With commencement season winding down, colleges and universities around the country are hosting reunions for all generations of their alumni — bringing back established and young alumni alike, as well as welcoming new graduates into the alumni community.

During a recent segment of Advancement Live, Kim Brown, Director of Strategic Communications and Digital Engagement at Syracuse, spoke with Loyola University Chicago Assistant Director of Alumni Relations Olivia Sievert, Purdue Alumni Association Student Program Coordinator Jimmy Cox and iModules Software Senior Account Manager and Client Consultant Mirko Widenhorn about how to best engage new alumni.

Here’s some advice from the experts.

Opening Lines of Communication

In order to keep new alumni involved in your college or university’s community, you have to be able to get in touch with them.

Brown, Sievert, Cox and Widenhorn all stressed the importance of gaining students’ non-institutional contact information before leaving campus, and there are a number of practices alumni engagement departments put in place to do so.

At Purdue, Cox’s department works with the registrar’s office to coordinate Senior Send Off events. While the event consistently has a strong turnout, Cox and his team are more concerned with students RSVPing because they’re required to give a non-institutional email address in order to register. He said this past spring they were able to collect over 2,000 different contacts.

Widenhorn, who works with a number of colleges and universities, says some schools incorporate alumni offices in senior farewell tours, giving them the opportunity to gather vital contact information.

He also emphasizes that opting students into an institutional email for life isn’t always best practice.

“From what I see, students use Gmail throughout and after their time on campus, so trying not to roll everyone into an alumni-for-life email off the bat is important,” Widenhorn said. “At many institutions, if an account has no activity for a year or so, an email will be shut off. This then triggers us to reach out and find the best way to connect with alumni in the future.”

At Purdue, the alumni association asks for a non-Purdue email address because students’ Purdue account automatically expires after six months.

A new contact-collection strategy that both Brown and Widenhorn referenced is “planting your flag.” At universities such as Ohio State, graduates are encouraged to pin their post-college destination on a physical or virtual map. In the case of the virtual maps, students are required to give a non-institutional email address in order to participate.

After schools have the means to connect with new alumni, the focus shifts to attracting alumni to events that peak their interest.

Developing Engaging Events

The research proves students and alumni seek out connections with one another, and alumni relations experts take advantage of that to bring alumni together at networking and other events.

At Loyola University, Sievert and her team host senior meetings to give students baseline information on the next steps in life as an alumni in addition to networking events with young alumni and graduating seniors.

“Those events have really put us on the map because seniors talk about those and it’s centered on topics that are relevant to graduating seniors as well as young alumni,” Sievert said.

She credits a lot of the events’ success to that of the Loyola GOLD Board, a group of about 30 young alumni that drive the content of Loyola events. The GOLD Board hosts it’s own events each year, giving young alumni a voice and driving programming.

The Purdue Alumni Association focuses on putting together events that are geared specifically towards young professionals and their needs. They recently took advantage of their connections to host an event at C-SPAN, where young alumni were given the opportunity to tour the facility and then network privately afterwards.

In addition, Purdue let’s new alumni know they’re there for them no matter how far from campus they may go. They connect with clubs in different areas of the country and encourage them to host a “Welcome to Your City” event in order to make alumni feel comfortable in their new surroundings.

In order for new alumni to be interested in attending events, there needs to be a personal element, proving a respective college or university has an interest in its graduates.

“It has to be something that’s interesting to young alumni,” Widenhorn said. “There are so many networking events out there, so engaging volunteers and reaching out to recent grads is important. They’ll feel more connected when you tailor a personal message to them based on the information you’ve gathered.”

Brown notes that collaboration with other university offices is key to putting on successful events.

“To be a successful alumni office, you need to have at least some sort of partnership with student activities, or something in student affairs or career services, because they’re the ones that really have these strong relationships with students,” she said. “So, how can we step outside the box and be part of more of those student-focused events.”

Grooming Future Alumni as Students

While alumni associations can leverage alumni ambassador groups and the power of information to keep new alumni engaged, the Advancement Live panel is in agreement that the best way to keep a pulse on what resonates with alumni is to develop them as students.

Purdue has had a student ambassador program in place since 2005, the Purdue Alumni Student Experience (PASE), which educates students on the benefits of financially contributing to the university and exposes them to alumni early on.

Most students opt to be a part of PASE for all four years of college and they receive benefits such as 10 percent discounts on textbooks.

“Students want a leg up, so when they hear they can come to networking events with alumni, that seals the deal,” Cox said. “They’re actively seeking out connections that they can leverage for internships or connections down the road for their career.”

At Loyola, Sievert and Alumni Relations are starting a student alumni ambassador program next year.

“We’ve heard that students want more connection with alumni and alumni want more connections with students, so this is our way to solve that,” she explained. “They’ll be promoting what alumni relations does, what it means, and how students can and should be networking with alumni.”

Institutions have had success engaging alumni by seeking donations of their “time and talent” rather than financial contributions, but Widenhorn says schools can promote donation among new alumni by educating them on the importance of philanthropy while they’re students.

“We’re starting to see more and more philanthropy events on campuses highlighting the benefits of giving back,” he said.

One such initiative he references is a university which places bows on different parts of their campus on a day when philanthropy starts paying for a student’s education.

“We know that donor dollars cover a lot of the education, so by making that clear and having bows on campus, that starts to educate students on the benefits of philanthropy,” Widenhorn said. “A lot of it is about education while they’re a student, and it’s a great time because you have a captive audience there.”

Using commencement as a teaching moment is a great strategy for educating new alumni on the benefits of being actively involved with their school post graduation. With established, older alumni celebrating the incoming class of alumni, the opportunity presents itself for older alumni to educate graduates on the impact their donations have had on the success of generations that followed.

In summing up the impetus for grooming students as alumni, Cox said it’s all about “developing good students in order to develop good alumni.”

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Image via Flickr courtesy Basheer Tome