The Ties That Bind

Embracing Susquehanna for a Lifetime

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A panel discussion on the future of the financial services industry, presented to an audience of business students and faculty at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2009, was a prime example of alumni engagement.

ALUMNI AS INSTITUTIONAL ASSETS

How colleges and universities think about their alumni is evolving. Gone are the days when the alumni magazine was the sole source of fresh news about the college and its graduates. Today we can get news to you via the website or SUBridge, the online alumni community with more than 7,500 subscribers. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter provide updates about events and upcoming programs.

Now opportunities for connection are seen as broader and ideally enduring. A 2004 study, titled “The Scenes of Their Youthful Studies: The Next Era in Alumni Relations at the University of Virginia,” recommended:

… a new kind of University-alumni partnership that will continue to educate alumni well beyond their time on Grounds, will enable the University to tap into alumni skills and expertise, will provide a greater sense of community among alumni, and will make all alumni aware that they are critical stakeholders in their university’s future.

Recognized as a leader in this model of wider alumni engagement and connections, Stanford University reinvented itself in the late 1990s around more systematic relationship investment in its graduates. Over a five-year period ending in 2003, Stanford saw dramatic increases in all its benchmark comparison categories:

  • An increase, from 59 percent in 1998 to 72 percent in 2002, in alumni who rated service(s) provided via the alumni program(s) as excellent or good; and
  • An increase, from 37 percent to 55 percent over the same period, in alumni grading Stanford as good to excellent in providing attractive ways to volunteer.

Susquehanna’s Alumni Association Executive Board also has embraced this approach and since 2007 has been building structure around key activities to draw in more alumni through (1) development of regional chapter programs (seven now in existence); (2) more robust career and professional links between alumni and students, including Alumni Connect; and (3) improved communications featuring the SUBridge online alumni community. The alumni board has also promoted non-class-based connections around common SU activities and affinities through the emergent Spring Fling Weekend, which, for example, attracted 125 former and current students and colleagues of Professor of Physics Fred Grosse to campus to celebrate his 50th anniversary teaching at Susquehanna.

“Everybody wins if it’s working well,” says Jeff Morgan ’82, president of the SU Alumni Association and chief executive officer of the National Investor Relations Institute, a 4,300-member professional organization with 33 regional chapters across the United States. “Each Susquehanna alum has something of value to offer, and the university has a lot to offer to us. As we continue to develop the outlets and opportunities for connecting, we’ll all be better served, whether we’re 22 years old or 90.”

 

BUILDING A CULTURE

 

“Susquehanna for a lifetime” is becoming a curriculum of sorts for students during their four years at SU. Since 2007, faculty, coaches, staff and alumni have been teaching students what it means to be connected to SU for a lifetime. We want alumni to return to campus and connect with students to help show them that “this is what SU alumni do.” During the last three years, we’ve asked alumni to come and have lunch with four or five students “on us,” which usually means over Bongo Bongo dip at BJ’s. Once we know an alum is coming, we ask campus colleagues to recommend students who would be a good match. And off they go.

“It’s great for students and enjoyable and meaningful for the alum,” Deitrick says. “Almost always, business cards get passed or e-mail addresses get exchanged, and the network grows.” The work done by Bob ’69 and Carol Scherb ’70 Ray with the Alumni Connect program has resulted in great connections between individual students and alumni around career advising, providing geographically distant alumni a chance to make valuable connections with students.

We ask graduates in their first four years away from Susquehanna to do easy things to stay tied to SU. For instance, I have challenged young alumni to identify and recruit one new applicant for us during their first year out of college. I tell them, “You know Susquehanna better than any other alumni right now, and you should be able to identify a high school junior or senior whom you know would benefit from coming here.” We see broad value in the title of our spring 2010 giving campaign Every1Counts (E1C). “E1C represents a pathway for each Susquehanna degree holder to do a meaningful thing that can help Susquehanna and that can also be good and valuable for individual SU grads,” Deitrick says.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

“Susquehanna University’s continued success will depend heavily on our ability to engage alumni as active members of our community. Alumni can play vital roles in recruiting students, assisting them and each other through alumni career networking, serving as champions in institutional reputation-building, and providing significant financial support through philanthropy.”
—“Susquehanna University: Toward a Sustainable Future”
2010−2015 Strategic Plan

A key priority of the university’s strategic plan is to build better alumni connections over the next several years. Ownership of this goal by the Board of Trustees and senior staff of the institution should send a strong signal—we seek to extend Susquehanna’s reach and influence through those who know it best. The culture won’t be built overnight, but the message is clear: Alumni must be important contributors to Susquehanna in a variety of ways if the university is to compete well in the future.

Faculty, coaches and staff hold the keys to success. They are the developers and holders of relationships that carry from freshman year to long after graduation. Susquehanna has for years benefited from a shared responsibility for student recruitment. No matter what you do at the university, you play a role in helping to bring the next class of students through the door. The same philosophy applies to preparing students for their role as alumni.

It’s a philosophy that, put into action, begins with a handshake and leads to deeper bonds. And that is really our goal. As more handshakes happen between students, faculty, staff and alumni, more good comes to the individuals and to the university.

“The way I see it, when you’re in a position to put your hand out because you need something—and you get pulled along—it creates in you a desire to pay it back,” says R.J. Martucci, who also serves as president of Susquehanna’s Washington, D.C., regional alumni chapter. “You want to pull the next one forward when you get the chance.”

Your opinions are important to us. Please send your comments, questions and ideas to Ron Cohen at cohen@susqu.edu.

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