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A Narrative View
A Narrative View

Letting alumni share their tales can be the best way to endear them to the institution

By Tara Laskowski


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Olga Malinowska



Once upon a time—in 2005, in fact—John Easom landed a job as alumni manager at the U.K.'s University of Keele. Easom had never worked with alumni before, nor had he worked at a university. He was a historian interested in international relations, and his only other colleague in alumni relations had a journalism background.

"We were complete novices," Easom says. "We looked at each other and said, ‘Now what?' "

That question—and the resulting answers—led to an innovative approach to alumni engagement that has sustained Keele for the past 11 years. The approach? To tell stories.

Creating an alumni mythology

Whether it's to honor loyal donors and volunteers, showcase alumni achievements, build trust and intimacy within your community, or tap into nostalgia, telling alumni stories can be a powerful way to engage and enlighten your graduates.

But alumni stories don't have to just be profiles in the back of the university's magazine. They can take many shapes and serve different purposes.

At Keele, Easom uses stories to develop and encourage the myths, legends, and memories that make the community special. Early on he asked questions on the alumni listserv about campus folklore such as, "Is it true that people once levitated the vice-chancellor's residence 250 feet into the air?" "Why did we have a clock with no hands on it on campus?" Through the responses—Yes, that's true! I was there!—he saw that alumni enjoyed adding to or contradicting aspects of the stories. Their recollections were different or more detailed. A community was developing around the pranks, scandals, and legends of what it meant to be a Keelite.

As new stories came in, Easom uploaded them to a website-his labor of love—the Keele Oral History Project. "It was not a scholarly activity," he says. "There were no footnotes, no evidence. I couldn't care less what the truth was. What mattered was the story and the fact that people were interacting with each other."

Easom also interacted with some of the university's first students, who attended in the 1950s. With the help of alumni volunteers, he created a documentary about those original students—a history of alumni by alumni. The institution lacked an alumni relations program then, so no one had documented the student experiences of these older graduates. "We had an archive of Keele's history with official papers and documents, but no memorabilia or materials on the student experience," he says. "Keele was an experiment-the first model of a U.S. liberal arts school. Those eyewitnesses who were brave enough to attend a new university—well, that was a story we needed to capture."

Today, Easom's storytelling has become more targeted and purposeful. While nostalgia still rules for Keele alumni, Easom attempts to connect the past to the future of the institution. In alumni correspondence, for example, a story about when the university used to breed racehorses on campus led to a mention of the new £1.7 million sports facility. "My job," Easom says, "is to make sure that the story of yesteryear feels part of the story now and in the future."

Use tales as tools

Beyond building a community, alumni stories can also be a way of collecting useful information. The alumni relations team at Whitworth University in Washington is using story gathering as a way to understand its alumni base. Each summer since 2013, the institution has sent student ambassadors across the country to interview alumni about life at Whitworth and after.

Whitworth's Alumni Discovery Project, inspired by a similar one at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has generated nearly 1,300 stories in four years. Josh Cleveland, assistant director of alumni and parent relations, hopes that the project will help Whitworth learn more about its alumni's successes, careers, and engagement potential.

Brigham Young University takes a big data approach to story gathering. The Utah institution's RISE initiative is designed to gather as many alumni stories as possible. Keith Lue launched the program in fall 2014 when he was director of alumni relations to "facilitate and curate meaningful alumni connections."

RISE acts like a lead generator for donors, volunteers, magazine profiles, alumni honorees, and more. An extensive promotional campaign encouraged alumni and faculty to submit stories about themselves and each other to RISE. The university gathers about 400 to 500 curated and self-submitted entries each month. As of summer 2016, the program surpassed 12,000 stories in its database of more than 8,600 alumni.

"What we're trying to do is create a narrative about our alumni and BYU," Lue says.

In BYU's case, the term story does not always mean a fully developed profile or tale. "Many of our graduates are simply bearing their testimony-reaching out to tell us they love BYU and that it has made all the difference in their lives," Lue says. "The stories are just a means to an end. The stories help us know more about the outcomes of our alumni."

Each submission is added to an alumni records database that allows the BYU team to generate useful and interesting data on their graduates. The stories are essentially big data—the more pieces of the puzzle, the better the picture. Through RISE, the university has dramatically increased the amount of information it has on its graduates, and that information becomes richer each day. In 2015, the university was able to add 6,643 alumni email addresses to its database, an increase of 71 percent from 2014. RISE gathered employer information from more than 16,000 alumni in 2015, postgraduate degree information from more than 4,000 alumni, and learned about more than 5,000 marriages.

The advancement team at BYU uses this data to discover patterns in alumni success, develop bragging points about the institutions and companies graduates join, and determine which alumni are most influential and willing to give back. The RISE program has also enabled university units, colleges, and departments to connect and engage with alumni. By using RISE reports alumni staff send to the colleges, deans have identified new trustees, nominated accomplished alumni for annual awards, and suggested newsworthy graduates to profile in the alumni magazine.

Building intimacy

During the opening night of the Yale University Class of 1990's 25th reunion, a group of alumni organized an oral storytelling event modeled after The Moth Radio Hour. The topic: 90-degree turns. Graduates gathered in a cozy space on campus to hear stories from their classmates about a moment they didn't see coming.

The purpose? To use stories as a way to connect classmates who haven't seen each other in years. "Showing up at a reunion can bring up all kinds of insecurities: What will my classmates think of me? How am I doing in life? How do I measure up? An event like this helps release those stakes," says Andy Siegel, an alumnus who helped coordinate the event. Coming on the first night, it helped to establish a friendly, deepened tone for the whole weekend."

Live storytelling creates an instant bond between the speaker and listeners and can help build relationships and keep people invested. That's also one of the tenets behind Whitworth's Alumni Discovery Project, for which student ambassadors meet one-on-one with alumni in their hometown. Ambassadors don't record or take notes or bring interview questions—topics and potential questions are memorized beforehand so that the conversation is genuine and intimate.

Whitworth students are responsible for reaching out to the alumni, setting up a meeting time, and later entering a report into the institution's database with the stories they gathered. The interviews not only generate great data for the institution, but they also provide networking opportunities for students. "Some of our students have developed close relationships with alumni they've interviewed," Cleveland says. They often return with lists of classes they should take or suggestions of which professors to meet for coffee. The university also uses the interviews to identify potential mentor relationships or student internship opportunities.

Cleveland notes an uptick in attendance at university and chapter events from alumni interviewed for the project.

Oral storytelling has also been a relationship builder at Oregon's Lewis & Clark College. Each year since 2011, the Student Alumni Association has invited senior alumni to share stories of their Lewis & Clark experience with current students. The event—called My LC Shenanigans—connects different generations to encourage community and fun. "There are always a lot of stories about the mischief they engaged in," says Tara McIrvin, associate director of alumni and parent programs. "Everyone enjoys the event immensely."

Promote the brand, prove the brand

Showcasing individual alumni perspectives can collectively help promote the institution's brand and tell its story. Within the RISE program, Lue looked for stories of alumni that would speak to BYU's brand, which is mission-based and aspirational. Lue says he got excited when he found stories about alumni entrepreneurs or graduates becoming leaders in their community.

At Connecticut's Wesleyan University, podcast interviews with prominent alumni showcase the value of a liberal arts education. By talking with successful, engaged alumni in-depth about their career paths, Sharon Belden Castonguay, director of the Gordon Career Center, hopes to target students who may be wondering what to do after graduation.

"My focus is less on ‘what advice would you give young people' or ‘how do you define success' and more about their career decision-making process," Castonguay says. "How early did you get an interest in this field? What was your mindset when you graduated? What did your parents think? The idea is to show students that this can be a very messy process but that with a liberal arts education you can do anything and do very well."

The University of Oxford's Alumni Voices podcast takes a similar approach by interviewing alumni on how their career and successes can be traced back to the U.K. institution. The 15-minute monthly podcast covers a wide range of industries, featuring everyone from journalists and broadcasters to athletes and scientists.

Make their stories your story

When California's Stanford University began planning for its 125th anniversary, the idea of story-telling was front and center. The goal? To show Stanford's impact on lives and the world through individual experiences.

To do that, the planning team wanted to gather video clips of students, alumni, faculty, and friends. The idea of a story booth morphed into a Space Age–looking Story Dome designed to generate campus buzz.

The structure—a large metal frame with a light cloth cover—takes five people several hours to build. Once complete, the dome becomes an unusual but effective sound studio. "I think someone could live in it," jokes Nicole Sunahara Scandlyn, director of special initiatives in the Office of Public Affairs. Although no one took up permanent residence inside it, the dome attracted attention from curious passersby, who then were invited in to tell their story.

The Stanford team aimed to gather stories from a cross-section of people. They set up the dome in strategic places—such as near the student center and next to registration for homecoming and reunion—to get a variety of ages, engagement levels, and backgrounds. The edited clips, most of which are less than one minute, were added to the Stanford 125th anniversary website each week leading up to the celebration in October 2016, for a total of about 80 stories.

"It's about capturing this moment in time," Scandlyn says. "We were able to gain a rich repository of stories that show the breadth and depth of impact Stanford has had on people's lives."

Let alumni narrate

Writer Phillip Pullman once said, "After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world." By giving alumni the opportunity to tell theirs, you can open doors for a lifelong relationship with your institution.

Keele's Easom agrees. "Asking people to tell their stories is the best gift you can ever give. If you tell me your story, and I listen to you, by the end, you feel wonderful. Because someone has validated and valued your experience. Because you feel part of the tribe."

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a former senior editor for Currents.

 

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