Alumni Relations and Student Success: an opportunity for Ireland

I just returned from an 11-day trip to Ireland with my graduate school cohort from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (http://www.gse.upenn.edu/execdoc). The purpose of the trip was to study Ireland’s higher education system. We visited 7 institutions and met with key governmental contacts, advocacy groups and quality assurance professionals. It was a fascinating experience and I have decided that future blogs in this space will be written “from the field” per se so I can provide perspectives on how international alumni relations impacts (or is impacted by) the overall goals of institutions and organizations around the world.

There is a lot of good news to share about higher education in Ireland: the country’s completion rate (defined as the completion of a certificate or tertiary degree program) is 60%. The number of 25-34 year-olds completing a tertiary degree is 48%, ranking higher than the United States (41%) and the OECD average of 37% (source: OECD, 2011). A challenge, however, is that 40,000 who complete the Leavers application for college enrollment do not find out where they have been accepted until mid-August. It’s not an ideal time line compared to traditional first-year programs in the U.S. that include a summer orientation period for students and families. In Ireland the Central Applications Office notifies students where they have been accepted and students, in turn, are required to confirm entrance and a course of study within a week of notification. International and other non-traditional full-time students are held to the similar deadlines and requirements upon entry.

There are other challenges during these first weeks. According to Sarah Moore, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Limerick (http://www3.ul.ie/ctl/first-7-weeks) students enter their course without knowing the exact curricular requirements. Moreover, a study she conducted showed the number one thing first-year students worry about is the fear of boredom. Students today are choosing courses they know nothing about and are afraid that they will not be interested in the courses they choose. Institutions like Limerick recognize that transition to college is problematic and are developing new student support services to address these challenges.

Assuming Irish institutions have the ability to mobilize a cohort of alumni both at home and abroad I believe an alumni network can serve as a support network during times of transition in three different ways:

First, with no formal summer orientation alumni can help make up for this lost time by sponsoring send-off events in their city or country for new students. Informal receptions or family-friendly events such as picnics can be venues for sharing the tacit knowledge about college life, courses and the first year with students and families. Young alumni can be tapped to speak about their most recent experience.

Second, according to the Minister of Education and Skills, Ireland wants to double the number of international students in the next 8 years. International students have different needs than domestic students and they may benefit from a class designed just for them: an acculturation class. This type of class can offer international students their own forum for discussing academic or social challenges. The class empowers students to persist and succeed by helping them work through cultural differences at the beginning. John Leedock of Benedictine University in the Chicago area has sponsored such classes (see: http://www.academicimpressions.com/news/steps-support-international-student-success) that include group trips to enjoy an American meal or invitations to professional networking events so students can observe how the locals share career advice and job opportunities. Local alumni can easily get involved with these types of outings and be resources to student service departments.

Third, new students in general have a fragile relationship with their institution in the first semester. Human relationships are central and additional interaction from alumni can help. In Ireland institutions are under pressure because of funding cuts for career guidance. If institutions are worried that students entering their first year choose their course “blindly” and there are scare employability counseling services available could alumni be invited back to campus to participate in student programs such as “Conversations with…” series featuring a set of young and mid-career alumni who share an insider’s view of studying law, finance or art history. Ireland’s Institutes of Technology may benefit from alumni career panels on careers in animation or engineering. The overall idea is to create opportunities to re-engage alumni in the life of alma mater and the current students.

As Moore stated during her presentation to the Penn group: “It’s not that we don’t have the right ingredients, it’s just that those ingredients are not joined up properly.” I would hope that Ireland may consider how to add a bit of “support spice” by engaging alumni in their retention efforts.

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