Q & A with Christine Clark-Talley, Executive Director of Alumni Affairs
Posted: November 6, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am
Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette. To view previous articles, visit the Q&A archive page.
By Colleen Kearney Rich
Could you tell us a little about where you see the Office of Alumni Affairs in relationship to the university as a whole?
The primary role of the Office of Alumni Affairs is to engage alumni in the life of the university and encourage their support. We accomplish this through our own communication and outreach efforts and by helping to support activities initiated by departments and academic units throughout the university. We work closely with the Alumni Association board of directors to assist it in meeting its goals and to facilitate its integration with the university community. We attempt to promote spirit and affinity in all that we do, and we are committed to fostering traditions even as we create new ones.
What were some of your successes in the past year?
We are in the process of conducting an online alumni survey that will measure alumni attitudes toward Mason and their level of interest in being involved with and supporting their alma mater. As far as I know, this is the first time alumni have been asked to respond to this type of survey. The survey was sent to 15,000 alumni.
We also recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Alumni Association. Our celebration included the production of a popular commemorative university calendar and a recognition ceremony for the past presidents of the Alumni Association. The past presidents have since come together to re-engage the Past Presidents Council and are identifying future projects. We have increased our e-mail addresses from 2,500 just three years ago to more than 15,000, greatly enhancing our communication efforts.
The MasonWire monthly e-newsletter is now in its third year and we continue to receive great feedback from it. We also launched an online directory last year with the help of development services and the Information Technology Unit (ITU). This gives alumni an easy way to update their record or find a friend. Finally, alumni have shown their Mason spirit by increasing participation in events and supporting The Campaign for George Mason University in record numbers. Thanks to many great initiatives that have enhanced the quality of student life, pride in alma mater is on the rise, particularly among our more recent graduates. Hopefully, this includes our student outreach efforts and partnerships throughout the university that link the alumni association with students.
Have the budget cuts had an impact on your operations?
The budget cuts directly impacted the circulation of the Mason Spirit alumni magazine. We have maintained the production of three issues per year; however, only the fall issue is sent to all alumni.
In general we have had to be even more creative and resourceful and have relied more heavily on sponsorships. We also try to maximize our resources by partnering with departments and academic units throughout the university. We have many campus partners with whom we work closely to develop joint programs and outreach initiatives. We are always looking to expand our partnerships and identify new ways to collaborate.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing your office today?
One of the biggest issues we face is competing with the thriving metropolitan area in which we are located. More than 60 percent of our alumni live and work in the greater metropolitan, D.C., area. They may hear about their alma mater so often that they may not develop the same sense of nostalgia as alumni at other universities. We are competing for time and energy in their busy lives in an area that provides endless opportunities for entertainment and professional enhancement.
Our challenge is to ensure that the programs and services we offer are distinct and unique. We need to emphasize the value of the Mason connection in all that we do. And in some cases we are challenged with developing feelings of pride, as opposed to rekindling them. Fortunately, one of our biggest issues is also a huge asset. Because so many of our alumni are in the area, we are accessible to them as long as we can find the right connection. As our reputation grows, the value of their degree grows. Considering the proximity of our alumni community to the university, the potential for advocacy is tremendous.
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing your operation?
We gain approximately 4,000 new constituents every year and yet our budget does not increase to accommodate them. Maintaining high quality communication with our alumni is a priority, and it is increasingly difficult. One of our greatest resources is our alumni e-mail database because it gives us a cost effective way to communicate. However, we currently have e-mail addresses for only 17 percent of our 89,000 alumni, so we are always looking for ways to acquire more.
Another challenge is coordinating with departments and academic units throughout the university so that we can share information, pool our resources efficiently, and communicate most effectively with our alumni volunteers. Our alumni community represents tremendous potential support for the university. The university has a lot to offer alumni in terms of networking and professional development opportunities. But we need to connect with a greater number of alumni and find ways to involve them in our programs and services. While the responsibility for alumni relations lies within this office, it is actually the responsibility of the entire university community. The challenges are great, but the potential to make an impact is greater.
What are your long-term goals for the office and the Alumni Association?
We plan to develop a coordinated volunteer program that connects various opportunities throughout the university into a single user-friendly source that will facilitate greater alumni service and support. We are in the process of developing a student alumni chapter that will serve as the student branch of the Alumni Association. The goals of the student chapter will include fostering school pride and loyalty, and linking students and alumni in meaningful ways. We hope to glean valuable information from the alumni survey that will enable us to better serve alumni needs and interests and increase alumni involvement.
We also strive to increase alumni visibility within our internal and external communities. The accomplishments of our alumni are the university’s accomplishments and we will continue to seek opportunities to recognize and promote alumni successes. The Alumni Association’s goals include creating a larger pool of volunteers and potential leaders, providing leadership development opportunities for the board and 15 alumni chapters, and increasing student and university outreach.
Have you added any new staff or programs that you would like the university community to be aware of?
We plan to launch a service this month, again with the help of development services and ITU, which will provide lifetime e-mail forwarding for alumni. We hope that this will encourage alumni to demonstrate their affiliation with George Mason.
I am pleased to share that alumna Katie Mirick, M.P.A. ’03, recently joined the Alumni Affairs staff as assistant director. Katie brings with her significant volunteer coordination experience and joins a great team that includes Andy Ackley, associate director; Heidi Kibirsky, assistant director; and Carole Richardson, office manager. Though we’re not a large staff, we manage to cover a lot of ground through numerous university committees and various university partnerships. We are fortunate to work with a wonderful group of alumni volunteers and leaders and make new friends every day.