“Alumni are educational capital”
This quote from the Manifesto for Future Excellence Education (www.hva.nl/summit) captures the ambitious plans of higher education in the Netherlands to benefit from their most honorable graduates. The publication already identified that this “educational capital” has to grow, as relationships with students are being established throughout their education to hopefully last for a long time, as they will be alumni for the rest of their lives.
At the same time concrete plans, processes or programs are still to be defined in order to actually nurture and utilize the capital that graduates provide to universities – as ambassadors and as valuable connections to the business field. As a consequence, Tom Molenaar and David Kubovsky were sent as representatives of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences to the annual conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council in Denver, Colorado, to gather some firsthand information and to learn about best practices.
Why do American Alumni Networks work?
When comparing the American alumni networks and especially their backgrounds with their Dutch counterparts you will notice that there is a lot more commitment to the universities in the United States. Why? American students live on campus, which makes the university part of their day-to-day life. Dutch students, on the other hand, usually live a separate life outside school, missing this essential part of community.
As American student’s lives are so intertwined with their university, they tend to be a lot more willing to contribute to their university after graduation. Alumni in the United States mainly contribute financially, which makes up quite an extensive part of the university’s annual budget – a great incentive for universities to continuously invest in keeping the alumni connected.
On the other hand, students want to contribute for enhancing their status as honours graduates. They are further willing to help the universities which supported them at the foundation of their careers and were such an important factor in their lives. Furthermore, there are some schools that actively involve alumni in a mentorship program or leading projects at the university.
The way that educational institutes reach out to their honours graduates is by updating them regularly with a newspaper on the developments within their old university. Some schools even have employees that solely work on how to stay connected with former students, even to only have some small talk with them. These actions are necessary to keep the university fresh in the minds of alumni so that they can be approached for contributions in the future.
How can we reach out to Alumni?
To achieve the goal of keeping the alumni connected with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences you should plant the seed early on during the programs; the emotional need of staying connected has to be nurtured. The following recommendations are formulated:
Establish a sense of community and appreciation by creating facilities (spaces, equipment etc.) especially for Excellence and Honours students. These areas could be a room with sofas – do not make it too education orientated, it is meant to socialize and bond.
Try to follow your students after graduation, find out where they work, what they are specialized in what their interests are and involve them based on this information.
Update the alumni regularly on the developments within the university and on the programs they completed. It is not necessary to do this monthly – twice each year would already be great. This will trigger their enthusiasm and makes them more approachable.
Get a clear picture of what you exactly want to achieve with your alumni, approach them with concrete ideas and give them a possibility to choose.
What to do first?
Now we have identified some key components of an alumni network in the United States and some recommendations for Dutch higher educational institutes, but where to start? At this point in time it is important to understand that we need to focus on two things at the same time: firstly, reaching out to the existing honours graduates to build up a network and to strengthen connections; secondly, designing an alumni program as an integral part of honours education. Over time both actions will have to grow together into one unified alumni network.
Reaching out to existing honours graduates would indeed be the most obvious step to establishing an alumni network. But it is crucial in this regard to strongly focus on the graduate’s benefits – these will be reasons why an alumnus would actually join such a network and stay connected. More important, however, is to understand that alumni networks do not solely exist on paper or in databases. They will only work if there is physical interaction, if people actually meet, connect and get involved.
This leads to the second focus point: designing an honours program that makes honours graduates an integral part of the system. Honours students are smart people – they want to know “what’s in for me?” The answer to this question lies in involving the graduates in leadership positions to let them pass on their experience to existing students. The peer to peer mentoring is what graduates are looking for!
ACTION STEP: Invite all Honours Graduates to an Honour Alumni reception that will take place once a year. This occasion should be used to strengthen connections, as in involving graduates into the current programs to create strong bonds.
FOCUS POINT: Plant the seeds! Build communities! Create commitment! Keep the graduate’s perspective! The connection starts at school!
Give first – through great honours programs, a community that empowers students, transforms their lives, and involves them. If we want educational capital, we need to make investments!