Paying it Forward

Re-thinking what it means to be an alumna.

August 6, 2015

I graduated with my Honours degree in 1998, and a few years later I began volunteering with my Alumni Association. This was a wonderful opportunity to plan events, meet other graduates and give back to the institution that gave me (at the time) five wonderful years of education. I sat on the Alumni Council for three years, chairing different committees and making decisions on funding, selecting Distinguished Alumni Award recipients and recruiting other volunteers.

My initial term on the Council ended, and after a year I  was quickly recruited back. I continued to assist with recruiting and fundraising, but after two years I was then working at the University and had been accepted to my MA program. At this point I felt like I should either move into residence, or let something go, and the Alumni Association was sacrificed.

However, in that time, I had attended many an AGM and heard many speeches about the importance of our contributions to the University. Yet, recruiting volunteers and members of the Council continued to be a challenge. Over the years this fact became a real source of wonderment for me, as my participation with the Association seemed like such an easy decision. Why didn’t other people feel the same?

I loved my time at the University during my undergraduate degree, and it wasn’t because I was showered with scholarships and awards, as I didn’t receive any. At best, I was an OK student. I received an honours degree, but I wasn’t the type of high achiever that faculty sought out.  But I recognized that my time there was foundational to who I became as a person. I basked in the academic environment that offered me the opportunity to learn new things and meet friends that I still have to this day.

But then I began to consider it from the other (obvious) perspective: money. I wondered if many students felt that they’d paid their tuition, so why should they be obligated to give anything back to an institution that simply provided a service for which they were compensated? I wonder if they felt that the Alumni Association was simply another organization asking for donations when they, as new graduates, had so little to give.

I can appreciate that perspective.  When I get calls from charities, I often make decisions on whether this particular issue has touched my life. Cancer? Heart and Stroke? Yes. MS? ALS? No. There are so many worthy organizations out there, and not many of us have the luxury to act as philanthropists to multiple causes.

But once I began volunteering, I soon learned that the University doesn’t solicit donations to keep its lights on and pay staff. The vast majority of the fundraising done is to offer scholarships for students, with a smaller portion dedicated to bringing in international scholars, to sending students on internships and contributing to capital projects such as new residences and day care centres.

But I chose to donate my time, and I am grateful that I did. Having had 12 years between degrees, the former President of the Alumni Association wrote a reference letter that helped my entrance into my MA program – an opportunity only granted to me because of the networking I undertook as a volunteer. I’ve made some wonderful friends and connections, and also (for any new graduates reading this) gained some valuable skills to add to my résumé.  

Right now my office is actively engaged in reaching out to our Alumni – without a thought for donations or contributions of any kind other than their opinions. We are truly interested in knowing about the outcomes of their educational experience: did they find relevant employment? Did they carry on to further study? Is there some way for us to do things better? The feedback of the growing community of Alumni is invaluable for us to learn and make improvements.

The discussion around campus is that we should be offering some kind of incentive for their participation – a gift certificate or prize. And I appreciate that our time is precious, and we are constantly inundated with spam and requests – but I do hope that a good number of them take the 10 minutes out of their day to respond. I think being an alumna/us is a role to be proud of – you’ve accomplished something, and whether you feel the need to give back or simply to let the University know what you think – it’s a position that deserves respect.  


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