Creating Community in a Time of Social Distancing

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Monday, May 17, 2021
By Lauren Apicella
Photo by iStock/svetikd
COVID-19 has reshaped the ways in which we sustain and enrich relationships with our global community of alumni.

Just a year ago, none of us could have imagined how dramatically our world would shift. Suddenly, all travel was canceled. Classes and social gatherings were moved online. As associate director of alumni relations for Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., I faced a fundamental question: In a world defined by social distancing, how could we continue our goals of alumni engagement?

In early February 2020, our career services and alumni relations office was planning exciting alumni events in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Bermuda, and London. When we had to cancel events on the West Coast during the last week in February, we called it a “postponement.” We were sure that, by May, life would return to “normal.” It took a few months for us to realize that we would be living online indefinitely. It was not until July that we announced that our Graduate Alumni Reunion planned for the fall—one of our biggest annual events—would be converted to a virtual format. 

We felt overwhelmed and uncertain in the first difficult months of the pandemic. But despite that uncertainty, our staff has been able to increase alumni engagement. We did it by focusing on our audience and finding new opportunities for connections. At the same time, we weighed how we could align our activities with Georgetown McDonough’s broader strategic initiatives to ensure we put our scarce resources to good use.

PILLARs of Engagement

In the months before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, our dean announced an ambitious initiative to have an alumnus or parent teach in each of our classes. The program would allow us to bring industry expertise into our classrooms in real time, while strengthening connections alumni have with one another and with the school.  

In 2019, we started to build out what this program would look like. We wondered how we would address the challenges of determining when busy executives would be in the D.C. area and coordinating their travel to campus.

But once our world went virtual, we realized one of the amazing benefits of our technology-enhanced environment: The limitations of the pandemic paradoxically made the limitations of geography go away. Instead of asking executives to set aside a day or more on their schedules, we just needed an hour or two.

From there, we have seen rapid growth in our PILLARs (Partners in Leadership, Learning, and Research) program. Since spring 2020, more than 100 alumni and parents have brought their perspectives to our students’ academic experience. Faculty also have invited alumni to their office hours to participate in informal virtual coffee chats with students, answering questions about their careers.

In addition to connecting alumni with students, we regularly asked alumni to weigh in on the school’s strategic initiatives. We brought alumni experts together with faculty to discuss several school initiatives, some of which focus on what we call “Fields of the Future.” These include technology, data, and the future of work; sustainable business; business and policy; the business of healthcare; and diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

Hoyas Helping Hoyas  

As news spread of how the pandemic was affecting our campus and students, we saw an outpouring of support from alumni asking how they could help. In response, we identified priorities where alumni engagement could make a difference. In March, we began tracking where and how our alumni were interacting with the school so we could make the best use of their time.

We now regularly ask faculty in all departments, via email and at monthly meetings, to identify alumni who engage the most with our business school or who are asking how they could help. We gather this information in a central Google Sheet, so that we can more easily see alumni engagement across the entire school.

These efforts proved invaluable in the early months of the pandemic, when many organizations changed or canceled our students’ job offers and internships. Together with our McDonough Career Services team, we quickly coordinated a campaign called Hoyas Helping Hoyas that asked alumni for their assistance in replacing these opportunities. In all, 200 of them stepped up to help students find jobs and internships, provide projects that students could work on for their firms, and offer advice and mentorship.

Once our world went virtual, we realized one of the amazing benefits of our technology-enhanced environment: The limitations of the pandemic paradoxically made the limitations of geography go away.

Thanks to the support of our alumni, 2020 graduates from both our undergraduate and full-time MBA programs had higher average starting salaries than their peers the previous year. Compared to 2019, a larger percentage of undergraduates received full-time job offers than in 2019, and the same percentage of continuing students completed internships before the start of their final year.

With so many alumni offering to work with our students, the school also was able to accelerate a mentorship program for MBA students that it had piloted in 2019. Last year, we formally launched the program for incoming full-time students. In all, more than 200 alumni volunteered to serve as mentors, so we were able to provide mentors to all 130 students who signed up for the program.

Bringing Alumni Together

Throughout 2020, we looked for ways to engage alumni and give them opportunities to connect with each other during a time when the pandemic forced more people into a state of isolation. With that in mind, during the summer, we polled alumni on Twitter to ask them which of four topic areas—healthcare, education, remote work, or other—would be of greatest interest (education won).

We then asked alumni to help us put activities together by sharing their expertise across a range of topics; some even directly reached out to offer their assistance in putting together events. For one such event, we hosted a panel on how COVID-19 impacted different industries, featuring alumni around the world from Brazil to Singapore; for another, we addressed reskilling and the future of work.

In addition, we collaborated with Georgetown’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Association on events showcasing the expertise of interdisciplinary faculty, who discussed topics such as remote work and the impact of artificial intelligence on the workplace. A few of our student clubs gave us permission to share their virtual programming with alumni as well.

Our Graduate Alumni Reunion presented our greatest challenge. We were very disappointed to have cancel our face-to-face celebration, but we worked with our class committees to convert what is traditionally a weekend bash to a three-hour virtual event on a Friday afternoon. The event included presentations by our leadership, a faculty and alumni panel discussion of big data and COVID-19, and virtual happy hours for each graduating class. 

Learning What Works

I work with just one other person to manage our engagements with 25,000 alumni. As we began moving our engagements with this group online, it first felt as if we were throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what approaches would stick. But we paid attention to which events were most successful. We sent post-event surveys that asked alumni to evaluate events on everything from the quality of the audio and video to the overall experience they had, whether they were attending or presenting—over time, we learned what worked.

For example, afternoon events had far better attendance those held in the morning or evening—or even at noon—which surprised us. We focused most of these sessions on academic presentations by faculty, but we discovered that an alumni-taught cooking class and a series of Excel skills sessions also proved to be popular. 

As we began moving our engagements with this group online, it first felt as if we were throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what approaches would stick. But over time, we learned what worked.

Not all of our virtual interactions went smoothly. We struggled with password access and audio and visual quality. During one event that I hosted, my own wireless connection to the internet blipped briefly, which ended the meeting for everyone. Luckily, attendees were able to log back on immediately. During the reunion, we also had technical issues with getting attendees into breakout rooms, which made some class happy hours less than ideal.

However, I have learned that it’s important to be patient with myself and others when these technological glitches arise. If we immediately accept responsibility and take action to resolve these issues, participants are generally forgiving.

Taking Advantage of Virtual

Prior to COVID-19, we held only in-person events. Since the pandemic began, we have hosted more than 30 virtual events. Although attendance decreased as people began suffering from “Zoom fatigue,” we still had greater attendance than the previous year. For example, in December 2019, our in-person events attracted less than 100 attendees; in December 2020, our virtual events often attracted more than 200.

We plan to incorporate virtual events into our strategy even once we can gather in person safely once again. We also will make the Hoyas Helping Hoyas an annual campaign.  

Although we were initially uncertain how the pandemic would affect our alumni engagement, the past year has taught us that virtual formats offer us three invaluable benefits that we had not realized before. First, with no need for travel, alumni will more freely share their time with students, faculty, staff, and each other in virtual environments.

Second, the virtual environment has made more of our alumni want to connect with our students in meaningful ways. Over the past year, we found that many also were seeking chances to interact with the world outside their homes and offices.

Finally, our experience has showed us that if we ask alumni for help, they will deliver with great enthusiasm, whether by coming up with ideas for panels, suggesting interesting speakers, providing opportunities for students, or contributing expertise. We will take what we’ve learned to grow and sustain these valuable relationships as we emerge into a post-COVID world.

Lauren Apicella
Associate Director of Alumni Relations, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University
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