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A Novel Approach to Alumni Engagement
A Novel Approach to Alumni Engagement

Check out these different ways to appeal to literature-loving alumni

By Tara Laskowski


Pushart.com



Are some of your alumni more interested in turning through chapters than in leading them? Institutions have begun offering virtual and in-person fixes for the book addicts among their graduates. Most of the programs are no- or low-cost, easy to manage, and attract new pockets of alumni. Check out these different ways to appeal to literature-loving alumni:

Highlight alumni authors with a podcast

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"It's a rite of passage to write a book," says Joe McGonegal, director of alumni education at MIT and a former English teacher. "Why not celebrate that?"

A few years ago, McGonegal started compiling a list of all the books MIT graduates had published. From that developed a monthly Alumni Books Podcast, a 15- to 20-minute interview that McGonegal conducts with an alumni author about his or her book and the process of writing it. Publishers and authors send him books to consider, and McGonegal selects texts he thinks would appeal to alumni. The podcasts are available on the university website and some recordings have received more than 1,300 plays.

"I'm looking for ways to spotlight alumni who are writing great books," McGonegal says. "This is a great way to touch base with people we haven't been able to spotlight in other places."

Must-do: Invest in high-quality audio and recording equipment for a professional sound. "Many of my early interviews are almost unlistenable because I was holding a recorder up to my speaker phone," McGonegal says.

Recent read: Wild Places: The Adventures of an Exploration Geologist is a self-published memoir by 1958 MIT graduate Hal Linder, who chronicles his time as a gold prospector in Canada and other countries.

Create the classic (virtual) book club

Stanford University

The Stanford Book Salon might be the Shakespeare of alumni book clubs. The California institution's book club has been around since 2002 and boasts more than 6,000 members. Fiction titles are popular, but recent selections have also included plays, poetry, and a graphic novel.

Faculty members—usually from the English or creative writing department—are asked to select a favorite book and then moderate a discussion through an online platform. Alumni can log in throughout the month and post thoughts about the book and ask questions. Alumni Education Manager Sarah Reichanadter has learned to choose faculty members with care—a charismatic, passionate professor can engage alumni and foster lively discussions. "If faculty aren't engaged, it becomes more work for your staff—and alumni can tell," she says.

The key to success is to "keep it simple and easy. Alumni can be as involved as they want to be," Reichanadter says. "Some people just get our monthly emails with information about the book. Others engage frequently in the online discussions."

She recommends being adaptable and listening to your members. The book club tried an in-person discussion during Homecoming, but it never clicked. "Our members seem to want to keep this virtual, so we have," she says.

"We don't have a lot of intellectual programs that just engage alumni virtually. This serves that purpose."

Must-do: Designate a staff member to work with faculty and monitor the online discussions. You want to ensure that the forum has fresh content and feels energetic.

Recent reads: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, a memoir by Roz Chast, hit the mark for alumni with aging parents. Another popular book was The Martian, which the group read as the film version debuted in theaters.

Gather at Goodreads

Creighton University

Why create your own virtual book hangout when an amazing one already exists? When an alumni survey revealed that graduates were hungry for more intellectual programming, Creighton University's alumni association responded with a book club on the popular Goodreads social media platform for bibliophiles.

Alumni gather in a private discussion group on the site, and faculty from the Nebraska university post questions and moderate discussions around a book they choose. About 200 alumni participate in the group, now in its third year.

In addition to being a lifelong learning opportunity for graduates, the club checks off other requirements for Sarah Lukas, director of engagement and external relations for the Catholic institution's alumni relations office. It's virtual, so alumni from all over the world can participate and commit whatever time they want. And it costs her division almost nothing.

The biggest bonus? "It brings out a different segment of alumni that we weren't reaching before—folks who aren't interested in athletic or religious events," Lukas says.

Must-do: Experiment! Lukas has tried engaging faculty from different colleges and schools at the university, surveying members about book selections, and inviting alumni authors to the discussion. She's also paired books with campus events, such as a lecture by Beverly Deepe Keever, journalist and author of Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting. "Our readers like the variety and the flexibility of the program," Lukas says.

Recent reads: Voices in the Wind, a novel by Creighton alumna Judy Bruce, and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Latch on to an existing book program

University of Pittsburgh

Students and faculty in the University of Pittsburgh's public health program look forward to the One Book, One Community program each year. The dean of the Graduate School of Public Health selects a book for the fall semester, and faculty incorporate it into their teaching. The school also plans lectures and other events around the book's themes and topics.

Sarah McMullen, director of alumni relations for Pitt's health sciences programs, saw the popularity of the reading program and thought: Why not include alumni? "This was an easy way for us to engage alumni with academic opportunities through a program that's already happening and has a great reputation," she says.

In its first year, the program has 31 active alumni readers in 10 different states, plus one non-alumni reader who joined after hearing about the program from a co-worker. Alumni discuss the book in online forums and can attend the on-campus events, such as author visits, and watch the webcasts that complement the program. McMullen also hopes to host a Skype chat with alumni readers, moderated by a faculty member.

The program includes a fundraising component—when alumni sign up to read along, they are encouraged to give a gift of $25 to "underwrite a book and an experience for a current student." Graduates who participate in the program can earn continuing education credits toward their certificate in public health.

Must-do: Choose books relevant to the news cycle or a hot topic for lively discussion.

Recent reads: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam is the 2016–17 selection. In 2015–16, journalist Sam Quinones visited Pitt's campus to talk about his book Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, sparking lots of interest from students and alumni.

Host a community book fair fundraiser

University of Queensland

Every two years, more than 50 volunteers converge on "Book House"—the nickname of a building at Australia's University of Queensland—to sort hundreds of thousands of donated books for the Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland's book fair. Nearly 1,000 book lovers flock to the four-day fair, and all proceeds—around AU$100,000 in 2015—support special projects and scholarships at Queensland. The 2017 book fair will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the association, with a goal of raising enough money to present AU$1,000 bursaries to 50 students.

People from all around Australia donate the materials, which include music, videos, and art, says Gary Lambrides, a member of the executive committee of Alumni Friends.

The event also includes a rare book auction, which has telephone participants as well as a live audience of up to 50 bidders. Some donated books are kept for the university's library, such as the recent acquisition Album du musée de Boulaq, a book of photography by Auguste Mariette-Bey with an estimated value of more than AU$5,000.

Must-do: Start planning early. Volunteers begin collecting and sorting for the next fair as soon as the current fair ends.

Sample title: In 2015, the group auctioned off a first edition of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a senior editor for Currents magazine.

 

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