More than meets the eye: championing alumni relations

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By Dr Nicky Garsten, Programme Director in (BA Hons) Public Relations and Communications, University of Greenwich

Amnesty International’s campaign, #Drop Dragonfly urges Google not to launch “a search engine that would comply with the Chinese government’s repressive internet regulations”. The campaign has been outstanding. It has harnessed support from Google employees, secured international media attention, and has been the subject of questions raised in a congressional hearing. It is important to me. Why?

In part, because I learnt about the campaign from one of my former students, Leila Mountford, who co-created it as Amnesty International’s Global Creative Manager. She recently presented the campaign to Greenwich University’s third-year students on the specialist PR course, Third Sector PR. She spoke confidently, shared her strategic approach and provided inside knowledge. She then gave the class an opportunity to design a different human rights campaign. At the end of the session one student told me, “I’ve found what I want to do”.

Involving alumni in our work is invaluable. There are benefits for current students and institution. Importantly, there should also be benefits for the alumni.

 Student Learning from Alumni

Attention levels in lectures always rise with the anticipation of a former student returning. Many enjoy the specialist knowledge that they get access to through the expertise of the speakers. They ask questions, typically about best practice, the industry, and rising in the workplace. Others seek tips about dissertations or essays. The guests carry enviable kudos.  LinkedIn connections are made. On occasions, these relations lead to internships or other career opportunities that can shape careers.

Broader Benefits

Alumni presentations can also shape the curriculum. For instance, after hearing an alumna talk about their work in PR, we’ve changed a module’s focus. In such cases, there is a long term impact to a guest lecture that reaches future students.

At the University, we also involve alumni more widely in the development employability and enterprise initiatives. For instance, when we launched an employability scheme across the Business Faculty, our alumnus Trevor Goul-Wheeker, then Chair of Blackwell Limited, was a figurehead for the initiative. He advocated the Greenwich Employability Passport internally conveying the importance of extra-curricular activities to employers.

Alumni also have a role in student recruitment. They kindly volunteer their time to speak in person to prospective candidates at Open Days. Their filmed testimonies are posted on digital media.

Alumni are also a source of income. Some alumni departments in the UK are largely judged on fundraising metrics, according to people I know in the sector. Whilst fundraising is crucial, I think alumni’s broader engagement is equally important.

Making Alumni-Relations Two-Way

In my view, the solidifying of post-study relations is anchored in continued participation and in a sense of belonging. Relationships need to be two-way.

A leader in this field is Nottingham Trent University which offers a distinct package of benefits to returners giving 15 hours a year, including free access to Library services, the title Alumni Fellow and invitations to special events.

In an uncertain world, alumni can benefit from continued involvement with their alma maters. We invite alumni, employers and students to networking events with our student society, PR Fraternity.  I have known some alumni unexpectedly find career opportunities through these occasions.

Some academics co-publish with former students. Outstanding dissertations can be developed into journal articles, giving alumni their first publications and  bringing fascinating research to light. I recently invited a talented former student, Tove Nordström, to contribute two chapters to a texbook I was co-editing on strategic public relations in the Non-Profit Sector. She added invaluable perspective.

When a former student accepts an invitation to deliver a lecture or workshop, I speak with them beforehand. This is so that their expertise can be integrated into the curriculum. The speaker usually reveals afterwards, over a coffee or meal,  that in preparing their session they have considered their topic afresh. They enjoy giving back. We love having them back. Thankfully, return visits often follow.

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