Alumni Engagement | Overcoming Obstacles

By: Brian Rosenbaum
If the most influential person to a 17-year-old is another 17-year-old, then the second most influential person is the 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old who has been in their shoes. That’s the philosophy behind College Summit Southern California’s nine Alumni Teams.
These cadres of 10+ Alumni of the program will strive to visit each of our partner high schools twice monthly, supporting our student influencers (senior Peer Leaders) and program participants as they traverse the college-going journey. They will help them apply to college, fill out the FAFSA, and use their experiences as former Peer Leaders to help them plan college-going culture events, among other duties. They will serve as role models for the next generation of college students.
Recruiting Alumni for these A-Teams – or getting substantial turnouts at past events, trainings, and meetings – has not been easy. It’s not that they’re not out there. For example, among the 1,123 College Summit seniors who enrolled in college in fall 2012 or spring 2013, 94 percent did so in the state of California. Among those, 84 percent (882) go to a college that’s within 40 miles of Los Angeles. The barriers to recruiting are bigger than numbers – they’re systemic. In my experience, the three greatest factors have been communication issues, lack of transportation, and the larger battles our students face in their lives.
Given the unparalleled changes in technology and communication seen in the last decade alone, it’s no wonder that communicating with our Alumni is a challenge. According to a 2012 Pew Research report, fewer than 40 percent of teens talk on the phone daily. Sixty-three percent are texting daily. According to a more recent 2013 Pew report, 81 percent are on social media daily. The hardest to stomach, “More than half (54 percent) of all teens now say they never use email to talk with friends.” More than once I’ve received emails from Alumni that were fraught with grammatical errors, lacked subject lines, or came from email addresses like [email protected].
I’ve dealt with this in a number of ways. Because email is how business gets done today worldwide, and I don’t have the capacity to call every Alumnus individually, I do the bulk of my Alumni communication via email. All of our Alumni receive monthly Alumni and general newsletters, in addition to event-specific emails to announce, drive attendance, or confirm RSVPs for relevant events. I’ll make the occasional phone call, but only after an initial email and two follow-ups.
I also use my emails to model appropriate email correspondence and etiquette. I reply to 99 percent of emails from Alumni within one business day. All of my emails contain a salutation, body, and signature, my best attempt at proper grammar, and concise sentences. My hope is that my Alumni will absorb these skills through e-osmosis, or at least recognize and question why our emails sometimes may look different.
Additionally, our first professional development session of the year address this very issue. The title: “Marketing Myself Online and In Person.” Participants will discuss effective communication strategies, social media and email best practices, and the daunting elevator pitch.
My greatest successes have, unsurprisingly, been in the realm of social media. Southern California is College Summit’s only region to manage both a Facebook Fan Page and a profile. This allows me to maintain our public image while being able to connect directly with Alumni, volunteers, and community partners. That “direct connection” takes many forms. I post on Alumni’s walls, comment on their statuses, tag them in photos and posts, chat with them, invite them to events, and more. One very effective organizing strategy has been tagging individual Alumni in status updates or comments, and asking them to tag a handful of their friends, thereby leveraging their real relationships and bridging them in the virtual space.
Instagram has also become an important way to celebrate our Alumni and give them a chance to share their passion for College Summit with their friends. Though I created our account less than two months ago, our page has mushroomed to 240 followers as of mid-August. We also have plans to leverage this platform to give our students a chance to represent themselves and the organization through our Student Lens Project. Through this pilot program, three Peer Leaders and three Alumni will receive College Summit-branded Instagram handles, to post at least photos weekly that reflect their high school or college experience. This will serve to raise the visibility of the College Summit brand while fostering student leadership, investment in the program, and creativity.
While Twitter has been an effective way to connect with new volunteers and media folks, its full potential in the realm of Alumni engagement remains to be seen. I’m very interested in learning more about how I can leverage this tool, though, in a way that doesn’t require being on it 24/7.
Come back in two weeks for more about my barriers to greater Alumni engagement: LA’s unique geography and transportation, and greater pressures our Alumni face.
As College Summit’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Brian Rosenbaum works to recruit and mobilize the organization’s growing volunteer and Alumni Leader base while supporting sales initiatives, program implementation, and event coordination.  Follow the adventure on Facebook by liking College Summit Southern California or via Twitter @CollegeSummitLA

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