Building a Senior Transition Event Series at Vanderbilt

 Vanderbilt University

Every year, 1,200 seniors graduate from Vanderbilt. The Life After Vanderbilt event series helps them make that transition.

Put on by the Vanderbilt Alumni Association, the event series connects students with alumni, supplies them with advice, and raises awareness about how they can stay connected with their alma mater in the years to come. The event series has dramatically increased awareness of the alumni association among seniors and young alumni, and CASE District 3 recognized Life After Vanderbilt last year with an award.

We asked Sarah Quinn, associate director of student alumni & young alumni programming, to give us a recap of her February CASE D3 panel on the Life After Vanderbilt event series and explain how other schools can replicate Vanderbilt's success.

Could you give us an introduction to the Life After Vanderbilt guide and the senior event series you created around it?

The Life After Vanderbilt guide is a book that we’ve put together for the past nine years to give seniors life advice on anything and everything that they need to know about post-graduation life. We hand it out at our Grad Fair to seniors.

Two years ago we started the Life After Vanderbilt event series as a way to bring the book to life. We wanted to have multiple events throughout the second semester of senior year to help the seniors understand how they’re part of a global Vanderbilt alumni network, how to tap into that community, and how to continue their connection with Vanderbilt beyond their student experience.

We used to use a Cap & Compass general advice book and give those out to the seniors. Those are great, but every school is so different. We wanted to give Vanderbilt-specific advice, too. We solicited advice from alumni one to five years out and that is what we used in the book: direct quotes from alumni.

How do you measure the success of the senior event series?

We started benchmarking with other schools to find out what they were doing in seniors series and preparatory second-semester events to get their seniors ready for graduation. We kind of took bits and pieces from a bunch of different great programs and went from there.

We’ve had great attendance. We’ve been very happy with the demand for these events, and we survey all of our students post-event to get their feedback on the event. From that feedback, 100% of our participants have rated each event from 8-10 on a 1-10 scale and 71% rated them a 10.

Each year we also survey our seniors as part of a university graduation survey where we get to include a few questions. 61% of the seniors with the class of 2014 know they are automatic lifetime members of the alumni association which was up from 50% the year before. And 54% of them knew about all our alumni chapters, which was up from 38% the year before. We think that the event series has had a direct effect on that.

Aside from rating the event on a 1-10 scale, is there anything else to the survey? What other questions do you ask?

We ask whether students would recommend the event to a friend, whether the event met their expectations, what were they expecting from this event, whether they enjoyed the event, and an open ended question asking for any other comments or things that they would like to see from the alumni association in the future. Pretty simple.

And you gather those responses and incorporate that feedback back into your planning process?

Yes, definitely.

Also, with a few of these events we have done pre-event surveys when seniors register so we know what they want to see from the event and so our presenters can tailor the event to those topics.

Could you describe specific events in the event series?

Our largest event of the series, and usually our kick-off event, is Grad Fair. Our Grad Fair is a one-stop shop for seniors’ graduation needs. The alumni association organizes it and we invite our campus partners to participate as well.

Our alumni association is there with our chapter program, our young alumni reunion program, and our alumni interviewing program as well as our big alumni association to let seniors know how they can plug in to the alumni network after graduation and what we can offer for them. This is where we give them the Life After Vanderbilt guide and help them in any way we can. We also do a big push for our Life After Vanderbilt series to let them know about all the events they can attend for the rest of the semester.

We have a Seniors in the City networking lunch. We always try and harness when our alumni are here for different things, so the lunch is either when our alumni board members are here for the board meeting, when chapter leaders are here for chapter leadership conference, or when reunion leaders are her for reunion leadership conference. It’s a networking lunch just for seniors so they can meet alumni from all over the country and connect with people in the city where they’re going to be.

We also have a 5 Before 25 Young Alumni Panel, which is one of the events that is the most literal interpretation of the Life After Vanderbilt book. Five alumni panelists and a moderator give practical advice to help assuage anxiety about life after graduation. They talk about anything and everything, how your life is going to change in the most practical ways after graduation. The first part is a presentation put together by the young alumni on these main topics, and that really gets the ideas flowing, and the second half of the event is a Q&A between the audience and the panel members.

We have an etiquette dinner as well, which is something a lot of schools do, and we’ve done a lot of benchmarking with them on this. It’s a nice dinner to help them get information about business etiquette and entering the working world and what kind of dinners you’re going to have, dinners, lunches, interactions with clients and co-workers. We do that with someone in our office in our student alumni program who handles career programming; they put that on with a member of our alumni board who is a recruiter for Fortune 500 companies, CEO positions, and so on, so he has a lot to share.

We also have Money 101, which is another section that is greatly focused on in the Life After Vanderbilt guide. It’s financial advice for seniors about everything they’re going to need from the first day out of graduation to the first year. This is led a former board of trust member, a former president of the alumni association. He’s a current parent here, so he’s very involved, and he’s a private wealth manager, so he’s taken those topics that we’ve seen the seniors are really interested in and made an extremely interactive presentation. It’s casual enough for students to feel like they can ask questions.

We have two final events. I think of this one as the bookend to the Life After Vanderbilt series: the Last Lecture. This is a lecture of a senior class nominated professor, someone who has been special to them throughout their experience here, someone they have a connection with. That person gives a 20 minute lecture on memories they have had with this class, well wishes, and advice they can give them for their post-Vanderbilt career. We have it at a venue close to campus, and we have drinks and food, and seniors get to socialize with each other and this professor. It’s on the last day of class, so it technically is their last lecture.

For our final event, we hold Commencement Open Houses. This is part of the Life After Vanderbilt series, but it’s run in collaboration with the commencement office and also the Dean of the Commons, which is our freshman residential living-learning college experience. We have what’s called the Commons, and all the freshmen live over there—it’s on one side of campus, it’s secluded, it’s a little bubble in itself. Students spend most of their time there for their freshman year. They live in ten different houses, which are also lived in by heads of houses—faculty members, administrators—and their families. During commencement week, all the ten houses are open, and these events are hosted by the heads of house. The students can come back with their families to reconnect with the heads of house and with housemates whom they might not have seen since freshman year.

Grad Fair is usually the week after spring break. We’ll have maybe one or two of these events before spring break, because we’ve found we can still keep the momentum going even if we start that early, but the majority of them are after spring break toward the end of the year.

What about the event series has been most successful? What have you been most pleased with that’s come out of the series?

One of the things we’ve been more pleased with that’s come out of the series is that this is almost becoming a tradition in itself. We think that traditions are extremely important here at Vanderbilt and really tie different generations together. No matter how much the school changes, traditions are always there for them to connect over.

There's also been a jump in seniors' recognition of our alumni chapters. They know about the alumni association, they know we’re not a dues-paying association, and they know what kind of programs we have. I think gaining more of that name recognition while they’re still here has been a great thing for us.

On the flip side of that, what obstacles have been hardest to overcome for the series?

One of the things we’ve seen with the series that has been difficult is the short time period it has to happen in. Second semester senior year they are extremely, possibly over-, programmed. There are so many great things going on around campus that it’s hard to make yourself stand out. It's great that there are so many exciting things happening, but there is a limited amount of time to get all of these events in.

Starting traditions is also always somewhat challenging. It takes a few years for something to catch on and to gain momentum and for us to build it and keep it. But this is our third year doing it, and I think we’re finally seeing the rewards: gaining that name recognition and catching on with students.

Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, why is it important to help seniors take their first steps into alumni-hood in this way?

It’s important for seniors to feel like they’re a part of this larger Vanderbilt community. With Money 101 we have an alumni moderator, with our 5 Under 25 Alumni Panel we have alumni coming back to be on that panel, at our seniors in the city lunch we have all these alumni here, and they want to help students.

So letting seniors know that they’re part of this larger alumni community, that they have all this support, is a really important message to send to them while they’re students about to head out into the unknown. Letting them know that the alumni association is here to support them, and how they can be plugged in and stay involved and engaged after graduation, is one of the main goals of these programs.