Engagement and Excitement
Alumni relations programs don’t just happen. Community colleges have to build them.
That’s what community college advancement professionals remind themselves when they see how entrenched alumni identity can be in relation to four-year institutions. But those universities had a head start over the likes of Austin Community College District (established in 1973) and Collin College (founded in 1985). Representatives from both colleges say that, in some ways, it makes sense that their institutions have only begun to seriously foster alumni engagement in recent years.
“Seven years ago, you didn’t hear the word ‘alumni’ in our college culture much,” says Lisa Vasquez, vice president of advancement at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. “We’re a young college with just 35 years of history, but we have more than 550,000 former students. We had the critical mass to take it to the next level.”
Via CASE and state connections, Vasquez looked to her fellow Texas colleges that were already on the alumni relations path—although only a little further—such as Tyler College and Austin Community College District. She was encouraged to learn about their early successes.
Vasquez reached out to MaryAnn Cicala, whom Austin recruited in 2014 to be its alumni relations director after she had spent a decade in advancement at a four-year private institution. Cicala has spent the past six years building ACC’s Alumni Network.
“There is no defined model for alumni programs at community colleges,” Cicala says. “Some are operating out of the foundation. Others find a full-time faculty member who is going to do this too, but only for one campus…A lot of community colleges might not know to look within for alumni relations experience.”
In addition, it can be difficult for community colleges to decide what the term alumni means for their constituents, which can range from the “traditional” student who graduated with a degree or earned a certificate to those who completed a variety of courses before transferring to a four-year institution or individuals who enrolled in continuing education classes.
Vasquez says it took time for Collin to settle on its alumni definition (which includes anyone who has completed a course). But, once that was settled, she was able to study and survey alumni, compare knowledge and affinity between more engaged and less engaged constituents, and learn more about how alumni might want to be involved.
Between her own outreach, examples from other community colleges, and research done by CASE and Mt. Hood Community College President Lisa Skari, Vasquez was able to orchestrate a viable plan for alumni relations at Collin College. In the process, she discovered that Collin alumni had a higher affinity score than she would have predicted (more than four on a five-point scale) and that many of them remained close to Collin’s campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She presented her findings and the college’s work with The Pride—as the Collin’s alumni program is called—at the CASE District IV Annual Conference in March 2020.
“We found out they are here, they like us, and they’re ready,” Vasquez says, describing how the survey showed alumni’s eagerness to volunteer and participate in on-campus activities. “They’re ready to be engaged. We just hadn’t asked them.”
Both Vasquez and Cicala emphasize that their alumni work, at this relatively early stage, is not about fundraising yet. Cicala says she’s been looking to enhance “natural connections,” such as nursing graduates who became advocates for ACC’s program amid a nursing shortage.
In fall 2019, Cicala began an initiative within Austin’s alumni network titled “Alumni + Employee = The Perfect Blend.” Inspired by a Currents magazine article about alumni employees (“Super Brand Ambassadors”) and the knowledge that nearly one quarter of ACC employees were ACC alumni, Cicala sought to bring greater prominence to this dual identity.
In exchange for a coffee mug highlighting their alumni status, employees were encouraged to participate in casual events at each of ACC’s 11 campuses and asked to complete an Alumni Network survey. The goal was to create better communication and build connections that bridged campuses, departments, and specialties. Cicala says the program has been wildly successful. In 2021, it won a Gold CASE District IV Award for targeted constituency engagement in alumni relations.
“This is the one organization that is natural affinity. We’re not going to ask you to be on a committee,” she says. “We’re cutting through silos. [After participating in an event,] you can dial a friend, look someone up, and connect.”
Cicala explains that the “Alumni + Employee” program, which launched just months before COVID-19 dominated everything, has remained strong during the pandemic. It allows participants to remain connected via special events with expert speakers or via more casual, virtual hangouts. She also sees potential for members to be a great resource to ACC as it rolls out new plans—a dedicated focus group of sorts.
Vasquez says that while COVID-19 has delayed some plans and events for The Pride, the alumni advisory council—established not long before the pandemic—has continued to meet virtually, seeking engagement opportunities both during and after the pandemic subsides.
“Some of our timeline shifted,” she says, “but their dedication has not.”
It helps that, in 2019, Vasquez hired the college’s first alumni relations coordinator—Collin alumna Madeline Sertner—to help her grow the program. ACC’s Cicala is a “staff of one” seeking maximum engagement for more than 300,000 alumni on a small budget.
“This is just the beginning,” Cicala says. “We really, really need each other right now. The pandemic allowed us and our senior leadership to see the value of this and to make it a higher priority moving forward.”
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is the communications manager at Harper College. He is a former content creator at CASE.