Joining the Guilds

Kalamazoo College creates a set of "guilds" to connect students and alumni through meaningful projects in four interdisciplinary areas.
April 22, 2008

Imagine the 21st century college and its alumni network as comprised of a collection of guilds -- or associations of individuals involved in the same craft or trade.

At Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts institution in Michigan, the medieval concept is gaining new ground. “Despite some people’s concern that it might be conceived as a medieval, hierarchical term to use, I think people are really latching onto the more positive uses of the word. Perhaps we wouldn’t go so far to say it’s about apprentices learning from masters, but perhaps we would say that we have different generations of people all wanting to become more adept around a particular idea,” says Joan Hawxhurst, guilds coordinator at Kalamazoo.

Building out of the interest from an initial January summit, the college has constructed four guilds around broad, interdisciplinary subjects (business, health, sustainability, and justice and peace), with the idea of connecting students with alumni and, together with faculty and staff, pursuing tangible projects within the shared area of interest.

“The guilds are designed to be that vehicle which puts students and alumni and faculty and community, because we are where we are, together around something that interests all of them,” says Joseph L. Brockington, associate provost for international programs and interim dean for experiential education at Kalamazoo.

Although Kalamazoo officials acknowledge that some other institutions are doing or attempting similar things, the approach takes Kalamazoo beyond the traditional models. Many colleges have alumni events focused around certain career paths or alumni advisory committees for majors or professional areas. The concept behind guilds is to set up a more sustained and more academic interaction between alumni in various fields, students and professors.

This spring, for instance, the Business Guild sponsored a lecture and panel discussion, both featuring alumni, on entrepreneurship. The Justice and Peace Guild is hosting a forum on hunger next week and the Sustainability Guild is helping to coordinate Earth Day activities, to be celebrated Friday and Saturday. The Health Guild is sponsoring a symposium on insect-borne diseases in May: “At that first initial meeting [in January] there were a couple of students who had gotten really excited about the anti-malaria campaign, Nothing But Nets,” says Hawxhurst. Some other students were set to attend a Unite for Sight conference on preventable blindness, and students pinpointed one alumnus who had spent his career at the World Bank focused on river blindness. “They also realized that in our spring quarter here at [Kalamazoo] there was an introduction to public health class, an entomology class and a Hispanic health and culture class," Hawxhurst says.

So, at the symposium, she continues, the alumnus will give the keynote, students who attended the Unite for Sight conference will present posters and give talks, and students from the three courses will be doing presentations. They'll be inviting local alumni involved in the medical professions and public health.

“It’s an opportunity,” Hawxhurst says of the guilds, “for students to take an interdisciplinary issue about which they’re passionate and number one, build networks with folks who are in the professional world, also sharing a passion; number two, create a pathway of educational experiences...and number three, have the opportunity to be with a group of people across generations, across disciplines, who are excited about thinking about sustainability or about business or about justice and peace.”

About 170 individuals have officially signed up online for guild membership, though Hawxhurst says more are involved than have officially registered. She estimates that about 100 people were involved in the Business Guild's events earlier this month.

The Guilds stem from the strategic planning process at the college, which has made experiential education a cornerstone of its curriculum. The three-year proof of concept phase is funded largely with a quarter-million dollar grant from the McGregor Fund. In terms of growth, Hawxhurst says there has been interest in starting guilds in education, fine arts, media and technology, and public service. This summer, college officials will be training themselves in Web-based software so they can better include alumni who don’t live in the local area, says Brockington, the interim dean for experiential education
“We’ve been at this exactly 3.5 months. We’re pretty astounded that it’s working as well as it is,” says Brockington. “And the ideas are almost going faster than our ability to keep up with them.”

“We can see that there are many things that we already do that could just naturally fit in” to the guilds, adds Jeff Bartz, an associate professor of chemistry who chaired the task force that fleshed out the concept behind the guilds. He was the principal investigator on the McGregor grant proposal.

Bartz says he roped his physical chemistry students into the Sustainability Guild’s community Earth Day celebrations: They’ll be coordinating hands-on activities for children.

“I think I’ll really know if it’s taken off if students identify themselves" by guild, says Bartz.

“If they describe what they’ve been doing as a part of their guild, then I’ll know it’s become infused in the community.”


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