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Strategic Plan Update: Alumni Engagement

By Solomon Miller 

millerso@grinnell.edu

This is the third installment of a five part series examining the primary working groups for the College’s Strategic Plan. The last two will print next week, in the last S&B of the semester.

The Alumni Engagement working group of the strategic plan wants to open the digital floodgates, letting former students pour back into the world of Grinnell.

“[Alumni are] an incredible, intellectual, knowledgeable resource for all of us,” said Beth Halloran, Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations and chair of the committee.

The main change that Halloran and the other committee members want to see is a Grinnell-run online network for alumni. They call it G-Harmony, as a working title, and want it to be starkly-improved from the widely criticized Loggia, the current equivalent.

G-Harmony would include a database of all Grinnellians (alumni, students, professors, and staff), searchable by location, career, hobbies, interests and maybe other characteristics. This would solve the most common complaints about the Loggia, that it’s hard to manipulate and often outdated.

Maria Elena Higgs ’12, the SGA representative on the committee, says such a website will be useful for alumni, especially those who just graduated.

“Having an easy way to connect to alums is so appealing,” Higgs said. “You have a contact with someone in that industry or in that town, and it just makes the process of moving so much easier.”
The committee presented this idea and others at two open forums on Monday.

“We want to engage multiple constituencies, including alumni, at the same time,” member Doug Cutchins said at the first.

They agreed to focus on three themes: intellectual exchange, advice and mentoring, and service. All of these should happen among alumni, between alumni and students, and between alumni and faculty and staff, according to Cutchins.

G-Harmony will help achieve all of these by facilitating an online community of alumni who don’t need to meet in real life.

“[It’s] the foundational structure from which everything else will flow,” Halloran said.

Everything else refers to an array of other proposals, including an online video-streaming network, alumni convocations, a Grinnell book club, an adopt-a-student program, and an alumni-taught week of lectures during Winter Break.

The video stream would be a Grinnell YouTube channel, or something like it. Women’s Basketball Coach Kate Gluckman, a committee member, researched what such a channel could do for Grinnell.

“[A YouTube channel is] a way to broadcast what’s going on on campus, but also provide a platform for alums to share their ideas.”

Other schools, like Harvard and Brandeis, have active sites that allow their graduates to stay connected. Grinnell hopes to incorporate some ideas from these sites, but uniquely allow any Grinnellian to post content, according to Gluckman.

Recordings of sports events are one example she gave of a type of video that would be available to anyone.

“We’re thinking about alums, but as a recruiter for Women’s Basketball, that would be really helpful for me as well,” she said.

The video stream meshes well with another proposal: convocations by alumni, for alumni in Grinnellian hubs. Alumni living in cities with lots of other Grinnellians could give convocations to each other, about their work or expertise, continuing the intellectual exchange they grew accustomed to in their college days.

Furthermore, these speeches, as well as on-campus convocations and MAP presentations, could be posted online. Any alumna could watch speeches that take place in Grinnell, Chicago, or London.
According to Gluckman, these gatherings would allow graduates to meet each other.

“Not only can there be intellectual exchange, but also networking,” she said.

A similar program proposed by the working group is to have a massive Grinnell book club. Alumni could join students, professors, and staff in reading a designated book. Discussions could be fostered on-campus, in online video chats or forums, or, again, in alumni hubs. This would give many Grinnellians a common reference and would foster more exchanges of ideas.

Another idea is for alumni to adopt incoming students. Maria Higgs knows what this would be like—she participates in a similar program with St. Mary’s Church in town, and, along with another student, was adopted by Dorothy Palmer ’62.

“Every now and then I’ll get a random package of cookies in the mail or a good luck card,” Higgs said.

Palmer also hosted Higgs for Thanksgiving last year, and has actively stayed in touch with her.
Alumni won’t have to live near Grinnell. They can talk to their students by phone or online, send care packages, or stay involved in any other way of their choosing, according to Higgs.

Alumni may also find an opportunity to interact with students in person, in a new J-term (January-term) during the last week of spring break. Details aren’t set, but students may have the chance to come back from break a week early to hear lectures from a variety of alumni.

“It involves bringing alums back to campus and making people realize this idea of a Grinnell family,” Higgs said.

Carter Newton ’77, President of the Alumni Council, likes the idea of bringing alumni to campus while students are still there (reunions occur after the school year ends).

“It’s all about establishing relationships,” Newton said.

Would alumni want to come? Newton thinks so. Those that he speaks to regularly encouraged the College to do more.

“Alumni Council is just thrilled that alumni engagement is part of the strategic planning process,” Newton said.

At the noon open forum, Associate Professor Shanda Kuiper, Statistics, responded to the committee’s statistic that only about 60% of alumni attend any of their reunions.

Kuiper asked if research had been done to find out what factors determine which alumni stay involved with the College and which don’t. Kuiper thinks this could be a step forward in understanding what can be done to reach more people.

“We market to the people who we know well,” Kuiper explained in an interview. “It’s not going to improve our alumni relations if we focus on the people who we already engage.”

According to Halloran, the College doesn’t have data to answer that question.

Newton, who doesn’t often see Grinnellians near his home in Galena, IL, wants to make sure that new programs aren’t just accessible at alumni hubs, but can connect alumni wherever they live.

“How can Grinnell College become a better conduit?” he said, describing the committee’s task.

For this reason, Halloran emphasizes the value of putting these programs online.

“We’re being mindful of the fact that we have an international alumni base and we have to create products for that,” she said.

The “blue sky idea” phase of the strategic plan is ending soon, so any further ideas for the alumni relations working group should be emailed to [sp] or a member of the committee by the end of the semester.

The previous installment of this series describing the Post-Graduation Success working group can be found here: Strategic Plan Update: Post-graduation success.

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