Tips for Comprehensive Alumni Engagement: Lessons Learned from a Diplomatic Network Meeting

The Institute of International Education (IIE) recently hosted a special meeting on “Alumni Engagement: Methods and Strategies for Engaging Returning Students,” as part of its regular series of Global Education Diplomatic Network meetings, which brings together education attaches of embassies and consulates and related organizations.

Colleagues from the Embassy of Australia, the Embassy of Germany, and the British Embassy presented their country strategies for engaging returnees. The panelists established that international students continue to be valuable long after their return. In particular, they are able to provide word-of-mouth promotion to increase visibility and maintain interest related to events and country or university issues. In addition, alumni of educational exchange tend to become future leaders in the public and private sectors, which can benefit bilateral political and economic relationships. However, fostering effective relations for a widespread group of individuals is a significant undertaking. Here are some challenges identified by our panelists and discussants.

3 challenges to comprehensive alumni engagement:

  1. Fragmented activities are not always incorporated into larger alumni initiatives. Many programs or entities have burgeoning alumni associations that are organized and operated independently and may have very little interaction with the university or centralized alumni initiatives. Creating or maintaining several alumni networks will not beget duplicated endeavors as long as there is a proactive effort to communicate, collaborate, and integrate activities between networks and a motivation to coexist under the umbrella of the comprehensive alumni initiative.
  2. Data restrictions create legal and infrastructural challenges. Data integrity and IT security related to collecting, storing, and using information about alumni were presented as obstacles by all of the panelists. Organizations that have sub-units with different policies for data collection and storage have a particularly difficult time managing consistent communication.
  3. Limited definitions of alumni exclude important connections. Narrow definitions of alumni, which can sometimes exclude short‐term exchange participants, limit engagement with a wide range of individuals who may have in‐depth experience with the institution or program.

Regardless of these difficulties, it is possible to build an active and mutually-beneficial alumni network. Here are three best-practice takeaways from the Diplomatic Network Meeting, including a range of examples from our panelists and discussants.

3 tips for comprehensive alumni engagement:

  1. Build a long‐term connection with alumni through “light touch” engagement efforts. Start with soft and undemanding communications, which connect them to you without requiring that they make a significant commitment. In addition, offer a wide range of ways for alumni to stay in touch with you, including social media, newsletters, and events in order to keep them informed of institutional and program achievements.
  2. Recognize and utilize alumni as experts, future employees, future employers, and mentors. There are many ways to do this, such as inviting alumni to attend embassy events and meet high-level visitors, asking alumni to represent the university at college fairs, and including alumni in the selection process for admissions and scholarships (alumni are familiar with the culture of the institution or program and know what it takes to succeed). In addition, alumni can be invited or encouraged, formally or informally, to mentor prospective students or selected grantees. Alumni can be great role models and can offer practical guidance to students as they start their studies and careers. Lastly, don’t forget to celebrate alumni achievements, especially those that reflect on their experience in your university or country. For example, the British Council administers the Education UK Alumni Awards giving recognition to high‐achieving alumni and providing a platform for them to stay engaged with the government and professional networks. All of these efforts establish a mutually beneficial relationship, acknowledging that past attendees and scholarship recipients participate in well‐established networks and connect with a wider community of potential and influential stakeholders.
  3. Actively work across programs and institutions to incorporate alumni in the comprehensive alumni initiative. Effectively engaging with alumni requires clear and robust coordination. For example, the British Council helps UK institutions manage their alumni networks in the United States. Four Australian universities have offices in the United States to manage alumni networks as well as other programming in country. A comprehensive strategy on program implementation or institutional internationalization requires coordination to build lasting connections with alumni. Consequently, it is important to set goals and identify success indicators to measure the impact of your alumni engagement activities and create buy-in from all levels, so that alumni engagement efforts are communicated and integrated into the larger initiative.

Here at IIE, we are also ramping up engagement with past program participants. We launched the IIE Alumni Initiative, which is a comprehensive, institute-wide effort to track, measure, engage, and leverage participants from all IIE-administered programs. Engaging IIE-administered program alumni is important for a number of reasons, including measuring the impact of our work, improving our programs and services, facilitating the continuing success of past program participants, and opening up new program opportunities. IIE manages more than 200 different programs with 35,000 participants each on behalf of a variety of governments, foundations, and corporations. To begin engagement with these past grantees, IIE recently launched a new alumni newsletter and revamped the alumni gateway page on our website.