Student alumni associations are nothing new. Their mission: To bridge the gap between students and alumni and to prevent the engagement drop off that occurs when students transition into alumnihood.
But not every student alumni association accomplishes those goals. Those that do, and do it well, are notable. That's why Union College's Garnet Society should be a model for anyone running or thinking about starting a student alumni association.
We asked Union's Associate Director of Alumni & Parent Engagement, Damond Heath, to explain The Garnet Society's success and how its unique system of governance is at its root.
Can you give us an outline of the Garnet Society? What is it, what does it do, and what is its history?
The Garnet Society (TGS) is Union's student-led alumni association that works throughout the year to build relationships between students and alumni. TGS is almost completely student run, all the way from recruitment info sessions, running and executing interviews, creating our bylaws, and managing our elections. I serve as their advisor from College Relations, but give the students a lot of credit for the ownership they take in managing the club.
TGS plays a huge role during major events hosted on campus by The Office of Alumni & Parent Engagement & other divisions within College Relations such as: ReUnion Weekend, Homecoming & Family Weekend, the 24-hour fundraising challenge #ADAY4U, and in the last 4 years they've hosted their own "Founders Week" in conjunction with Union's birthday. Members of TGS help staff these events and promote them to their classmates on campus in an effort to help build those connections. Furthermore, they create their own events such as Founders Week, which also have many philanthropic components that help educate students on the importance of giving back.
Members of TGS also benefit from the great leadership skills they learn, and they receive a behind the scenes look at many of our top events. Members have the opportunity to interact with an array of alumni, and gain great networking skills attending these functions as student ambassadors.
Bridging the gap between students and alumni, and keeping students engaged as they become alumni, isn’t always easy. How does the Garnet Society help you do these things?
This is a great question and something I think many colleges are currently asking. Simply put, when looking at this question, our team thought it made sense to catch the students before they graduated. For the most part, we have them on campus for four years, so that gives us a lot of time to tell the Union story, and let them know that they'll be Union alumni for life. Creating a culture of philanthropy and giving back while they are on campus is a no-brainer and something a lot of colleges are doing really well, but as tuition costs are rising and students are riddled with loans, the tasks becomes infinitely trickier.
TGS does a great job of hosting events that instill pride in the student body and teaching them the history of the college. TGS also runs an alumni speaker series that has been hugely successful in bringing out students to alumni-sponsored talks, and hearing directly from industry leaders who also went to Union. The speaker series has been a great engagement piece for the alumni to reconnect with current students and share their own Union story and how they might learn from that. Events like these help students see that alumni do come back, they do give back, and they do help provide mentorship and guidance for new graduates. They invite both new and seasoned alumni back to speak on campus, so there is a great variety in terms of the topics.
Another great example of how TGS helped bridge the gap between student and alumni is participating in the college's 24-hour fundraising challenge. This year they helped table all day long in the campus center, and engaged directly with their student peers about why they should support the college on this day. I don't think any administrator in College Relations could have the same impact talking to students that day like a current student could, and TGS staffed the table all day long engaging with their classmates about philanthropy.
Lastly, The Garnet Society just provides great feedback about ideas that College Relations has about engaging new graduates. For our Seniors, they graduate in less than a year, so I often use them as a sounding board about how to engage them and what they'd like to see when they graduate. I've found they are very candid about what they like, and will certainly let you know if something won't work.
What have you learned along the way that has helped you improve the Garnet Society? What advice would you give to schools looking to implement a similar program?
I think I've learned more from these students than they have from me and I can't thank them enough for everything they do! I've learned that you should never underestimate their ability to accomplish a task, regardless of how big, and that often, the bigger the challenge, the more engaged they become. So I've challenged myself in the last 2–3 years to release the reins and give them really challenging and engaging jobs. We went from our interviews and recruitment being completely run by our office to the point where members of TGS are now hosting info sessions, creating flyers, hosting interviews, and many other complex tasks. They also run their own elections and have a strict process for nominating and electing our e-board once a year. When the students take ownership over a project, they become so much more engaged, and that's something I've seen happen right before my own eyes these last couple of years.
I've also learned that young people are really receptive to new ideas/concepts, but you have to give them the facts and present it in a manner that isn't telling them what to do, but why they should something. These are young adults—18, 19, 20, 21 years old—who will google anything you tell them, so you have to be honest, forthright, and let them come to their own understanding. I'd like to think that over the years I've developed a certain level of trust with the students because I've always been honest with them about what my expectations are as their advisor and what they can expect from me.
For schools looking to build a similar program I would say that, like anything, it starts from the top, so you definitely have to have people that buy into the importance of a student association, and put the necessary resources into making it work. Secondly, you need to find the right person to be the advisor, someone that can work well with students and have the patience to get something this big off the ground. Lastly, find the right students and empower them to help you grow this program! This can go for schools that already have a program in place that they're looking to expand, or someone starting from scratch. Identify some students that you would like to bring on board, either through recommendations, personal interactions, or other means, and then explain to them what you're trying to accomplish and how they can be involved. This might be just the project that a student would love to dive into head first!