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One-Time Students into Lifetime Ambassadors: The Role of Alumni Relations

One-Time Students into Lifetime Ambassadors: The Role of Alumni Relations
By investing in alumni relations, universities can turn one-time students into lifelong customers and brand ambassadors.
These days, now that the stresses of thesis writing, paper marking and final examinations are finished, I find myself looking back on my university experiences. It has almost been a decade since I began my studies and several years since I was a full-time student. I have transitioned from being a “recent graduate” to full-fledged alumnus. Alumni services have helped me continue to identify with my alma mater’s community even as the campus has transformed and becomes largely unrecognizable to me.

Some may take a pessimistic view that the relationship with students is a business transaction (money for diploma and credentials), and alumni are to be valued only for their potential for financial contributions. That view is antiquated; instead, universities are cultivating a form of brand loyalty in their students. And by spending on career services and support for alumni, there can be returns on investment for both graduates and the institution.

Alumni are brand ambassadors, dispersed around the globe and contributing to the reputation of their alma mater. This notion was instilled fairly early into my undergraduate experience as I entered the workforce as a co-op student. For institutions with such programs, alumni in management can be in the position to hire co-op students. This is a win-win-win for the students (invaluable career experience), the university (success of the program and reputation enhancement) and the company (hiring the most promising candidates).

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, university career services are an extremely useful resource. As an alumnus, I have access to job boards, professional career guidance sessions with trained professionals (topics include resume critique, interview skills and using social media), workshops and career assessments. These university services are helpful when first starting your career or when transitioning between careers later in life.

Postsecondary institutions must remain innovative and competitive to attract top talent in both faculty and students. This is often achieved via reputation, earned through time by the quality of academic programs offered and the accomplishments of their alumni. The stories of successful alumni are essential for university recruiting programs. Universities have responded by investing in value-added programs and services such as career and alumni services, reunions, awards and events. Beyond receiving a monthly alumni magazine and a few perks, alumni can continue their affiliation with the university throughout their lives. For the universities, by investing in their alumni there can be a flow of trickle-back benefits.

More value has been placed on continuing education (CE), especially in the wake of the 2008 recession, as professionals realize they need to stay current as occupations evolve and new industries are created. Ryerson University’s Chang School for Continuing Education is one of the most popular and has changed the nature of the university itself. Ryerson University now has two distinct businesses: the traditional experience offered to undergraduates and ongoing professional development through CE. Ryerson’s number of CE students (both in-classroom and online) now outnumbers undergraduate and graduate students by a factor of 2:1 (70,000 CE students as of 2013).

By having strong ties to the alumni community, universities can potentially retain their former students throughout their careers, again creating value for both parties. However this may not be the only factor, as the students’ past experiences and impressions as an undergraduate and the types of programs offered are also key considerations. Former students with strong ties to the university will be more likely to return and enroll in its CE programs.

By networking with their former students, university officials can also gain vital insight on the economy and where future research is required. Since completing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Waterloo, the alumni affairs department has held events such as pub nights and an annual alumni awards celebration. These are attended by former professors and the dean of my program. Casual dialogue during these events allows alumni to reflect on their experiences and discuss their careers, which the university can either use in the classroom to prepare upper-year students or to adjust their curriculum where necessary. These annual events are also excellent for networking, presenting an opportunity to interact with alumni in intermediate or senior-level corporate positions who can provide career advice or referrals.

Taking a long-term view, the children of alumni may eventually become students and then alumni themselves, as was the case in my experience. It would be entertaining to see my future children attend the same university as their father, mother, uncle and grandfathers. Thus, the investment in one student may bring the university returns for decades to come; the ultimate in brand loyalty.