Identifying Opportunities in Your Department’s DEI Strategy: One Alumni Department’s Perspective

Diverse people on digital devices

Are you wanting to create more opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion for your constituents, but not sure where to begin? Here’s how one Alumni Relations and Development Office started.

We started from the bottom

At California University of Pennsylvania, our Office of Alumni Relations has been working collaboratively with departments across campus to paint a true picture of what diversity, equity, and inclusion means for our students, our alumni, and our institution’s history and future. Examining DEI concepts through a variety of lenses is essential to success. For many of us in higher education, our campuses are at times the first, and unfortunately the only, opportunity to have an open, meaningful dialogue around diversity, equity, and inclusion for our students.

Our institution has a history of acknowledging and embracing our diverse populations across campus. For example, we’ve always celebrated the legacy of Jennie Adams Carter, our first Black alumna, and her impact on education and her family’s legacy, (Cal U was founded originally as a normal school for teacher education). Other examples include yearly dedicated outreach and programming honoring international students and their heritage. Much of this programming is student-centric. However, as the director of alumni relations, I felt that we could do more to inclusively represent the authentic voices of our alumni base better. As an alum of Cal U myself, and with what I consider a very diverse and inclusive friend group from my time here, I knew that these authentic voices live vibrantly in our alumni.

The working title of our strategy, Mosaic, is just that, a mosaic of experiences. The true, authentic experiences of our alumni and students is represented and told through our various programming, events, and communications to both acknowledge and celebrate diversity. We are using this energy across campus to create a portrait of the individual stories that make up our institution’s collective narrative. While this concept is in its early stages, we have found it to be a great starting point. As an old theater kid, we started at the very beginning, which if you’ve seen the Sound of Music (my first musical theater performance), you know is a very good place to start.

We started by creating profiles and narratives featuring the voices of our alumni. For us, this means recognizing different races, ethnicities, religions, cultural backgrounds, abilities, socioeconomic statuses, and familial higher education backgrounds, to name a few. While simultaneously recognizing their achievements, we have also developed programming and communication that promotes conversation around their experience and their professional and personal development. We use a cross-campus collaboration strategy to implement inclusive practices. This strategy includes:

  • Identifying stakeholders who have reach and impact among different constituencies to help with adoption of these practices in different areas of campus.
  • Meeting often with stakeholders to get their insight and expertise. They are two steps ahead of my thinking in their area of expertise or have a perspective to contribute that we or others on my team may not have considered.
  • Reviewing the success of implementation and adoption of these practices in regular intervals. For us, this is typically yearly after programming is completed.

By telling the stories of alumni, we can better connect our campus history to the current student body who will eventually become part of our diverse alumni community. It also invites better engagement from alumni who identify with their experiences. It also allows us to complement enrollment management strategies where future students can connect with alumni who share similar backgrounds and life experiences. We’ve seen the results from this. Part of this outcome is tied to our departmental goals which we report on for a number of factors including accreditation.

One of the best examples of this has been the creation of our Under 40 Profiles. This event and social media campaign highlights and showcases recent graduates who are positively impacting not only their professions but their communities and society at-large. This program has helped to showcase collaboration and storytelling across the many departments. This has been advantageous in a number of ways for us. It’s helped to provide marketing and PR with stories of outcomes and successes that speak to a wider range of prospective and future students. It’s allowed us to create content on our podcast and YouTube channel featuring these alumni, and it’s directly impacting enrollment at the undergraduate and graduate levels. YouTube is quickly becoming more than a video portal, it’s a primary tool for the college search, and by lending alumni voices on this platform, it can help us connect not only to benefit enrollment management, but also with alumni peer networking and mentoring. A feature of our show is to “plug your pluggables,” including our alumni’s entrepreneurial enterprises and social media contact information. This type of new outreach and opportunity is built for the age of Zoom burnout; it is our way of meeting our alumni and student body where they are.

Under 40 Profiles have been successful in allowing us to connect with alumni and rekindle their affinity to our campus. They have also recommended their peers and former classmates to get involved and share their stories. We’ve seen an increase in more inclusive nominations for our next class, as well as an increase in engagement metrics with groups that are more diverse, including mentoring current students and volunteering in enrollment management activities like virtual open houses and campus tours. These opportunities for representation have been key in building alumni relationships with these constituents.

Our alumni participation in affinity group events has increased as has funding for and interest in various diversity-conscious initiatives and programming across campus, including scholarships. These early results are encouraging. As a function of alumni relations professionals, we do everything from enrollment management, engagement, philanthropy, etc. Because of this, it is our job to know what’s happening across campus and how we can communicate that to our constituents. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is just by offering support, however simple it might be, to those other areas. So, whether it’s just retweeting their event, or including their content in the monthly newsletter, there are strategies we can utilize to be team players, and by doing so, attract good teammates to help make your strategic initiatives a success.

Our increased success, though, really should be attributed to our departmental staff working with each other, and with other departments, specifically Justin James and Mariah Peoples, two colleagues on the development side who are also both Black American alumni of the university. They have been strategic in the development of this program in order to make it authentic, avoid tokenization, and to help create buy-in. Their unique experiences and perspectives as Black American students at Cal U, plus the unique relationships across campus that they have cultivated as both students and alumni, have been invaluable to our departmental efforts and successes. They have been catalysts not just in our department, but across campus in creating dialogue and programming.

Cross-campus collaboration is integral to success. Like many of my peers in higher education, we are working with limited human and financial resources, so we don’t want to waste energy in reinventing the wheel. My tip here is to be proactive; often we complain about higher ed being siloed. Be the wrecking ball and break those silos down. One of the simplest ways we did this was to start including other departments, like the social equity office and the multicultural affairs and diversity education office, in our alumni communications. This opened the door to other conversations about areas of need and how we could work together, which helped to build relationships with those colleagues in other departments.

Collaboration is a win-win in my opinion. The individuals you work with across departments are also most likely experts on your campus with unique insight on how to create and deliver DEI-related programming and incorporate it into an overall strategy. Here are six key areas on campus we looked to kickstart collaborations:

  • Social Equity Office
    Our campus Social Equity Office was a great place to find like-minded colleagues and opportunities to create impactful programming. One of our best collaborations was the creation of free training on diversity and cultural sensitivity for students. We’ve worked with this office to consult on DEI strategy, more generally.
  • Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Education Office
    We are fortunate to be a campus that traditionally celebrates diversity. We have a dedicated office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Education, who, while primarily creating student-centered programming , has been a great partner in working with us to connect alumni to those events. For example, we have historically celebrated Jennie Adams Carter Day each year – the first African American graduate of our institution. This programming celebrates her life, accomplishments, and the diversity of our campus’ history. Jennie Adams Carter Day is a major highlight for myself, our students, and alumni every year. Recently (January 2021), the office has been enhanced by the creation of the position of Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer. This new position will enhance the visibility and successes of the already great work being done through this department. The commitment from our campus leadership to create this position reflects the campus attitudes to ensuring DEI is a real part of our campus culture, not just a phrase that’s used. Additionally, the first person to serve in this role, Sheleta Camarda-Webb, is also an alumna, and she has been championing DEI initiatives on campus including LGBTQA+ programming since her time as a student at Cal U in the late 1980s. She has also worked to help build a comprehensive DEI office that allows us to work together easily and synergistically.
  • Student Affairs
    Working with our Student Affairs division has been beneficial in building relationships and identifying diverse student voices before graduation. Through our collaboration with Student Affairs, Multicultural Affairs, and Diversity Education Office around the Lavender Graduation, an event that celebrates graduating students who have self-identified as LGBTQA+, our relationship has grown over the past 5 years. Students involved in this program have become engaged alumni since their graduation.
  • Marketing
    Our Under 40 recognition and podcast, The Vulcan Nation, have been successful initiatives. These projects, available to alumni and more importantly, current and future students, through channels like Spotify and YouTube make these narrative more readily accessible and relatable. We are trying our best to make this content available to help foster conversations around social justice and DEI issues, to better create understanding between our various alumni populations, and a place for civil discourse and learning about the shared collective experience of our alumni. One of the biggest success stories from this initiative are the connections that alumni and current students are making, as they discuss areas like mentoring, career advancement, and open discourse about DEI on campus.
  • Academic departments
    We work with different academic departments to feature alumni in classrooms through speaking engagements, mentoring, and other projects. In our virtual classroom and event situation during COVID, we’ve seen success within this including episodes of our podcast featuring program-specific alumni, a new TED-Talk style YouTube show called Conversations at the Forge. These videos feature the expertise and insight from alumni, as well as offer additional personal and professional learning opportunities for students through our Alumni Learning Consortium platform.
  • Alumni Constituent Groups
    We have also been fortunate to have affinity groups on campus, such as our African American Alumni Society, who have been super receptive and encouraging in our efforts. They have also been great partners in our communications and events. Our other alumni affinity group participation is increasing as we create targeted communication and programming, and these groups are taking a more active role on alumni boards, at alumni events, and in our representation of alumni accolades. New scholarships have been established and many have been endowed to specifically address and assist diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus. This includes a Social Justice Scholarship, as well as donors making amendments to existing scholarships to include more inclusive criteria.

These outcomes all tie back to our strategic departmental goals for which we collect, analyze, and report data for accreditation purposes. For example, we can show more specific improvements or gains in our participation rate and dollars raised. The overall inclusive alumni experience is key for our success and growth.

Lessons learned

We’ve had a few key challenges in identifying how to celebrate and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, locating and connecting with alumni who were from underrepresented groups and still felt a sense of belonging on campus has been essential to this process and to our success. This was challenging because the idea of collecting DEI-related data on alumni and students is a new concept. We simply did not have that historical data. Taking an approach that is firm in our belief of the importance of DEI and social justice has helped our alumni to self-identify and join the conversations. We’re also taking proactive approaches to collect this information earlier in the student-alumni process.

Using this collaborative approach has also produced challenges. Here are some hard-learned lessons from my experience:

  • At any institution, sometimes duplication happens, even when we try to avoid it. But, in my experience, the more you take the initiative to communicate what you are doing in a broad sense across campus, the better you’ll be able to avoid duplication and instead create synergy.
  • Unfortunately, even in our affinity groups where everyone’s best intentions are put forth (especially where and how scholarship dollars are raised and spent), discord can sometimes arise between individuals, especially those in volunteer leadership roles. At the end of the day, we are all on the same team with the same goal: to make the experience of past, current, and future students better. Remind your constituents of that, especially if you feel like conversations are getting away from the intended goal of the group.
  • It is okay to be principled in higher ed. I have no time for homophobes, misogynists, racists, fascists, or anyone else exhibiting other forms of intolerance. Engaging alumni can also be an educational journey and opportunity for them. Prepare for that by making space to have conversations about the current cultural moment and how they can be a positive part of it.
  • Share control and oversight, especially when working collaboratively. I’ll be the first to admit I have a hard time delegating, but that’s a skill you quickly need to learn especially when working with and programming around a topic or topics that may be out of your knowledge base. I’m not a DEI expert by any means, but I can shut up, listen, observe, take direction, and learn from the individuals on my campus who are.

By making the effort to be authentically inclusive, we are welcoming our alumni to be frank and honest in their discussions and share their experiences not only with us, but with fellow alumni and students as well. This has led to an increase in participation for our alumni mentorship engagement. The concept of authenticity goes further than just those conversations, however.

By having alumni share their stories and become more engaged with the university, everyone benefits. Specifically, we have seen these benefits manifest in ways such as:

  • Increased alumni engagement via social media growth, digital marketing, and participation in specific demographics
  • Increased alumni participation in social and alumni programming
  • Increased opportunities for alumni mentoring and coaching of recent graduates and rising students
  • Increased scholarship dollars for diversity initiatives

I’m excited about where the future might take us. We are creating new media and programming options, including TED-style talks, alumni-led learning programming, and more, all focusing on diversity and inclusive presenters and content creators.

These initiatives were possible due to the leadership of our university President, Geraldine M. Jones, a strong Social Equity Office, and a dedicated Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we have collaborated with these teams across campus to not only create our own programming, but to also help co-brand initiatives and attract more attention to the programming, mentoring, and continued development. A special shout out to President Jones who is retiring in January 2021 and to whom I will forever be grateful to for her guidance, leadership, and letting me learn and develop from her experience.

I’ll borrow a J.R.R. Tolkien phrase here to close, “but the road goes ever on.” The need for education and celebration of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our world has never been greater, and the work of our department in conjunction with other offices on campus to deliver DEI initiatives and programming does, too. Our Mosaic concept has been a start, and we hope to build upon that in the future for the betterment of our students, our alumni, and our university.