Each person who works for the university is ‘the university’ to the alumnus. Alumni may attend events and programmes, but they want to know that their attendance is important to the university. That it matters.

By Philip A. Conroy, Jr., Ed.D., INTAL Steering Committee

If you’re interested in finding out more about alumni relations, take a look at the upcoming Academy course, ‘Alumni relations from A to Z’ taking place in April.