Institutions across the U.S. identified and are now reaping the benefits of greater collaboration between alumni relations and career services. CampusTap spoke to this trend when it was in relative infancy back in the spring and summer of 2016, and since then colleges and universities are increasingly merging alumni relations and career services.
Jeff Lugowe, Alumni Relations Coordinator at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) in Norway, recognized the benefits of integrating alumni relations and career services. He’s incorporated best practices utilized by his U.S. peers to help HiOA reconnect with alumni and dramatically expand a pool of contactable, engaged alumni who take part in career-related initiatives.
As a U.S. transplant who’s love for Europe has led him down an interesting and exciting path, Lugowe has a unique personal and professional story to tell. CampusTap caught up with Lugowe to discover what led to his career in Norway following his education at Brown University and Harvard University. Along the way, he also shares how he handles communicating with and managing the data of 4,000 new graduates each year, how his U.S. counterparts have helped him succeed, and the greatest successes HiOA has experienced integrating his work into career services.
CampusTap: Could you provide some background on your current role, as well as the experiences that led you to a position working overseas in Norway?
Jeff Lugowe: I came to Norway on a Fulbright scholarship after graduating from Brown University with a degree in Slavic Studies in 2007. I had always been fascinated by Europe and studied abroad twice as an undergrad (in Krakow, Poland and in Prague, Czechia) in Central/Eastern Europe. I didn’t have any concrete idea of what I wanted to do post-graduation, but knew I wasn’t done getting to know Europe. When I found a way to leverage my Polish language skills in Norway (ask me sometime how exactly I made that happen), I jumped at the chance. One year in Norway turned into a full-time job, another job, and finally my current job. I’ve now been in Norway for eight of the past 10 years, interrupted only by a master’s degree back in the US.
When the newly-created position of Alumni Relations Coordinator for Norway’s largest university college made it onto my radar, I knew I had to apply. The opportunity to build something from scratch that would create value for a big, important educational institution was too exciting to pass up. Though being American was not explicitly given as a desired qualification, it gave me a huge leg-up during the interview process to be able to refer to specific alumni engagement initiatives I had firsthand experience with as an alumnus of Brown and Harvard.
CT: What was the initial impetus behind HiOA’s decision to initiate the new alumni relations operation to re-engage university alumni?
JL: The impetus for investing in alumni relations was two-fold: 1) Strengthened relations with alumni was seen as supporting other ongoing initiatives. Examples include strengthening our institution’s reputation, increasing applications to our MA and continuing education programs, and supporting students’ employability; and 2) Other leading Norwegian (and Scandinavian) institutions of higher education had also begun prioritizing alumni relations and HiOA didn’t want to miss the boat.
HiOA is the product of a number of mergers of smaller pre-professional colleges, culminating in the merger of two large colleges in 2011. We have a strong pre-professional identity and are home to Norway’s most prominent nursing and teacher education programs, an iconic journalism school and a wide range of other programs. This pre-professional identity and the fact that our student body is largely drawn from Oslo and its suburbs meant that many of my colleagues were skeptical that we would be able to infuse a sense of alumni identity in our graduates — a skepticism I have worked hard to confront.
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CT: What strategies and tactics have you implemented to connect with HiOA alumni? How do you engage with an alumni base that is growing by 4,000 graduates each year?
JL: Short answer: I throw everything and the kitchen sink at graduating students and hope something sticks! In all seriousness, I have introduced a multi-pronged communications campaign that has grown more sophisticated and multifaceted with each passing year.
Mid-to-late spring semester is my busiest season. For the time being, I am only one person working full-time on alumni relations at an institution with 20,000 students, so I have to pick my battles. I have opted to go all-in starting in April and culminating in graduation season in June.
I have learned through trial-and-error that I need to keep the message graduating students come away with simple and attention-catching. One challenge I face in crafting the right message is that the word “alumni” is almost completely unfamiliar to most Norwegian students. To address this, I have created a visual that I employ in communications directed at graduates that features the word “alumni” and an accompanying definition (“alumni is a Latin word for graduating students”). I then accompany this visual with a message that I try to keep really simple.
In 2015 and 2016 it was, “HiOA wants to stay in touch with you and we hope you want to stay in touch with us.” In 2017, I opted for a message with a little more punch and decided to focus on the value of a professional network and the place the alumni network occupies in a recent graduate’s network. Norwegians are innately suspicious of anything that smacks of being non-transparent or non-egalitarian. So I have decided to confront that perception head on by using alumni voices to argue for the value of having a strong network and amplifying their voices using social media.
This refined message – conveyed across HiOA’s social media channels, through direct communications with graduates and in person at graduation ceremonies – seems to have gotten through, because we saw a bigger jump in followers of our Facebook page and a higher response rate to our direct e-mails than in the previous two years.
CT: What have you experienced in your efforts to connect alumni to current students for career networking and other opportunities?
JL: Connecting students with alumni in the service of increasing student employability has been one area where we have made a lot of progress in a relatively short amount of time. Mainly by using LinkedIn, and often by collaborating directly with engaged groups of current students, we have organized alumni career panels for a wide range of study programs.
Students love meeting alumni who they feel they can identify with and whose career trajectories inspire them, and alumni are tickled to be asked to come back to campus and have their brains picked by current students. Faculty and staff at the study programs are generally positive too.
My career services colleagues and I have taken a hands-on role to planning and organizing alumni panels these past couple years to illustrate the value of the student-alumni encounter. Going forward, we don’t have the capacity to continue to be as hands-on and need to develop a blueprint we can share with colleagues at the study programs so they can take the baton and begin planning these kinds of events themselves.
CT: So far, what have been the challenges and successes you’ve experienced in the two-and-a-half years you have been working in this role?
JL: Taking cultural specificities seriously has been a prerequisite to succeeding in this role. In some of the initial meetings I had with faculty and staff, I was half-jokingly asked if I was going to impose a U.S. model of alumni relations onto HiOA. The independent campus newspaper interviewed me after I was hired and the headline that accompanied the article was “American to Build Culture and Reputation at HiOA.” Understandably, this led some colleagues to assume I had been imported directly from the U.S., when in reality I had already been living and working in Norway for five-and-a-half years.
So at bottom, I think the primary reason I have made relatively good progress establishing an alumni culture and a viable alumni relations operation at HiOA is that I have found a model for alumni relations that reflects HiOA’s strengths, needs, and culture. My U.S. framework and experiences help me understand what is possible, but they can only take me so far.
As far as challenges, it is not hard to identify one that I know alumni relations colleagues the world over can identify with: resources. I am one person tasked with creating something new, managing the internal and external communications surrounding it, collecting and sharing best practices to enable study programs to practice effective alumni relations in their own rights, and answering email besides. It is a tall task for one person, and if I’m being frank, a little bit of a lonely undertaking. Luckily, my colleagues are rooting for me and for our fledgling alumni relations operation, and increasingly we are finding synergies and areas of overlap where alumni can support other ongoing campaigns and focus areas and vice versa.
CT: How has your position being integrated in HiOA Career Services contribute to your success engaging with alumni?
JL: The integration of our alumni relations and career services operations enables us to kill two birds with one stone: the value current students derive from meeting alumni role models is obvious, but what not all of my colleagues realized at the outset was that opportunities to give back are something our alumni are interested in.
One of the by-products of organizing career panels is that I have expanded our pool of contactable, engaged alumni who I can then invite to future events and make my colleagues who work on recruitment aware of. Finally, engaging alumni in our career services programming has the added benefit of showing our alumni that HiOA is constantly working to improve itself. If I had 10 Norwegian kroner for every time an alum has said something along the lines of, “We never had anything like an alumni career panel when I was a student. It’s great to see that you guys are doing this,” I would be a rich man.
CT: What are the greatest differences and similarities between running this type of initiative in Europe versus the United States?
JL: The two biggest differences that come to mind are: 1) Fundraising is only just starting to figure in alumni relations work in Europe. In the U.S., it’s central to the relationship between alumni and their alma mater. I know that institutions in the U.S. (including my alma maters) have a range of programming available to their alumni. At the end of the day, though, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I mainly hear from my alma maters when they want money from me (for the record, I do give annually to the Brown Annual Fund and started doing so even before I began working in this field.)
2) The field is much younger in Europe. This presents its share of challenges. For starters, you have to make the case internally for why alumni relations is important and how they can contribute to other institutional goals. You also have to explain to graduating students and alumni alike that it’s possible to have a lifelong relationship with your educational institution. This might sound straightforward to North American readers, but it’s hard creating this sense of being a lifelong member of a community in places where that tradition hasn’t existed.
Looking on the bright side, one of the best things about being late to the party is that you can learn from other institutions’ mistakes. I know, for example, that alumni magazines are less important that they used to be, that it’s hard getting alumni to sign up for alumni portals, and that a vibrant alumni community lives as much online in social media as it does in real-life alumni gatherings or local chapters. I feel incredibly privileged to be working in a field where there is such an entrenched culture of sharing best practices and supporting each other. This spirit of sharing and helping is very much a feature of the alumni relations community here in Norway; I got invaluable advice as I was starting out from colleagues at BI Norwegian Business School and the University of Oslo, and have shared best practices and discussed challenges with colleagues at other institutions in Norway that are just getting their alumni relations operations off the ground.
CT: What, if any, strategies and tactics have you taken from networking with alumni relations and career services professionals based in the United States?
JL: Lots! To name just a couple: benchmarking as a tool for assessing your progress; using data analytics to analyze the success of particular campaigns; strategies for positioning alumni relations internally through effective communication and relationship-building with key stakeholders. Just in the past few months, I have discovered and become addicted to podcasts like Advancement Legends and HigherEdLive and connected with alumni relations thought leaders — like CampusTap — on Twitter and LinkedIn. I wish I had made use of the incredible knowledge and experience base available to us as alumni relations professionals earlier!
CT: Lastly, what are the specific skills and attributes a person in this type of role needs to experience success?
JL: Great question! I think I was hired in part because I came across as a generally enthusiastic, can-do guy. I have experience with public speaking that is useful when trying to sell alumni relations to colleagues and graduating students. I also love working creatively and spending time on social media, both of which have proved unexpectedly useful in this role.
Having done this for almost three years, I still think all those qualities are important, but would add a few to the list: you can’t take it personally when colleagues don’t change the way they work and start prioritizing alumni relations even though you are absolutely convinced they should; you can’t take it personally when some (many, most) alumni simply aren’t buying what you’re selling. You need to be able to juggle between five and 55 mini-projects at once. And it’s vital that you find effective ways to convey the value of what you’re contributing — to your institution, to current students, and last but not least, to alumni’s post-college professional lives.
All images courtesy Jeff Lugowe