“I never thought it would be over. Just like that.”
This is a sentiment that many of us are likely feeling right now in one way or another. COVID-19 has created a great deal of uncertainty and has altered our immediate lives in small and large ways. Arguably, America’s college students may be feeling the impact most acutely. Many were on spring break when their institution simply asked them not to return to campus. Some were even stuck in cities now under shelter-in-place orders and can’t get home to their families. And even more students now find themselves without the housing and meal resources they relied on through the school year.
Perhaps, no group feels more lost than this year’s graduating students. Many members of the class of 2020 would have been going through recruiting cycles or looking for “just-in-time” positions, and relying on career fairs and on-campus recruiting to get their ideal first job. They will also completely miss out on the formative social experiences of the final few weeks of “senior spring” with their friends and colleagues. And, of course, millions of these students will not walk at commencement ceremonies in May as institutions begin to move graduations online, postpone them for later dates, or even outright cancel them.
Students need to know that there are people out there who support them amidst all this uncertainty. While alumni have always been an important resource that they have had access to, many didn’t take advantage of that availability throughout the year. Given that alumni are not ever-present on campus, students may be less likely to see them as an accessible resource. Many students even get stuck because they are not sure how to effectively build a relationship with an alum — making networking one the top “how to” topics addressed in career centers. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands (sometimes even hundreds of thousands) of knowledge-sharers who can provide valuable support for students’ career transitions and in guiding them through their final weeks.
It’s Time to Bring in the Cavalry: 6 Things Alumni Leaders Should Be Thinking About.
This is a pivotal moment for alumni relations. As institutions think about their engagement strategies that meet the needs of alumni, it is also a moment for a call-to-action to these graduates. Through technology, stakeholders have the opportunity to support the members of their college or university community when they need it most in this unique moment in time.
- Get the Network in Front of Your Community
It’s on us in alumni relations to make sure that students and alums alike know that a powerful network of willing resources exists and that they can use it.
We take it for granted that community members actually know that they have the ability to connect with alumni. We also take it for granted that knowledge-seekers feel comfortable doing so in the first place. It’s important for us to communicate that the network is “open for business.”
To do this, leverage the core volunteers and champions that you already have. Ask student leaders to send messages to their classmates and post about the network on their social media. Get faculty to speak about the accessibility of the network in their now virtual classes. Have alumni volunteer leaders, like regional club/chapter leaders, send out an email to their members encouraging them to join. Schools that may have been protecting their network and building slowly should consider revisiting that strategy and expanding broadly to cast as wide a net as possible.
- Monitor the Network to Ensure Students Get The Help They Need
We all know the feeling. You’ve found the perfect contact — someone who shared your major, works in your dream industry, and even has the job function you are dying to get into. You go through 5 or 6 different revisions and pour all your energy into crafting the perfect message. You finally hit send, confident that your brilliant wordsmithing will get you the meeting. And then…crickets.
This experience can really leave a student or young alum frustrated, and it is one of the reasons why only 9% of graduates reported their alumni network has been very helpful or helpful to them in the job market.
When getting the network in front of those in need of support, make sure you have a way to track whether or not a request for help is answered. Not only will you ensure that knowledge-seekers get what they’re looking for, but you will also get rich data on the engagement from the knowledge-sharer side.
- Get Creative with Young Alumni
Those building alumni networks have typically focused on giving students access to alumni for the purposes of general, or “flash,” networking. Students are encouraged to reach out for exploratory conversations that help them build an understanding of an industry or job function.
While these networking connections are great and should continue to be promoted, graduating students may need something more structured to feel a sense of normalcy and a semblance of confidence approaching the end of their academic programs. Especially those in the middle of their “senior springs” who had been looking forward to the last days of fun with their friends. Their minds are now starting to focus on the impending transition to the working world without their ever-present support system of the last 4+ years.
Those that have gone through that “college-to-career” transition may be in the best place to help. Young alumni are in a unique position to guide graduating students through this moment and help them understand what to expect. A more formal, virtual relationship can be established here that mimics the approach that most mentorship programs take on campus. Think about building a time-delineated, goal-oriented approach that would match a graduating student with young alumni who can help them make the most of the time they have left in school.
- Who Else Are Students Used to Seeing?
It goes without saying, but faculty will be crucial in supporting students in this virtual environment. With an ever-growing number of universities moving classes online, faculty will also have to adjust to new ways of teaching and interacting with students. Additionally, virtual office hours will now become the norm and faculty will need to manage their scheduling, interactions, and note taking outside of their usual processes. This type of class may also eliminate the opportunity for staples of their syllabi, such as group presentations. Instead, faculty should leverage the available alumni network. Incorporating networking as assignments could prove to give students additional learning opportunities and make up for lost experiences. Alumni could even serve as virtual judges or assistants on case competitions or immersive projects.
Outside of their professors, students typically interact with dozens of other university staff members throughout a typical week. Academic deans, major advisors, chaplains, mental health professionals, and even office managers in buildings they frequent are all people that students have built relationships with. In the same way that we engage alumni, let’s think creatively about who else we can connect to students. Even a 15-minute chat with a staff member a student interacts with frequently could do a lot for the student — and for the staff members who themselves miss the interaction with the students they dedicate their careers to.
- Create Groups for Students and Alumni to Find
One of the things that we see most often is that the best connections happen around shared interests or experiences. In a university community, there are hundreds of opportunities to find like-minded people to connect with over a common interest — from business organizations to comedy troupes. One of the stronger groups we’ve seen on campuses are veterans and military affiliated students and alumni who connect with one another over the challenges and opportunities provided by their service.
Alumni offices should look for ways to bring groups like these together in a virtual space. Students and alumni alike could find and connect with other group members as well as engage in group discussions. Start by thinking of what organizations on campus tend to have strong ties to one another. They may already even have alumni boards that help guide the current students on campus or have regular annual reunions. These organizations could be best suited to take advantage of a virtual engagement tool.
- Rethink Events
The elephant in the room here is reunions. We’re coming up on the most important season for alumni engagement and advancement offices alike, and that will likely be completely upended by COVID-19. There is no way to replace an event like reunion, but there are ways to continue to bring alumni together — even socially. The same technologies that facilitate video conferencing and calls can also be leveraged to create connections that students and alumni will need. On the educational side, alumni teams should explore hosting webinars and virtual panels that cover some of today’s most pressing topics. With all of the misinformation available, alumni still trust the faculty and researchers of their alma mater to present accurate and timely information. Consider tapping into the professors and leaders across campus to share their perspectives. Having the university chancellor or president share their thoughts through a virtual webinar would also help to put the community at ease. Of course, alumni themselves are a great source for panelists and speakers.
On the social side, these tools can be used to host virtual happy hours or other gatherings. As many of us deal with isolation and social distancing, chatting with fellow alumni and friends (with or without a beverage) is a great way to feel connected. These gatherings could even be organized around a topic or help facilitate a book club. The casual nature of such an event would even take the pressure off students who may fear networking.
Engaged Student → Attached Alumni
These are certainly unprecedented times. Many of the things that we rely on in alumni engagement will need to be re-thought — both for the sake of the alumni we already serve and for the new alumni graduating in 2020 that are soon to join our ranks. It is crucial that institutions start to think creatively and not simply try to “copy and paste” their existing in-person programs to the virtual space. Technology offers a host of different ways that we can support our communities if we approach it with intentionality, creativity, and an open-mind.
The cost of inaction at this moment could be drastic. At the 2019 Innovators Conference presented by PeopleGrove, Brandon Busteed, President of Kaplan University Partners, gave a keynote focused on how to create attached alumni. Based on the research that he led at Gallup, Busteed cited survey results that show that the best way to create a connected alum is to ensure that they are supported as a student. Without the university community coming together to help the class of 2020, institutions run the risk of having a “lost class” who feel no connection to their alma mater.
This is also a moment for higher education to prove itself on a macro level. Increased tuition cost, cheaper alternatives, and a widening job skills gap has resulted in a decrease in the overall public perception of higher education. Americans even believe that institutions put their own needs ahead of the needs of their students. If ever there was a time to change that narrative, it is now.
At PeopleGrove, we feel fortunate that we are in a position to help. We have been lucky enough to partner with amazing institutions who are doing great work and finding value in virtual engagement. As we navigate these challenging times, we stand ready to innovate in collaboration with the amazing institutions who have always prioritized their students, and are working even harder in these uncertain times to support their knowledge-seekers.