“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Those words, famously spoken by John F. Kennedy at his inaugural address, came to mind when I read an invitation to a reunion at my graduate school. They are now the marching orders with which all schools saddle their alumni. Come back and give money. Donate annually, donate during special anniversaries, donate to your class. Donate, donate, donate. Come back for a reunion! Donate to it. Come back and we’ll lecture you about how fabulous your alma mater is, and how proud you should be to have matriculated here. Come back for the reunion picnic box lunch and chicken dinner. See your old classmates, though many may be unrecognizable. Come back! We are anticipating your nostalgia, and awaiting your checks.
No wonder so many graduates never return.
The problem with this picture is obvious. The reason schools have not changed their tune is not. Here is my personal vision about how schools might build genuine affinity groups, excite returning alumni and make their “reunions” extraordinary:
Schools should start by inviting alumni back to spend two weeks on campus — free of charge.
The details of such visits would be relatively easy to organize. A school concierge can be the portal through which the alums make their arrangements. The alums can stay in the dorms, mingle with students and follow a two-week curriculum of their choice.
And they can contribute their own expertise in the process. A doctor returning to his medical school might make rounds with the interns in his field or investigate a field that he or she never had a chance to explore. The experienced doctor might sit in on lectures or even give a seminar or two, sharing life lessons.
A venture capitalist might return to their business school, share experiences in class discussions and help with case studies. Architects could discuss the challenges they face and talk about current projects. An actor might return to the school stage or conduct a few acting classes. The list goes on.
Most people would jump at a chance to revisit an earlier stage of their education or training, especially for a limited time and with no obligation. Such cross-fertilization provides school resources to alums, rekindles the excitement of learning new things and bequeaths the wisdom of the ages to students.
A loose schedule, customized for the alums’ interests, might include after class intramural sports, dorm activities and cultural programs. Overnight, the returning alumni see themselves — and are seen — as vast, accessible resources for knowledge and mentoring. The likelihood that they will fund programs in which they have participated, provide fellowships for students they meet or underwrite research projects for labs which they have visited, skyrockets.
So if you’re a school, ask your alumni what you can do for them. Provide access to your resources, create mini-sabbaticals and watch school loyalty blossom. Nourished properly, it will morph rapidly into the lifelong mutual commitment expounded in so many school mottos. As this extends through decades, reunions will lose their “re-” part — and donating won’t be an afterthought.