Member Profile: Toni Buckley
Community ties brought Toni Buckley to advancement and Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When she moved to the U.S. from her native Germany in 2015, Buckley worked as a photographer and built local ties by volunteering in her community. A part-time job collecting immigrants' stories at BCC eventually led her to her current role as Director of Alumni Relations.
"Being connected in such a small community really helps with everything," she says. "I see my job, in part, as connecting alumni to resources."
Here, Buckley shares how creativity, storytelling, and community-building have shaped her work in alumni relations.
How did you make your way to advancement?
I can’t separate my personal story and how I ended up at Berkshire Community College. I was born and raised in Germany by two Syrian parents. I lived in Germany for the first 30 years of my life. As a teenager, the only thing I ever wanted to do was become a photographer. I went to college to study photo design, and it was wonderful, but working as a photographer was really challenging and it never made me totally happy.
In 2010, I came to the Berkshires for the first time in my life, inspired by John Irving's books. That was just a vacation, but I stayed in touch with people there and they invited me back. In the summer of 2015, I met my husband (a musician) here.
I really realized, living here, that I wanted to switch careers. I volunteered after the 2016 election, and my husband, myself, and a friend of ours started an activist musician group. That’s where my volunteering in the community got more involved. People saw that I was the organizer of this group and I caught people's attention and by doing that.
I got a phone call from Berkshire Community College’s director of the lifelong learning program, asking if I would be interested in a grant-funded, part-time position for an immigrant stories project. As a recent immigrant myself, it was perfect. Even though I didn't have any real professional experience in that field, as a photographer I had the whole storytelling background. It was just eight hours a week, for a year, but it really got me even more connected to our small community here.
In 2018, I got offered another part-time position at BCC working with the Roads Scholars educational travel program. But eventually, I told my supervisor at BCC that I needed a full-time position. His told me BCC was looking for a director of alumni relations and he said, “This position is right for you.” And it worked out. Even though my professional experience was not directly development or alumni relations.
What’s one challenge you’ve tackled at BCC?
BCC is a really small school in a small county—just 130,000 people in a relatively widespread area. So, traditionally, we have not kept track of our alumni as well as we should have. It’s the same challenge that a lot of community colleges have. In addition, before my position was created, there had never been one person focused on alumni relations. So we’re cleaning up our database. We opened in 1960 and celebrated our 60th anniversary in 2020—there are so many alumni out there, we just don’t know who they are. So the biggest challenge in the beginning was saying: who are you and where are you? And reaching out.
What’s one project you’re particularly proud of?
In 2020, when our staff went to work remotely during COVID-19, was also the year of our anniversary. We had plans for this huge outdoor festival I was in charge of. So we had to come up with something to make sure we could stay in touch. On April 7, 2020, we did our first live storytelling event with alumni on Zoom. We initially did that weekly, then biweekly, and now we’re doing it monthly. I've interviewed over 50 people over the last year, and we have such a deep level of connection. I reach out to these alumni and do a pre-interview, then the actual interview, so I get up to two hours of intimate time with our alumni to hear their stories. Success stories, for a community college, are always life-changing stories. Stories about from homelessness to a bachelor’s degree or domestic abuse to getting a master’s in social work. I’m extremely proud of being able to share these stories.
What skills have helped you in your advancement role?
The creativity and storytelling skills have really helped. I’m still amazed that I’m practically a writer now in English (my second language) but I’ve never done that in my first language.
In addition to that, I’m pretty outgoing. My supervisor always jokes, saying, “I’ve been here for more than a decade and Toni knows four times the people I know.” Being connected in such a small community really helps with everything. I see my job, in part, as connecting alumni to resources. I like to tell people: let me know what you’re passionate about, and I will find somebody here that you can talk to about it. I’m representing BCC wherever I go, so if somebody is looking for a connection, they can reach out to me and I connect them.
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the Managing Editor at CASE.