Becoming Global: Engaging Transnational Alumni, Donors, and Friends

Photo of the Great Wall of China

During a time of pandemic (and after), how can we keep our international, or rather, transnational alumni, donors, and friends engaged and connected? Two experts discuss.

by Gretchen Dobson, interviewing Daniel Spadafore (Michigan State University) 

This year constituent engagement has looked different than in the recent past. While travel has ceased, virtual connections are keeping relationships warm 24/7. This is more important than ever given the impact of COVID-19 on international student mobility and recruitment. The time is now to pay closer attention to international alumni records and to identify which gaps exist. 

In this article, global engagement specialist and author of International Travel Handbook: Engaging Constituents Abroad, Dr. Gretchen Dobson, speaks to Daniel Spadafore, Interim Senior Director, Office for International Advancement at Michigan State University about their best practices in engaging international alumni both at home and abroad. Together, they discuss a new way of classifying alumni, and Spadafore shares some recent stories about how Michigan State has approached their international alumni engagement practices.

An Interview

Dobson: In the closing chapter of my last book, Staying Global: How International Alumni Relations Advances the Agenda (EAIE, 2015), I respond to the challenge of keeping updated contact information on international alumni. I offer a recommendation that may help institutions maintain better data management practices while at the same time engaging international constituents more authentically. For a vast majority of institutions that define their alumni demographics as “domestic or international,” there is another category to define and engage.

I proposed a new definition for alumni that conduct their personal and professional lives within two or more countries, suggesting that education practitioners must welcome and embrace a new constituent: our transnational alumni.

Spadafore: Yes, we both feel there is an important distinction to make about transnational alumni, donors, and friends.

Dobson: Transnational communities provide valuable resources for institutions committed to integrated internationalization (by which I mean aligned plans for enrollment, academic programs, partnerships, and constituent relations). That’s why it’s worth considering how institutions can leverage alumni with international connections, affinities, and relationships no matter where they live in the world.

Spadafore: Agreed. Many of our constituents are based in more than one country, have family or business dealings in multiple countries, and/or retain deep loyalties to their birthplace, while making their home elsewhere. I want to share two short case studies that encapsulate my experiences working with transnational alumni and illustrate how I see the value to my institution in strengthening those relationships.

In my university’s own backyard, we have vibrant Korean, Indian, and Chinese communities, an outgrowth of decades of global engagement resulting in many international faculty, staff, and students making East Lansing their home base. In many cases, families will plant roots and enhance our region’s cultural energy for generations. Support services provided by the institution and an affiliated volunteer organization, Community Volunteers for International Programs, ensure that the bonds of international friendship remain strong over time. These communities have stepped up in the time of COVID-19, helping us raise funds to support international students facing unexpected financial burdens.

Let’s take our local Korean community for instance. Between Korean community organizations, a university advisory council for Korean studies, and our Korean student groups, there are many ties between our institution, city, region, Korean alumni, faculty, staff, and students. Undergraduate students joining us from abroad receive valuable professional introductions by tapping into a well-established network of more “senior” alumni, faculty, and graduate students. They also find comfort and a sense of belonging, critical to their health, well-being, and educational success, through the celebration of shared holidays and cuisine.

Dobson: I’m glad there is more emphasis today on international student well-being and the balance between academics and personal interests. I’m sure current undergraduate international students will feel much more confident about their experience when they hear stories from other alumni who were once in their shoes.

Spadafore: As advancement professionals, we are connecting to these networks and demonstrating that we genuinely value their contributions. We are seeing an increasing number of individuals establishing scholarship endowments to encourage students that promote understanding of Korean culture on campus. We wouldn’t see this sort of financial investment if we didn’t value the non-monetary impact and relationships. It’s an interrelated system.

Dobson: I’m sure you and your colleagues are spending considerable time tracking who is participating, when, and where. Does your CRM allow you to list current address and country of origin?

Spadafore: Not as easily as we would like. It’s an ongoing battle and our strategy continues to evolve. Often, when pulling alumni lists, we will review and include past addresses – not only those marked as current in our system – to ensure alumni from a specific country receive communications and invitations. We also include international employment addresses, even if we have a home address located in the United States, and vice versa. We are constantly using tools like LinkedIn to identify alumni that we might be missing in our outreach. The ability to search for keywords within LinkedIn’s “alumni tool” remains one of our best resources.

For example, in the second case, more than a year ago, I connected with a Spartan on LinkedIn that I presumed lived in Beijing (it’s what his profile said, anyway). He was a senior leader at a large technology company. We met for the first time in the hotel in which my institution was hosting our pre-departure orientation for new students from the Beijing area. By complete coincidence, he happened to be living in the same hotel! Furthermore, I learned that while he was disconnected from the university’s alumni engagement apparatus, he maintained relationships with key mentors on campus and was hiring Spartans into his new financial services company. I also learned that his wife, also an alum, and son were based on the east coast of the United States; he considered himself a commuter.

Dobson: A perfect example of what we mean by transnational alumni.

Spadafore: Needless to say, he impressed me, and I asked him to serve as a speaker at two alumni gatherings in China. At the first event, he met a 2016 accounting graduate whom he interviewed shortly after; he offered her a job at his new company. The supportive community of Spartans he cultivated within his company has helped us grow our alumni network in Beijing. It may seem like a small win measured against the scope of our 500,000 alumni network, but I refuse to lose sight of the lessons learned from building this relationship. I wasn’t simply an advancement officer building a relationship with an alumnus in a geographic market. I was an institutional representative facilitating important interconnections between his professional and personal ecosystem, our university, and Chinese alumni. Subsequently, he has also become a donor and helped to celebrate graduating students when our commencement ceremonies were cancelled to due to COVID-19.

Dobson: I’m sure you have other stories from other key markets, Daniel. Would it be fair to say that what you and Michigan State have learned is that it’s equally important to find alumni and prioritize them as transnational?

Spadafore: Our international alumni and constituents, prospects, and donors don’t fit neatly into a category, a region, or a portfolio. This is particularly true with MSU’s African alumni, both across the African continent and throughout the diaspora. As international educators and advancement officers, we may understand that one size doesn’t fit all, but it’s up to us to educate other professionals on campus as they build networks, programs, and services. They may have to be more flexible, open-minded, and intentional about their efforts to ensure international voices are included, valued, and informing our broader institutional strategies.

Dobson: It really does take a village to advance the global education agenda. I’ve always been grateful to have both transnational and internationally-based alumni help plan travel and events. They truly want to help create a successful experience.

Spadafore: I completely agree, Gretchen. When the conditions are right for all, I’m certain MSU’s alumni will continue being a tremendous help making the most of our travels and events abroad. Looking ahead, the new normal seems likely to be an evolving mix of virtual engagement and in-person activities. Our alumni will help inform these strategies no matter the forum in which the meaningful engagement takes place.

About the Authors

Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with 27 years’ experience across five continents. Dobson advises CEOs, CHROs, governing boards, and policymakers on best practices in EdTech and other creative strategies and solutions that enable institutions, companies, organizations and governments to identify, track and manage relationships with their global stakeholders and brand ambassadors. Contact her at gretchen@gretchendobson.com.

Daniel Spadafore is a higher education administrator with leadership experience in institutional advancement, international relations, enrollment management, and student development. Spadafore currently serves as the Interim Senior Director of International Advancement at Michigan State University growing alumni and donor support for MSU's international students, programs, and research. Contact him at dms@msu.edu.

2 Resources

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International Travel Handbook: Engaging Constituents Abroad
Book | Gretchen Dobson

We may not be traveling just yet amid this pandemic, but as you think ahead to the future, Dobson's handbook can be a key resource for planning and preparing visits to your transnational constituents.