Desiree Van Gorp
Last summer, Nyenrode Business Universiteit’s latest graduates left the university to embark upon their new careers, but it was not goodbye. Though these students may no longer need the university, it has become increasingly clear to us that we will always need them; as such, we will endeavor to be involved in their lives for as long as possible.
The reason? Though a university’s value can be judged on its position in league tables and rankings, from its reputation and its faculty expertise, there is no better example of its worth than its alumni.
With the cost of degree programs rising, and the job market becoming increasingly challenging, the expectations students have about what their university should offer them are also increasing. It’s no longer enough to provide quality programs; students want proof that their education will help them to secure the job they want. Having an alumni base that reflects these values is, of course, important, but even more so is having alumni that are willing to share their experiences and expertise with students.
Every university in the world is sitting on a gold mine of former students whose successes stand as the best testament to what can be achieved from their education. Despite this, not all universities recognize the inherent value their alumni hold, and as such do not go about utilizing this resource in the best way.
Typically, universities engage with their alumni through semi-regular newsletters, surveys and by organizing reunions when milestone years are reached. Though these methods do keep universities connected ― albeit loosely ― to former students, it does little to encourage engagement between the two. Old classmates may reconnect, but for the university, often all these events offer is a chance to make note of where their alumni are now.
Using an alumni network simply as a statistic of the institution’s success or as a financial resource is a short-sighted approach. Universities should instead make use of their alumni’s expertise, not only for their own benefit, but for their current students who could stand to learn from those who have been there before them.
But how can universities do this? The key is to ensure that your alumni network is an active community by showing a genuine interest in them, and creating ways for them to give back to their alma maters other than financially.
One way of doing this is to encourage communication between current and former students.
Rather than students opting to contact alumni under their own steam, some universities have created purpose-built online platforms ― similar to sites such as Facebook ― intended to create links between students and alumni. A voluntary membership policy means that those alumni who register take an active interest in the project and are more likely to volunteer advice and support, rather than feeling pressured into do so ― or not doing so at all ― when contacted through other channels.
However, though these platforms are highly useful for current students, they neglect one key market: university applicants.
By recruiting alumni as school ambassadors for outreach initiatives such as careers fairs, applicants can be approached in a more personal manner than simply reading a prospectus. Such schemes are particularly successful in overseas markets where the university may be lesser known to applicants. A graduate ― rather than an admissions director ― can share their experiences with them, which helps encourage candidates to apply. This method has certainly helped improve Nyenrode’s international outreach, and increasingly we find that applicants choose to study with us not because of the information we list in prospectuses, but due to endorsements from our alumni. Last year, a student from Ghana applied to Nyenrode on the recommendation of one of our alumni and even turned down a scholarship at a leading U.K. institution to study with us. Having an ex-student who is willing to get involved with the university on such a level and give an honest perspective to applicants not only boosts a university’s reputation, but increases the level of confidence candidates have in applying.
Taking this one step further, when applicants visit our campus, we have current students and alumni on hand to answer any questions they may have about the program, university life or the university in general.
But the best methods of engaging an alumni network are those which take all of these elements into account and create value for the alumni who give up their time to participate in them.
At Nyenrode, our student mentoring program invites alumni to work with a group of students throughout the duration of their program. The Peer Group Coaching program is a compulsory part of the school’s curriculum. Students can seek guidance on their studies and career plans and get practical advice from those who have been there before them.
The benefits for students are clear: Personal access to the alumni network gives them an insight to what is possible after their studies, and helps them make useful contacts and market themselves in the best way (and with the right recommendations) to employers.
The training the alumni receive to run the sessions helps them become better managers, and better team players in their own careers. Additionally, close contact with students allows alumni to stay connected to the graduate talent pool ― not only providing them with a better chance to recruit the best candidates, but allowing them to tailor their company’s graduate roles to better suit the applicant’s needs and desires.
The answer is simple: Take the time to tune into what matters to your students and alumni, and put the right plans in place to ensure everyone, not just the university, stands to gain from it. You never know ― you may gain more than you expect.
By Desiree Van Gorp
The writer is an associate dean of degree programs at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, the Netherlands. ― Ed.