This article was first published July 13, 2013 We spoke with Kassandra Gove, Assistant Director of Student and Recent Graduate Programs at BU, and Stephanie McBride who serves on the BU Alumni Council and volunteers with the Recent Graduate Network on the subject of engaging recent grads in alumni programs. Knowing what a challenge this is for almost every alumni program in the country, we sought new insights from these two forward thinking young women.
Cynthia Woolbright: What I’d like to do is start with each of you letting our readers and listeners know a bit about the role that you play in nurturing and engaging recent graduates at Boston University. So why don’t we start, perhaps, with you, Stephanie, and talk a little bit about your role?
Stephanie McBride: Sure. So I am a volunteer for the Young Alumni Network, or as it’s now called the “Recent Graduate Network” at Boston University. As a volunteer I work with Kassandra to brainstorm and advise on events for recent graduates and then also represent the network at events focused around young alumni and also the general alumni population.The other thing is I’m a BU Alumni Council member. This is a group of probably about 40 alumni from all years and backgrounds who come together to advise the alumni relations staff on how to engage and strategic initiatives that help BU interact with the overall alumni base. That’s over 300,000 alumni.
Cynthia Woolbright: And how long have you been in that role?
Stephanie McBride: I joined right after graduation in 2009, so just about four years now.
Cynthia Woolbright: Well, Kassandra, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your role in nurturing and engaging recent graduates, please?
Kassandra Gove: Sure, so I started at Boston University in December and I was charged with taking our programs to the next level. From what I’ve heard and seen we did a lot of pre-game receptions and a lot of happy hour events, which historically has been the trend for young alumni programs. And the administration here really wanted to change that and give some more meat to our events; add some more value for our attendees. So I have been working with the “Recent Graduate Network” and these alumni volunteers to hear more about what they’re interested in and what kind of content I can bring them and then take on the logistics and the planning for those events and programs.
Kassandra Gove: Yes, the members of this volunteer council or this volunteer network, we meet every few months and I come to them with ideas and they come with ideas and we just kind of hash things out between the group. My goal when I started was to create some programming that included cultural, educational, athletic, social and service opportunities. So under those umbrellas I asked them what they were looking for or what were some of the topics they were interested in.
Cynthia Woolbright: Okay, so it sounds like it’s gone from, as you said earlier, athletic events to a much more well-rounded program of engagement.
Kassandra Gove: Absolutely.
Cynthia Woolbright: How long has this young alumni network existed? What is some of its history, its purpose and now its outcomes?
Kassandra Gove: In some capacity we have had a volunteer opportunity for recent graduates since the early ‘90s. it’s taken a lot of different forms and a lot of different offices on campus have owned it at different times. So it’s back with central alumni relations and it has been for some years. In 2007 it was the Young Alumni Council and then it changed to be a Young Alumni Network in the fall of 2012, so recently. And we’re just now changing it to be a “Recent Graduate Network.” We’re trying to get away from using “young alumni.” And create a really well-rounded program, offer a lot more higher level engagement opportunities for these graduates.
Cynthia Woolbright: Stephanie, what do you see as some of the challenges and successes that you’ve experienced? Is it hard, for example, to recruit alumni to participate?
Stephanie McBride: Looking at the recent events that we’ve hosted, they’ve had historically good turnouts. And I think we’ve had a variety of events that have really resonated with the audience. For example, we had a first time homebuyer’s seminar in early May, so I think tapping into those timely challenges has resulted in some great turnouts. Other examples have been the Global Days of Service. This is a BU wide program, but we really work to establish a recent graduate site.
Stephanie McBride: We ran a special event at one of the local bar and restaurants close to the BU campus during Winterfest; again another Boston University wide event. Looking at sites and locations and activities that bring recent graduates back to campus and remind them of their school days. All those types of events have gone quite well.
Cynthia Woolbright: How do you think these recent graduates are finding their own voice at BU?
Stephanie McBride: Yes, I can give you an example from Global Days of Service. We had one of our volunteers who was really passionate about a particular cause. So she worked with Kassandra to make that the location for the “Recent Graduate Network” event. So I think there are opportunities like that that showcase how volunteers are able to make the program their own and have a voice in terms of the activities that are going on for their peer group.
Stephanie McBride: The challenge can be how to keep the people who attend these events engaged in between and making sure that they, feel they can continue to engage online or through other events throughout the course of the year.
Cynthia Woolbright: Kassandra, what do you see as some of the successes and challenges in engaging this group of recent graduates? And I believe you’re considering recent graduates to be under 35-years in age. Is that correct?
Kassandra Gove: So that has been part of the shift now to the (Recent Graduate Network) is that we are considering them to be ten years out from graduation from an undergraduate degree or five years out from graduation from a graduate degree.
Kassandra Gove: Since they didn’t really find themselves to be young, that wasn’t resonating with them and they weren’t identifying as being part of the Young Alumni Network. So we have recently changed the definition of who we are targeting for our audience.
Cynthia Woolbright: Are you finding alumni in recent years to behave differently in terms of how they want to be engaged with BU than, say for example, alumni who’ve been out longer than ten years?
Kassandra Gove: Yes, I think that what we’re finding is that the alumni who have been out longer than ten years and who are further into their careers right now are really looking for a lot of career support. And I think that because of things like LinkedIn and social media our younger classes aren’t looking to us so much for that and they’re more looking for educational events where they can learn life skills like how to buy your first home and how to balance your budget, what to do with your school loans and how to manage your debt and those types of things.
Kassandra Gove: I’ve also found they’re really looking for the behind the scenes insider scoop on things. So we are, always looking for new programming. We’re always trying to be on the cutting edge. It’s hard to stay current and keep something going that we can sustain, so the bigger and the better we get the more challenging it is. For big events, the way that we’re trying to engage recent graduates are to do something like a pre reception just for recent graduates to have some time alone with our highlighted speaker of the evening. So they do get that behind the scenes, insider…
Cynthia Woolbright: Are they able to, engage with, say, deans, faculty, even the president?
Kassandra Gove: Our focus has really been on giving them access to other alumni; to successful alumni. And, when we do have a faculty speaker, then yes.
Cynthia Woolbright: Are some of your recent graduates recruiting students, mentoring them or, you know, serving any role with the current undergraduates?
Kassandra Gove: Yes, there’re a lot of different things that we do. Alumni do have the opportunity to work with our admissions office on recruiting and interviewing potential new students. We’re not directly involved with those programs, but they are available. And then to involve alumni with our general undergraduate population I plan events and liaise with them if they’re interested in doing something. For example, this past year I had an alumnus from New York who is a realtor and he does programs on college campuses to talk to students about moving to New York after graduation. Finding your first apartment. How to read a listing. You know, what does square footage really mean when it’s listed like that. And I worked with him and planned an event for undergraduates to bring him and his partner to campus to do the presentation, which went really well.
Kassandra Gove: …it was something different, unique. We also do events with our Student Alumni Association, which is being renamed the Terrier Connection and their role is to bring alumni to campus or students out to meet alumni and make that connection. So Stephanie, I think, can talk about some of the ways she’s been involved with those programs, but we have things like an event called Connect for Success where we bring alumni to campus and we invite all students on campus to come network with them. And it’s like a practice networking event…
Kassandra Gove: Where these alumni are usually recent graduates. They’re volunteers and it’s a good way to get familiar with working a room and managing that experience.
Cynthia Woolbright: Do you want to talk a bit about some of those ways that you’re involved. Stephanie?
Stephanie McBride: Yes, absolutely. The one that came to my mind first was Connect for Success. I think it’s a great event. I’ve gone to it a few years in a row now. they usually bring in a guest speaker who can talk about career growth or career planning. And then it’s really just networking. And I’ve met a ton of undergraduate students who were anywhere from freshmen just starting out to seniors looking for a job already. So it’s been a great way to get the pulse of what’s going on at the undergraduate level and also help mentor them and provide guidance, depending on their particular situation. It’s been fun for me as someone who’s relatively recently graduated to explain what my experience was like and hopefully help them.
Cynthia Woolbright: Great. Well then it sounds like you guys are really helping undergraduates prepare.
Stephanie McBride: Steve Hall, who runs the Alumni Relations department, calls students “alumni in residence;” so there’s definitely a focus on acknowledging future alumni and helping them prepare for their experience as alumni.
Cynthia Woolbright: Share a little bit with our readers and listeners what you’re referring to as the Recent Graduates Network. How is it organized? How does it work and how are you evaluating your success?
Cynthia Woolbright: And how many are on your recent graduates council?
Kassandra Gove: I would say six to ten. We’re a small group because it really is an advisory role for them and I don’t want too many people in the room because I want to make their experience meaningful and I want them to see results of their suggestions. That is structured a lot like our affinity network groups and they vary in, career fields, interest and locations around the world.
Cynthia Woolbright: Okay, that’s great. How are you evaluating your success with this? I know you said it’s relatively new. What are some of the indicators you use to think about the programs and whether they’re successful or not?
Kassandra Gove: We do a post event survey after all of our events.
Kassandra Gove: We just use SurveyMonkey and we send it via email. And I look closely at those. Some of the questions indicate why they chose the attend this event or what was the most meaningful part of their experience and we’ve had a lot of people rank the content as very important to them. So it tells me that I do really need to focus on these educational programs and giving them some content and exposing them to some alumni expert in a variety of fields. Some of the other questions that I ask are how many alumni events have you been to in the last six months. And I’m looking to see if they are repeat attendees And then we also just ask them if they would recommend this to their friends. And we also ask how they heard about it.
Kassandra Gove: So we’re looking for where are they learning about these events and who’s telling them about it. And I’ve been surprised by the response that a lot of them are hearing about it via email, although we are very active on social media and we have these volunteers who are out there advocating for the programming our emails are still really producing high results.
Cynthia Woolbright: I also noticed on your website you have this something called “Fresh Off Campus”. Can you tell me a little bit about how that works.
Kassandra Gove: Yes, I think that’s a great example of how to, be where your constituents are and be offering something new and different for this group of alumni. It’s something that’s really driven by our alumni online engagement staff. They either find alumni to highlight through other social media posts or people recommend them to the staff and they reach out to the alumni and ask if they would like to be interviewed. The interview typically happens about a week later. They have about ten questions that they ask and the questions are provided to the alumni participants in advance. The conversation happens on Twitter. It happens live and they go back and forth. they use a lot of hash tags and they tweet at other groups and, maybe their employer and they do it @BU and try to increase the visibility; get as many people involved as they can. And then once the conversation has ended, they use a program called Storify,which gathers all of the posts using that hash tag that they used and then they can post the interview, to Facebook and share it with other platforms.
Kassandra Gove: So their first one they did they said had a lot of followers and they had about 120 views of that interview. Which is great. So, again, something different and on a different platform and of interest to a different group. So I think it’s great. I think we can do much more with it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. We do it now every few months or as stories come up. But our focus is really on startups and, on recent grads who are not far into their career and showing that we’re supportive of them.
Cynthia Woolbright: It does sound very exciting. So it does suggest that while email is one of your ways of reaching your alumni, recent graduates in particular, you are using a lot of other platforms and social media as well.
Kassandra Gove: Yes, absolutely.
Kassandra Gove: We’ve also found that recent graduates are more active on Twitter and Instagram than they are on Facebook.
Kassandra Gove: The users of Facebook are trending a little older. So we are trying to be on Twitter and Instagram more for this group, so using something like Fresh Off Campus is a great way to do that. And we have a lot of recent graduates who tweet at us from events or when they see something that’s related to BU they’re really active on Twitter.
Cynthia Woolbright: Well, finally as we start to wrap up I’d like to hear some of the key lessons that you both have learned with these programs and what you might advise readers and listeners.
Stephanie McBride: I guess reiterating a few of the things that have come up earlier. I think one of the easy wins for a group that’s just starting out is to look at the bigger programs, the overall university programs, larger alumni events and figuring out how you can tailor a particular experience or a portion of that to your recent graduates. That’s an easy way to start engaging that audience in a different way. And then also I think having fun with it is a great way to encourage people to participate because, you’re competing with their social time. The topic has to be really compelling or, the benefit of going to the event needs to be very clear and very targeted at your particular audience, which is sometimes a challenge because, within a recent graduate population you have a lot of different interests and people with very different focus areas in their careers and lives.
Cynthia Woolbright: Great. Those are good lessons. And what about you, Kassandra? What kind of lessons have you learned now that you’ve been in it for, like, six months?
Kassandra Gove: I think definitely what Stephanie had said in that, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of programming out there that has the capability to just be tweaked a little bit to really be of interest to recent graduates and really capture their attention.
Kassandra Gove: But to really consider your constituents and what the interest is of your alumni and what is the culture like at your institution. I’m really an advocate of mirroring your student programs to your alumni programs and don’t build something that you have to do bigger and better every year.
Kassandra Gove: To build something within an umbrella that you can maintain and that’s sustainable for your organization.
Kassandra Gove is the Assistant Director of Student and Recent Graduate Programs at Boston University. Her passion for building the foundation of lifelong relationships between the University and its constituents drives her work. Kassandra is responsible for creating unique programs, events, and volunteer opportunities for BU Terriers starting as early as Orientation. Earning district and national awards for her work after 7 years in the field she is a thought leader in student and recent graduate programming. Kassandra earned a Master of Education in Higher Education Administration from the University of South Carolina and a Bachelor of Arts from Jacksonville University.