Spiders' Web

June 22, 2010

The University of Richmond is opening up its Rolodex.

In a move that reflects the university’s desire to help students land jobs after graduation, Richmond is stepping up its efforts to connect students with successful alumni. While networking among young and older graduates is nothing new, Richmond is taking some deliberate steps to connect current students more frequently and formally with those who came before. Chief among those steps is a rather novel decision to combine the university’s career services offices with alumni relations and fund-raising operations.

For obvious reasons, it’s not uncommon for alumni relations and fund raising to be joined at the hip -- and that’s long been the arrangement at Richmond. Far less traditional, however, is the notion of pulling career services operations out of student affairs -- where such programs are typically housed -- and linking that function directly with the alumni association and advancement office.

“The rationale was that we really wanted to connect our alumni with our students, and really try and harness the power of our alumni network,” said Tom Gutenberger, vice president of advancement.

“We’ve got to be more creative and I think more aggressive in helping students find jobs, and that’s why we’re going to lean harder on alumni than we ever have,” he added. “At the same time our alumni and parents are saying, 'We really want to help you do this.' ”

It's no secret that prospective students and parents pay attention to job placement rates at Richmond and elsewhere, and one of the university’s goals is certainly to assure them that there’s “gainful employment” at the end of the college journey. Richmond's latest survey of graduates, which measured job placement or graduate school attendance, found 92 percent of graduates had secured positions in six months and 95 percent had in a year.

The goals of linking alumni affairs, career services and advancement don’t end with improving placement rates, however. Richmond officials say they can further engage alumni by giving them an opportunity to help current students, and building those relationships could lead to future alumni gifts to the university. As for the students who may score a good job or internship through an alumni connection, that’s something that’s likely to strengthen the students’ own allegiances to their alma mater as well, the theory goes.

“If they feel like the university helped them get a job, it’s one more connection and level of indebtedness. I think long term that will help a great deal,” said Gutenberger, himself a 1987 Richmond graduate.

As far as the day-to-day advice students receive, they aren’t likely to notice a huge difference when Richmond changes its reporting structure in July. Career services personnel, who bring student affairs backgrounds with them, will still be on the front lines advising students on opportunities. But Richmond envisions significantly greater collaboration between the three offices. When advancement officers talk to potential donors – often identified through alumni affairs – they’ll be asking whether the prospects have job or internship opportunities for students, and passing that information along to career services.

It’s serendipitous that Richmond’s mascot is the spider, and university officials are already playing up the “wonderful web” of contacts they hope to introduce to students. Kristin Woods, associate vice president for alumni relations, sounds giddy as she ticks off some of the university’s favored sons and daughters: Kevin Eastman, assistant coach of the Boston Celtics; Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour; and Melanie Liddle Healey, a high-ranking Procter & Gamble executive.

“By having an engaged alumni network, our degrees become more valuable,” said Woods, whose title will expand to associate vice president for alumni and career services come July.

Before coming to Richmond, Woods worked at Bucknell University -- an early adopter of the combined alumni, fund-raising and career services structure. Pam Keiser, interim executive director of alumni relations and career services at Bucknell, said the arrangement has allowed the university to better link students, alumni and the development office.

“We had a good relationship with our alumni office, but there definitely were some missed opportunities to be strategic with our alumni population,” said Keiser, who served as senior associate director of the career development center before the offices merged in 2008.

By way of example, Keiser notes that she never knew who development officers were meeting with prior to the merger. Now Keiser scans their travel itineraries, and she often requests that the advancement officer tell the potential donor about opportunities to work with students on career development.

The results of Bucknell’s merger have been positive, Keiser says. Despite the economic downturn, the university has added about 1,000 new internship opportunities for students in the last two years. The university’s latest job placement survey also shows that, for the class of 2009, just 5 percent of graduates were still seeking employment nine months after graduation.

Bucknell is careful to stress with students, however, that they’ll only secure the kind of positions they want if they pound the pavement themselves.

“We let them know that they need to own this. This is their future,” Keiser said. “While we’re here to advise them every step of the way, if they’re not invested in it and they’re not a part of it, it may help to increase the odds that they’re not successful.”

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