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Gretchen Dobson, International Alumni Relations specialist

We were able to build out a cadre of brand ambassadors that were able to speak out for the admissions office and increase international student enrolments
July 5 2013
7 Min Read

Gretchen Dobson is a self-styled international alumni relations specialist. She talks to The PIE about the value of universities building global alumni networks, to enhance both outbound study abroad and international recruitment intiatives.

The PIE: So, firstly, how can international alumni abroad help with international student recruitment?

GD: Basically I believe that international alumni are true brand ambassadors, they have a keen understanding of what it was like to attend their institution from coming abroad. Their international experience is something they’ve invested in, highly financially. We know that they’ve all contributed at the top levels financially, to go to school. They want to make those opportunities available to the next generation or the students coming after them in their own area. They are empathetic to their experience of going to a different country.

The PIE: And how are individual universities trying to leverage their international alumni?

GD: Let me give you an example; the international recruitment offices and alumni of University of Warwick have been busy working on the student recruitment element as their primary role and they’ve programmed student send-off events in the summer.

“They work together with alumni to provide a face-to-face resource for prospective students”

I’ve encouraged them to invest more resources, more money, to do some programming with the alumni in the Asian region, for example, to help, build a stronger presence so when they are doing promoting work at secondary school, college fairs, they are able to work together with alumni to provide a greater resource; a face-to-face resource for prospective students.

The PIE: And how did you initially get involved in this scene, do you see yourself as an international alumni expert? And if so, how did you become one?

GD: I do, I think GDGoGlobal is the only consultancy that’s focused specifically on international alumni relations and I developed an interest in becoming the specialist in this area after working for Tufts University. As a practitioner at Tufts, I lead the development of building a global network from 12 to 70 alumni chapters.

In 2009, while volunteering for CASE, I conceived Being Global, the first book about intl alumni relations, published in 2011.

I saw a need for more developed and professionalized services in the IAR area.

The PIE: So you built up a global alumni network at Tufts?

GD: Yes by 2006 we had a global event called ‘Tufts World Day’. That brought in about 38 groups around the world to celebrate their connection to Tufts on the same day in 2006. That was a turning point, at that moment there were other alumni, you know, in other regions that kind of held up their hands and said listen we want to get involved as well!

The PIE: Were your alumni rewarded in any way or…?

GD: Yes, yes and that’s a big piece of my strategy as well. I would say there’s a three-step process, and really it’s about recruiting the right volunteers, retaining them while they are volunteering and making sure that they are referring other alumni to the institution to get involved, and all of that is really about building relationships.

“It’s about having time face-to-face with the alumni relations officer”

Through each of those stages I embed incentives. It’s about having time face-to-face with the alumni relations officer; making sure that those alumni groups were invited to share their perspectives about what it is to live abroad and to represent the school.

The PIE: How does an institution set up an international alumni programme?

GD: It’s really important that institutions and schools and organisations have four requisite items before they get involved in an international relation alumni’s programme; they have the support from their leadership and their boards; they have staff members that are committed to working in this area; they are also able to travel and be face-to-face with the alumni as much as possible and to share updates, build relationships in person; and they need to have a budget to support the activities and they need to have a volunteer base of alumni who are going to be part of the planning process from the beginning.

If they haven’t identified who these people are, then that would be something to do for the first several months before getting out there on the road.

The PIE: Do you think the hardest bit is finding the alumni to start with?

GD: Well I think that the alumni are finding each other already, through social media. They’re going to know how to find each other, it’s a matter of “Will the institution be able to meet them and develop a kind of community using social media?'” [more >]

GD: For those alumni that may want to partner up with the alumni relations office right away, I would look back to the last five or six years and ask “Who was active on campus?”; “Which alumni were parts of the student guilds or who was active with the student societies?”

The PIE: Do you think alumni relations are more developed in the US or in the UK?

GD: For the last 100 years this industry-of-sort for higher education has been building over time. Being a member of an organisation, being a member of a church, being a member of a professional group, being a member of the PTA or you know, being a member of one’s town committee, that kind of thing is engrained in the culture of the United States, people easily join up.

“It’s culturally built into the fabric of the experience”

The alumni relations office has been working tighter and tighter alongside student services, student activities, career services on many campuses. The alumni association is often saying “congratulations” to students when they graduate and are right there during the graduation saying “you are now a member of the alumni association of XYZ college and here is your lifetime ticket to stay involved”.

Its culturally built into the fabric of the experience, and sometimes people choose universities based on reputation and they know that ‘once I become an alum of a particular university I know I am going to have a much easier time trying to find a job’ because of the strong network…

The PIE: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess in my perspective I have never considered my British university in that context, I have to say.

GD: But British universities are moving into that context. What happens is that, in the United States we have institutions that differentiate themselves based on market forces. They use media, they use advertisements, they use alumni, there are all these different ways to differentiate one school from another.

The PIE: So you see a strong alumni network useful for domestic recruitment as well as international recruitment if it can help build a brand.

GD: Absolutely, there’s no downside.

And strong international alumni relations programmes help internationalise the university experience and internationalise the campus. A student will seek a study abroad opportunity because they know that there’s more than just a new campus, a new city, they know that there’s going to be, ideally, a vibrant network of international alumni who will engage with those students and be part of that experience.

The PIE: Where are your main clients? Is it just the UK and North America or do you have clients in other countries..?

GD: I’ve worked around the world from Finland to Hong Kong and from the United sStates to the UK to Italy and I’ve also worked with the US State Department’s Fulbright Program.

The PIE: At Tufts did you see an increase in international students applying to Tufts as a direct result of your alumni engagement?

“There are over 3000 volunteers, spending time with prospective students”

GD: The answer is yes, and the answer is yes because at Tufts we have a large global group of volunteers who were interviewers for something called the Tufts Alumni Admissions Program. There are over 3000 volunteers around the world, spending time with prospective students, interviewing them and staying in touch with them during their application stage.

We supported international alumni to be volunteers for the admissions office and I also encouraged them to do more community work and to have more programmes for current students, prospective students, the alumni and the family, so we built out stronger networks. In Korea we were doubling and tripling our number of applicants and in Turkey we did the same thing.

The PIE: Did you offer a financial incentive to those alumni?

GD: Our alumni were not at all agents for us; they were volunteers with a pure perception of making sure that prospective students had a realistic and a thorough view of the university. They could provide that in their own perspective but they also wanted the university to have a very good perspective of the candidate and so they would write up character references, complete the forms and send it in.

They were optional interviews, but you know what, I think it really gave the home institution a chance to see the applicant through another person’s eyes.

The PIE: That is really interesting..

GD: The nice thing about this opportunity, is that its time-sensitive. We know that students are applying between October and December and it’s important to the alumni they know that they have a short-term volunteer commitment of a few hours, to do a few different interviews.

“It really gave the home institution a chance to see the applicant through another person’s eyes”

They’re investing in that process, they want the best quality students to be going to the school from which they graduated. That programme was highly coordinated with the alumni relations international strategy and we were able to build out a cadre of brand ambassadors that were able to speak out for the admissions office, and that is one of the ways we were able to increase international student enrolments in general.

I built very valuable relationships with families across the international networks as well because we knew that they were going to speak highly of the universities in their own circles.

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