By Kathy Edersheim
Social distancing and isolation brought on by the pandemic have proven the importance of community and connection, the very priorities for alumni relations. As the vaccine rolls-out and we look forward to a new normal, it is the perfect moment for alumni associations to assess the challenges and, yes, opportunities that have emerged from an almost entirely virtual system and consider what that means for the future. Observing and working with over 25 institutions during the past year has provided perspective on the potential for new directions and greater success.
During the outset of the pandemic
Since March, alumni relations pivoted to the virtual world like everything else. The first challenge was how to get alumni to support students facing an abbreviated semester and, often, financial challenges. It was a major communication effort to keep alumni informed about cancelled events (including refunds for tickets), campus news, and to solicit donations for student emergency funds while working remotely. At some institutions, the alumni-student support network for career guidance was mobilized to assist graduating students. Overall, the remote management of this process was surprisingly well-accepted and effective in maintaining and building connections.
For many institutions, the most important means of connecting with alumni are spring reunions. Because they were postponed or cancelled, necessity became the mother (or alma mater) of invention and alumni relations’ teams created ways to stay connected with and to serve alumni virtually. Following the student emergency fundraising campaigns, programming turned to a wide range of lifelong learning programs presented as panels and lectures with star professors, successful alumni and, sometimes, the highest-level administrators.
As it became clear that the pandemic would continue through the year, there was demand for more outreach and opportunities for participatory activities that more closely mimicked “old-fashioned” alumni relations that foster engagement and socialization. So, the second wave of programs included participatory activities from cooking together to book clubs to art workshops and virtual reunions connecting class groups and affinity groups.
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