This Virtual Roundtable was held on the 15/Apr/2020. A number of university engagement professionals gathered to discuss the challenges, opportunities and responses to the pandemic situation. Below we present the highlights and takeaways. 

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Challenges and Opportunities

Each attendee was asked to highlight their challenges and opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is what they said…

Challenges Opportunities
Student stress, especially amongst finalists / leavers Sympathetic fundraising (eg clinical/medical)
Fundraising – is it appropriate now? Time to review current activities and processes
Engaging with volunteers in new ways, moving programmes online Go back to basics: Take advantage of the “open” calendar to rethink dates and concepts for usual events. Asking: Why do we do things in a specific way?
Keep the usual projects going Auditing platform mentors and activity in depth
Restrictions on messaging that can be sent out from central teams Redefining meaningful engagement
Handling event cancellations/changes Mentoring demand continues, good time to get ‘stuck in’, doing an audit of mentors
Internal staff pressures, team changes in difficult circumstances Chance to meaningfully engage with final year students / leavers
Finding time to dedicate to managing community (and platform) Alumni survey sent during this time gained very high response rates

: Lincoln’s Alumni Support for Finalists initiative 

Jane Mitchell, Lincoln College, University of Oxford

Jane sent an email to 600 students getting them to write a couple of lines on the type of alumnus with whom they’d like to connect. Nearly 50% (240) came back with requests for support. Jane compiled these and sent a list to all alumni (around 6000) asking them to choose a student from the list to support generating over 400 responses.

It took three weeks but now nearly every student has one or more matches. Alumni have also offered other exciting opportunities for students including three summer internships and a free online Python programming class for students. The college has also discovered some of their alumni have gone on to do amazing things that they had not been aware of previously.

Other Initiatives

Other initiatives that have been undertaken by institutions included:

  • Setting up an emergency fund to accept alumni donations to be able to support students with home study
  • Creating a Key Workers campaign on social media, to shout out Key Workers and their impact on this situation
  • Aligning messaging with the need for PPE in order to support a university hospital
  • One institution found a survey to alumni informing them of next steps received a very good response rate. The feedback will help inform the institution’s offering moving forward

Additional HE efforts are detailed in this paper: How universities are helping fight Covid-19.

Open Roundtable Discussion

Managing and scaling engagement initiatives

How to manage something like the Lincoln initiative above (including a level of personalized partnership matching support) with high numbers of constituents? Can this be achieved with less staff time requirement? Aluminati is actively exploring how this would scale and will report back to the attendees. 

How best to communicate with / engage final year students?

Some teams have limited communications to students, e.g. only one email six months prior to graduation. These were some of the ideas and strategies that institutions were considering to help with increasing these for better engagement.

  • Focus on developing channel with student reps, unions and faculty leads
  • Partnership with the Careers services
  • Asking alumni chapter leaders to record a 30-second video and send to leavers to ‘welcome’ them to the alumni community

The group discussed the merits of ‘flipping’ the model of engagement on the platform:

In this model, students request help and alumni approach them rather than the status quo of vice versa. These are the merits considered:

  • Makes the alum feel that they are proactively helping and empowered, and reduces the issue of keen alumni volunteers not being contacted
  • Gives students the opportunity to decide who to connect with, and stops programme feeling over-managed
  • This could overcome some other issues, like students lack of proactivity or social anxiety
  • Volunteering can be a two-way street – students can support older alumni that may be quite isolated

It emerged teams are now taking more time to review their platform and online projects, as it is now a key way to build community and maintain engagement.

There was a focus on final year students and how to transition them into the alumni community smoothly, without physical graduation ceremonies and how to manage expectations in times of crisis.

  • One institution is looking at doing digital ceremonies, whilst another did mentor matchmaking sessions online
  • For delayed graduation, the word “Postponed” is used to avoid huge disappointment across the student population
  • Create online alumni committees to plan videos and welcome initiatives for recent graduates
  • Another institution had the idea of getting students online to create own motorboard & gowns
  • A Vice-Chancellor is facilitating health professional graduations so they can join the pandemic effort

Who is a key influencer in your institution that may now support digital engagement projects due to the circumstances? Who wields the power? 

  • An example cited, Financial Director’s concern about falling admission
  • However, attendees generally did not report noticing any significant shift in influence due to the pandemic.

Session Feedback

This was a friendly, relaxed virtual roundtable of engagement professionals. All attendees confirmed they had found it useful and were keen to have dates set for future events. Aluminati will shortly be sending invites to the next two roundtable events. If you want to be kept in the loop please join our Community Builders network below.

Aluminati’s COVID-19 Support Packages

Aluminati have created two initiatives to support the short term emergency response requirements of the education sector: 

Student Admissions Retentions Platform:

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