Publications & Products
Volume 1, Issue 7

Everyday Ideas for Engaging Students

Alumni relations professionals know that engaging current students with their institution is key to future giving. A number of two-year schools—even those without a full-blown alumni relations program—are creatively using their existing resources and programs to enrich the college-going experience of their current students. Even a one-person advancement shop can learn from their experiences.

Doug Ferguson, director of alumni programs at Delaware County Community College in suburban Philadelphia, describes his tactics as "guerilla-style advancement work." In collaboration with his institution's student employment services office, he started the Career Alumni Mentoring Program last fall. Featuring job shadowing opportunities and career networking discussion, the program matches current students with graduates who are working in their chosen career field.

"Advisors and professors can help guide you to take this course or that course, but there's a lot of on-the-job knowledge that you can't get from them or a textbook," Ferguson says. "We set up students with professionals who show and tell them, day-to-day, what it takes. That real world experience is going to help them get where they want to go. It's all about student success."

Students who participated in the program last fall met with professionals in medical coding, social work, general business, hotel/restaurant management and law enforcement. Ferguson believes any institution can work with its career services division to set up such a program on its campus.

"The key part to finding volunteers is to find alumni who say that this school really changed their life," Ferguson says. "That's the affinity I use to build off of when I ask them if they'd be willing to return the favor for another student. Eventually, those who've participated in this program will market it."

Michael Wall, director of alumni relations at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in suburban Minneapolis, also knows what it's like to build a student engagement effort from the ground up. His institution, which was founded in 1965, went 40 years without an alumni program. When Wall and his team began contacting older alumni for the first time, he knew that something had to change because of the responses he was receiving.

"Forty years of silence had predetermined our relationship with a lot of these people," Wall says. "Many thought of college as a retail transaction: ‘I gave you the money, and you gave me the education. Why are you contacting me now?'"

Wall believes that advancement professionals must teach current students how to be engaged alumni in the future by starting a relationship with them while they are still on campus. For example, Wall finds ways to give current students unique experiences that they will associate with their peers and the college.

Recently, he has scheduled trips from the college to Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul—to see shows that the students have read in English class—and have a special meet-and-greet with the cast and director. In addition, he organizes trips for current students and alumni to mingle together and attend professional sporting events in Minneapolis.

"If students think, ‘I love going to see the Twins or the Vikings and getting to have that one-on-one meeting with the assistant coach before the game was great,' then suddenly sports or that event and the institution they graduated from are connected," Wall says. "My budget goes toward establishing and deepening those connections. It's a long-term investment, and the ROI is sometimes difficult to navigate. But if we're giving students special experiences and not nickel-and-diming them in the process, then I think they remember that and the college."

Wall insists that you don't need to have an "in" to make these trips and partnerships successful. With the Penumbra Theater, for example, the partnership gives the theater exposure to patrons it likely would not have attracted. And so, theater officials were more than happy to oblige a request for a special event.

"My efforts are good for the English department, good for the students and good for the Penumbra," Wall says. "You just need to have an eye toward identifying possible programs that involve your institution in different ways."

Janet Anderson, director of the Lane Community College Foundation in Eugene, Ore., finds ways to engage current students by letting them join in the institution's fundraising efforts first-hand. When student scholarship recipients receive paperwork for their financial award, they are given the opportunity to help volunteer for the college's foundation. And many do, she says.

"They feel that they need to pay it forward," Anderson says. "We also have an important relationship with the honors society, and their students volunteer as well."

Lane students make phone-a-thon calls in the spring term. They help put on major events, including dinners for donors. At the end of the calendar year, they sign and write short notes on all holiday cards to donors. Students also hand deliver poinsettias—thank you gifts—to donors who gave more than $5,000 in the past year.

"Our donors just love it," Anderson says. "It's donor stewardship and engaging current students. Maintaining a relationship with both is important."

This article is from the January 2012 issue of the Community College Advancement News.


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Fundraising Strategies for Community Colleges: The Definitive Guide for Emerging Institutions

Preorder now! Available April 2012.

This comprehensive guide, written expressly for community colleges, offers practical advice and concrete steps on how to build a strong advancement program that encompasses annual funds, grants, major gifts and planned giving.

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Every volunteer board needs new blood. What happens when you change-by design or by fiat-the type of members you engage for your community college foundation board? Hear from a foundation executive director about the dynamics and challenges involved in changing the makeup of your board-and the lessons she learned from this undertaking.

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