Posted September 27, 2021
After 16 months of intense virtual programming, the UNH Alumni Relations team was eagerly anticipating a return to in-person events as the school year began. Unfortunately an increase in COVID cases forced us to once again postpone any in-person, indoor events including several class reunions that had already been postponed last June. Our current priority is to continue to find new and creative ways to engage our alumni as we continue to exist in an environment of uncertainty. The constant fluctuation of COVID guidelines around alumni gatherings is now layered with the disappointment of alumni who have been planning to gather in person for months, and the reality of virtual programming fatigue. We are currently focused on short and long term plans that in the short term leverage best practices in virtual programming such as virtual “sprints” that present programs in 30 minutes or less, and long term plans that keep our alumni looking forward towards in-person events planned for the spring semester.
At the University of New Hampshire a “sense of place” burns in the memories of our alumni. The crisp, fall air taps into the nostalgia of the Thompson Hall bells chiming as students rush to an 8:00 am class, or waking up on a Saturday morning excited about the upcoming football game at Wildcat Stadium. This idyllic memory has been compromised by the effects of the pandemic and the vague notion that former and current students have been deprived of this halcyon experience over the past two years. Our alumni are curious and concerned about the students. We are providing our alumni with an opportunity to support our students by becoming mentors to help our students build strong social and professional networks, and/or by donating to a student relief fund for those students who have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.
Alumni as individuals have felt as lonely and isolated as our colleagues forced to work remotely during the course of the pandemic. The pandemic has eroded some of our basic hierarchy of needs, especially when it pertains to belonging. Currently there exists pent-up desire to gather with those with whom you share unity and a commonality of character. Alumni are feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the camaraderie and connectedness that helped shape their college experience. Our Alumni Relations programming and messaging needs to reinforce the strength of the Wildcat Community as an exclusive group of individuals bonded by institutional pride and esprit de corps. This requires a more targeted alumni communications approach in an effort to unite alumni by “affinities” whether by class year, former student organization participation or major.
Alumni are looking to their alma mater for more services and benefits that can help them with their careers. In some cases working from home has caused alumni to disassociate from their professional identity tied to the physical work place and daily interactions with colleagues. They are now seeking help to redefine their professional value through career services such as alumni-to-alumni mentoring, alumni job boards, and continuing education offerings. Younger alums, especially graduates of the last decade, are interested in professional networking opportunities whether virtual or in-person.
We have a few priorities for alumni engagement during the first part of the academic year. One is getting alums back to campus but safely both for their own enjoyment and for networking with students. We know those who pre-COVID were able to come to campus regularly are missing it, so we’ve planned an alumni day with a beer garden, alumni bands, and food trucks in conjunction with our Family Weekend this year. We also have a few other events that are primarily about teaching our students about networking and we are hosting those events outdoors as much as possible. We are also very deliberate about selecting the rain location, particularly when food and beverage is available to ensure social distancing is still possible. For all events, we’re collecting emails and phone numbers for contract tracing should that become necessary again.
We are also continuing to develop programming that engages our more remote alumni. Virtual programming and opportunities to volunteer remotely were met with such great feedback and many “please continue to do this even after the pandemic.” We cannot afford to lose people we have re-engaged virtually by going back to the status quo. We have to continue to look at whether we are engaging alums in a meaningful way for them that also meets our needs. We will still have fully virtual programming for our alums even as we also plan in-person programming, and we will continue to develop hybrid programming as well. One program that will take place in November during National Women’s Entrepreneurship Week (WEW) is a hybrid program featuring female alumni entrepreneurs from all over the country, with a couple of panelists participating virtually and the others in person. The great thing about our WEW program is that it will also enable students to participate virtually if they are uncomfortable attending in person or are non-residential students who prefer to watch from home.
We’re also continuing to look for new ways to enable alums to engage or re-engage and have already added a virtual book club, virtual movie club (with occasional Zoom watch parties and/or discussion groups), a webinar series, and career development virtual courses offered to alumni for free. On the fun side, we are hosting a virtual murder mystery with the Newark Museum of Art and are looking for unique ideas for virtual happy hours.
Also top of mind right now is involving alums more deliberately in the work of the career center to help students in their professional development. We’ll be working closely with the Career Center to develop a professionals-in-residence program (that can be in-person or virtual) to guide our students in writing resumes and cover letters, preparing for interviews, and understanding the nuances of industries in which they are interested. This will give our students the best foot forward in job searches in the future. We already know the job interview process has changed dramatically, so etiquette in interviewing both virtually and in-person will be important to cover.
Finally, but not least, we’re working with our professional and identity affinity alumni groups to return to more regular programming. They pivoted well to virtual initially, but Zoom fatigue caused a drop off. We’re hoping that a mix of in-person and virtual programming will re-energize the groups and their memberships.
We track alumni engagement and have seen a remarkable increase with our non-local alums. To ensure that trend continues, alumni engagement must include all options: in person, all virtual, and hybrid. Now that the entire campus is comfortable with the technology, this will happen quickly. My department has been hosting alumni board meetings in a hybrid fashion with Zoom since spring 2018, enabling the alumni board to identify more leaders. The pivot to virtual resulted in the entire university recognizing that alumni could be incorporated into programming even if they are not within an easily commutable distance. I think the challenge now will be getting everyone comfortable with the hybrid option – we all know how to do wholly virtual and wholly in person programming, but hybrid brings different considerations with it. That said, I’ve seen everyone pivot nimbly and I think once we figure out a few hybrid programs, it will be second nature.
As we begin a new school year, it feels like we are coming out of the crisis mode, despite the variant and extended pandemic. I also feel like we need to continue to seize the community’s collective resilience and further strengthen affinity. With this in mind, we’re focusing on creating meaningful and sustainable connections between alumni and students through mentoring and volunteerism. We believe that these connections foster a stronger affinity in both alumni and students and will pay dividends in philanthropy.
We’ve also just conducted an alumni climate survey, which had a 10% response rate. We are excited to analyze and incorporate findings into our programming.
Alumni are concerned about the mental health of our students who are going through their medical education and training during the unprecedented pandemic. They want to be able to help and provide support. We answered their concerns by leveraging our new online mentoring platform. One of the examples is mock interviews – our alumni mentors have helped fourth-year students practice their residency interviews by conducting virtual mock interviews. This has been a huge success two years in a row.
As I mentioned previously, we’ve been very cognizant of ways in which we engage with our core constituent. At the very beginning of the pandemic, our team took a pause and assessed the current engagement strategies and ROI. This exercise led us to create and invest in an alumni-led mentorship program, Einstein Connect. Since the initial launch in last October, we have seen a steady growth in alumni participation in mentoring, which has become a focal point of alumni engagement.
Regardless of demographics, we have heard and facilitated dialogues around racial equity in healthcare. We also have seen alumni mobilizing to advocate for equity and accessibility in medicine amid the trends across the country and all industries. Our alumni have been engaged in Einstein’s effort in creating positive changes within the institutions and beyond.