Reconnecting: Faculty Engagement with Alumni Program Sparks New Relationships

 

Whether alumni return to the UNH campus or attend one of many special events held across the country, many want to know what their favorite professors are up to. Conversely, the university always seeks to understand how former students wish to reconnect and what issues are important to them. 

Thanks to a partnership between the Office of Engagement and Faculty Development and the Office of Alumni Relations, interested faculty now benefit from an organized program that helps them engage with alumni, answer their questions, and provide important feedback on what concerns and excites them. The program is called, Faculty Engagement with Alumni. Faculty in the program are equipped with tips about how to talk about their research in a way that relates to alumni and about how to gather valuable information from alumni.

The one-day training session brings faculty together and zeros in on the types of questions that might serve as a springboard to other conversations, such as “Who was your favorite professor? What was your major? How long as it been since you’ve been to campus?” Or, “Where are you now?” One approach faculty ambassadors learn is the “Pixar Pitch,” based on the successful formula Pixar movies use, to distill their research into an elevator pitch that is understandable and inspirational to those unfamiliar with it.

We realized in partnering with the Office of Alumni Relations, we could strengthen the connection between faculty outreach and advancement while providing a high quality opportunity for experienced UNH faculty to engage in the life of the university in a new way, said Leslie Couse, Executive Director.  We know a strong faculty presence attracts more alumni to events and taps into feelings of nostalgia, and that our faculty are best positioned to communicate the value of UNH through their research and interactions with students and alumni.

Robert Ross, associate professor of psychology, has been a faculty ambassador for the past two years. Events he’s attended include the Hamilton Smith reopening ceremony in 2018 and a Boston Alumni Holiday Party. At these events, Ross said he met interesting people and gained a better understanding of where UNH students go after they leave campus. At the same time, he’s enjoyed talking to alumni about recent developments at UNH, advances in the science of teaching and learning, and about his research on how brain oscillations support memory and cognitive control.

“Hearing those (alumni) success stories is inspiring. While I do get to hear from some of my own students, I also enjoy hearing about what alumni did in other departments and other research they were involved in while they were at UNH,” he said.     

Professors have had more than 100 “touchpoints,” with alumni this year, thanks to their participation in alumni events, said Jennifer Woodside, Director of Engagement, University and New Hampshire Engagement. Thirty professors attended two different Faculty Engagement with Alumni programs, which has helped the Office of Alumni Relations fill in some missing gaps related to alumni data. More importantly, faculty interactions made a strong impression on alumni who were thrilled to reconnect with former mentors.

“When you talk to alumni, there is a celebrity factor in terms of how they view the faculty. When we go to events, we often ask who their favorite faculty members were. Nine out of 10 times, they name a faculty member who was transformational in their lives,” said Susan Entz, associate vice president for Alumni Relations. 

Deans typically nominate faculty from their college who they think might be a good fit for the program. They are usually recruited in the fall so that they can attend a training session before key events such as Homecoming, holiday parties, alumni board meetings, Commencement, and reunions, Woodside said.

Some faculty choose to attend national speaking engagements to re-engage alumni far from campus. Andrew Smith, professor of political science and director of the UNH Survey Center, has worked with alumni relations since 2000 and often talks about his work in relationship to polls and research conducted by the survey center.

At a Washington, D.C. alumni event held last spring, faculty ambassador Smith, said he appreciated the opportunity to meet alumni, to provide advice and networking opportunities to current political science students looking to potentially enter national politics. He also mentioned an alumni encounter at a recent Boston alumni event that inspired a campus event, in which 60 students received career advice about how to break into the political science field from alumni.

‘My strategy is to talk to people about what they’ve done and to see how their experience might be helpful to students who are currently at UNH—and also to see what might be of interest to them to further engage with the university,” Smith said.

Sometimes informal faculty engagement can yield unexpected donations. When faculty ambassador Diane Foster, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering and director of the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, met an alumni couple at a lobster bake earlier this year, she didn’t expect that she’d be giving them a personal tour of the newly renovated and expanded ocean engineering lab that same afternoon. The couple—who were not engineering majors—appreciated Foster’s tour so much that they followed up with a donation.

While Foster appreciated the donation, she said she really appreciates listening to stories alumni tell about their experiences at UNH that led them on a path to success.

“We have a number of small moments with students where faculty members don’t always recognize those small moments—but they have a profound effect on someone’s life,” she said.

The program continues to evolve and become more strategic, Entz said, as professors and alumni continue to provide feedback about how both groups best engage.  

Faculty interested in learning more about the program can contact the office of Engagement and Faculty Development to learn how to get involved.

 

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