By Karin Kamp, DemocracyU
If you’re a college alum, or will be sometime soon, you know that connecting with your alma mater after graduation usually means being on the receiving end of campus communications: reading the alumni magazine, clicking on emails from the alumni association chapter, and finding requests for financial donations in your mailbox.
A new group called Citizen Alum believes that colleges and universities would benefit enormously by expanding the way in which they engage with graduates.
“Alumni can be important partners in community-engaged learning and in strengthening the college’s public mission,” said Dr. Julie Ellision, the director of Citizen Alum, and a professor in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The group is affiliated with the American Commonwealth Partners, a broad coalition of colleges and universities, community colleges, schools and community partners to promote civic education, civic mission, and civic identity throughout education in America.
Citizen Alum sees itself as an opportunity to harness the talents of alumni to help students and to become partners in campus life — from the colleges they attended to the schools in their home towns. The initiative aims to increase the range of people who consider themselves stakeholders in the future of U.S. higher education.
Citizen Alum says they are working to build new relationships with alumni who may not identify with standard alumni activities and the more traditional ways in which universities try to get their attention. They are currently focusing on reaching out to alumni to learn more about what matters most to them in their everyday lives.
To this end, a number of colleges and universities have begun ‘listening projects’ to understand how alumni engage with students and campus programs as well as with local organizations and global networks. These listening projects range from alumni interviews by staff or current students, alumni chapter meetings on the theme of active citizenship, research surveys, or workshops to reflect on vocation. The alums whose stories are now being heard include many whose public work has gone unrecognized.
Citizen Alum says that current students will benefit from this new type of alumni engagement as connections to alumni will allow universities and colleges to better support graduating students as they look ahead to a post-baccalaureate life of work, citizenship, and learning.
“Citizen Alum is responding to a thirst among both students and alumni to make meaningful connections between ideas in the classroom and life after graduation,” said Alex Olson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, who is a participating investigator for the project.
“Students are desperate for jobs but they have not lost the desire to make a difference,” he added. Valued for their work as catalysts of change, alumni can build relationships and contribute to classes, collaborate on campus-community projects, and serve as mentors for students in transition.
Ellision says Citizen Alum is currently developing a pilot program to identify best practices from colleges and universities that take a fresh approach to alumni relations. “We are seeing this energy among ‘gap alums’—people who graduated in the last five years—as well as ‘situated alums,’ people who are long-term residents of their cities and towns. Through their work lives, personal lives, and learning lives, all of these alumni have so much to offer, and we want to capitalize on that. In this case, it’s not just about the money,” ” Ellision told DemocracyU.
Citizen Alum plans to broaden alumni relations to include other measures of value, channeling the social, cultural, and creative capital of alums into relationships with current students and recent graduates.
Citizen Alum is affiliated with the American Commonwealth Partners, a broad coalition of colleges and universities, community colleges, schools and community partners to promote civic education, civic mission, and civic identity throughout education in America. The ACP is part of a coordinated effort, For Democracy’s Future, with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Department of Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Civic Mission of Schools that will be launched at the White House on January 10, to reclaim education’s civic mission.