Readers of the blog were recently asked to recommend topics to explore. This topic is from Mark , who asked to read more about how to develop and continue connections with students once they become alumni of the institution. The first post will focus on how to create relationships with Greek and other student leader alumni both professionally and socially.
When I began my career in student affairs, I never thought I would find myself as the executive director for a national fraternity. I wasn’t even in a fraternity as an undergraduate student! But in a pinch, I stepped up and led a fraternity as the chief executive for four years.
Among the various student organizations I advised and managed, I had worked with fraternities and sororities in my professional capacity across several institutions. In most cases, they were some of the most involved students so it was an easy connection to make. Given my mentorship, I was invited to many different celebrations and ceremonies. It was great to connect with students who chose to be involved in values-based groups.
So it was never a surprise to hear from these same students after they graduated. I’d attend an alumnae mixer. Or go to a philanthropy event. I’d even head to a wedding, if I knew there were other staff going.
It always felt good to let off steam with former students over a cocktail, but I couldn’t ignore the risks for doing this.
Obviously, once I became an executive director, my connections with alumni changed. My livelihood depended on working with alumni members as volunteers. I chronicled this experience in a different post. All of these relationships were important for me to cultivate, for different reasons.
Honestly, there are different ways to deliberately connect with alumni after they graduate. Below are five ways you can develop relationships with students who will become alumni. I believe they will transcend organizations, position and geography, and I hope will help you out.
Five Tips for Staying Connected with Alumni
Below are five of the ways I have stayed connected with the alumni over the last 20 years. I am thinking about my Greek and student leader alumni across the country for this list, but these interactions can work with any type of alumni you know.
Become a Mentor (and Ask for Mentoring)
I’ve learned that earning a degree doesn’t always set you up to become a successful professional in a given field. I know this was true for me and I relied on mentors in my field to help me figure what the professional version of myself did and sounded like. My Greek alumni have similar experiences. I would often find myself at alumni events, talking about what they were doing in school or at work. Since we had trusting relationships, it was easy to insert next-level mentoring advice on how to manage up or holding staff accountable.
After my students graduated, I could be a little more honest with my feedback. And theirs with me, too!
But this relationship needed to also become reciprocal. As I got older, so did my former students. They held leadership or management positions that had alluded me in my own career. I needed to take advantage of their insights as much as they asked for mine. What was once humbling became something that showed we had moved go true friends. We could mentor each other in ways that were meaningful and respectful.
Invest in their Future Personally
I have always felt that if I have done my job as well as possible, then I have taught my students how to put their leadership into practice. If I am still living in the place where they call home, I want to see this in person. This usually means going to their pop-up shops. Or buying from their Etsy shops. Or buying a book they helped co-author.
I found it important to support my former students in all of their endeavors after they graduated.
Not all of our interactions need to be over a cocktail at a school-sponsored happy hour. Sometimes we can show up in the neighborhoods where our now-alumni live. As much as I want my students to remember that I am a person who works in a college, I need to remember my former Greek leaders are now leaders in their own communities.
Engage Authentically on Social Media
Our institutional social media can be very transactional. We want our alumni to see what kind of place their alma mater has become. Even from a fraternity headquarter perspective, we want them to have fond memories of their undergraduate experience while looking through our official social media posts. Often we want them to miss what they used to do and hopefully donate money.
As an alum from a private university, I am adept at knowing what these posts are supposed to do. And I skip them quickly. But I still want to engage authentically.
Without the same amount of daily interaction, social media became an important way to stay connected.
This usually means I need to be very careful and thoughtful about when and how I connect with alumni via social media. I try not to make requests of them through social media. If I can avoid it, I try not to share personal memories in comments. And try to value privacy for those who are not interested in reliving those days publicly.
Be Strategic with Their Alumni On Campus Involvement
Much like undergraduate students, we often call upon our over-involved alumni to be part of undergraduate events. We ask them to sit on alumni panels, mentor students, host students during alumni events. But unlike the multi-year involvement we can find for our favorite student leaders, we can run the risk of burnout quickly with our alums.
I had to make sure that I didn’t make too many alumni asks during a year, or I would have heard a ‘no’ more often than not!
I would try to limit my student leader alumni asks to once a year. If they volunteered their own time, I would often ask if they had a newer alumni I could work with. In this way, if burnout was going to happen, I began to develop alumni relationships with other people than the favorites I might have.
Friends or Alumni, but Both?
This issue is always the toughest to resolve, regardless of working with a Greek alum or someone unaffiliated. I always found this tough because during my time working with the students as undergraduates, I was one of the people who held them accountable for any number of campus policies. And as alumni, most of these policies went out of the window!
So was it now okay to grab a cocktail outside of a college-sponsored alumni mixer? Should I show up to their post-philanthropy event at an alum’s house for drinks? Should I hang out with their graduate chapter members, because we were closer in age, during a college Homecoming event?
When I was a younger professional, I didn’t have many friends my own age other than my recent student alums. It was tough to manage these friendships but I made it work.
One of the issues I would have to figure out was how much access an undergraduate student had to these alumni events. If it was at a chapter house, I likely would avoid it. Perhaps, if it was at a restaurant away from the college, I would show up. If an undergrad did show up, I would decide how risky the situation was. And all of this had to happen quickly without disrupting the event.
It’s a Tough Call
I am not so puritanical that I wouldn’t hang out with alums after they graduated over a cocktail or happy hour. In fact, I was happy to develop new friendships with a few of them! But I never wanted to risk my ability to hold their current undergraduate students accountable if they showed up around me, drinking underage or violating some other policy that was on the books. I also didn’t want to tell these alums they couldn’t invite certain people to their own social events.
For me, it was always important to tell alums during a a first-time meet up what my internal compass told me to do. In that way, it was easier to excuse myself early or show support in some other way for their alumni events. I was always happy to stay connected, but never at the risk of my career.
I believe its up to each professional to look at their student contacts and the context of their relationships to figure out if friendships after college are possible. Perhaps it will remain social media connections. For others, it will end up being invites to weddings and showers.
With two decades in the field, I rather look forward to the weddings and shower announcements! But the happy hours are long gone and anything after 8 pm is now a hard no.
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