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Gretchen Dobson, International Alumni Relations specialist

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?

"Strong international alumni relations programmes help internationalise the university experience and internationalise the campus"

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 >]

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