Last month I was at a fascinating conference hosted by Lumina Foundation where a group of inspiring innovators were sharing their initiatives to enable more Americans to attain a post-secondary education. The group agreed that the folks they were trying to reach were “learners” rather than “students.”
The latter implies a stage in life before serious responsibilities intrude on what is generally perceived as a care-free “student lifestyle.” As more schools and colleges work to engage “learners,” often called non-traditional students, how does this affect the way we think about alumni?
Colleges build communities that foster fulfilling student experiences beyond what happens in the classroom. These communities complement academic preparation to set the stage for a lifetime of alumni engagement. In turn, alumni benefit current students through career contacts, advice, donations, or other opportunities to participate in an inter-generational community.
Extending beyond the campus and those who currently reside there, the alumni body shows what a difference a college’s education makes in the world. Being part of the alumni network is a valuable part of the educational experience.
As we focus more on learners with adult responsibilities who have less time for the seemingly “optional features” of the student experience, we need to rethink how to create those bonds that will connect learners across time and space in the ways this happens for “students.” How do “learners” become alumni?
Unlike classical, student-based alumni, learners tend to be more focused on acquiring the qualifications needed for immediate job advancement. There is less time for sports, co-curricular activities, community engagement, semesters abroad, exploratory internships, and optional lectures, no matter how intriguing. Instead, meeting family obligations, managing health and security, and earning money to make ends meet, will typically take up more time and effort.
When learners are not spending time in dorms, enveloped by an enriching suite of programs and possibilities, how can we expect them to develop an interest in staying connected and involved with their alma mater? And when we are intently focused on conveying knowledge and skills that can be immediately useful, do we have the time and resources to build any community?
Given the other life commitments of learners, we need to build community in different ways, by engaging what learners are doing in their lives, using the work and family experiences as ways to connect them to the curriculum, to each other, and to others in the college community. These connections are not only worthwhile in terms of anticipating their future role as alumni, they also increase the chances that they will succeed academically and professionally.
In this context, it would seem discordant to speak of alumni, but only if one is imagining fur-sporting patricians at an Ivy League reunion. Instead, we should focus on alumni as learners who joined a community of discovery that supports their efforts to reach milestones toward a more fulfilling and rewarding future.
In principle, learners are better suited for an alumni trajectory, as their experience during the initial period of academic instruction will not be so different from when they become alumni, as they hopefully will stay connected and continue to share their expertise while continuing to discover with emerging generations of learners.
But it is also useful to have alumni anticipation. How will learners’ progress be affected by everyone expecting them to continue their affiliation, engagement, and growth through the community they have joined? Indeed, the expectation that one is in the learning community for good might help overcome some of the obstacles that make it difficult for many of our non-traditional learners to reach those important milestones of certificates and diplomas.
It is different to turn your back on a transaction in which you exchange some resources for training than it is to turn your back on a family-like situation that is committed to your success for the long haul.
It would be too glib to say that we could improve attainment in higher education by simply declaring that all our learners are alumni in training. But it would not be alien to the American ethos to put some stock in the power of positive thinking, and to match that with high expectations and intense community support. After all, community is not only about the here and now, it is also about how we expect to belong in the future.
What is also remarkable about a community of learners is that it is an identity we freely chose. This also makes it unique and potentially powerful. There are few elements of who we are that we get to choose. Our phenotypes, our families, our hometowns, and for most of us, our primary and secondary schools, and for some of us, even our spouses, are not chosen freely.
Yet, the community where we want to learn in our adulthood, and through which we can choose to continue the journey of exploring to forge our careers and embellish our existence, this is one we can choose. And it is, I think, incumbent on the community we do choose to embrace each learner, not only for the part of the journey to certain prominent milestones like graduation, but for the entire journey of discovery. The enthusiasm and excitement of the first generational learner’s commitment should be met with equal energy by the community that was chosen.
To see the power of this mutual embrace, take the example of Sweet Briar College whose closure was imminent. The alumnae refused to hear it, and they rallied to save the college by doubling annual fundraising to the point that gifts now account for half the college’s budget. The road ahead will not be smooth, but the heroic surge of support from alumnae demonstrated the power of community affinity that was created across generations through the common experiences shared at the college.
I do not think that this dynamic of mutual help and affinity is simply a product of ample resources and privilege. It is part of any genuine learning process where we nurture minds with generosity that then benefit our community through higher productivity, seeing the generosity returned though alumni involvement.
Our engagement with learners will surely benefit our community, but perhaps even more importantly all learners deserve the alumni advantage.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean