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International Alumni – a Gold Mine for Many Reasons

Happy Chinese New Year to friends at home and abroad. The Spring Festival is upon us (actual date is February 19) and I wanted to share a few thoughts in response to a recent post on Inside Philanthropy:
The contributor writes about what I agree is often an untapped resource: our international alumni. The post is about the experiences of an Indian-born student who attended UCLA and earned his master’s and doctorate degree in engineering. The alum had such a positive experience he made several large gifts which, over time, has resulted in the most recent gift of $2.5 million to build a semiconductor lab. Good for the alum and good for UCLA!
However, we know gifts of this kind are not the norm and that we are aspiring to broaden participation beyond giving to international alumni volunteerism in the form of student recruiters, regional chapter leadership, event hosts, internship sponsors and career advisors, and alumni association board members.
Yes, current donors will be more likely to donate again but current volunteers could also be likely to sustain their participation and, when it is a good experience, the idea of making a contribution may take on more meaning and relevance in their lives.
The key is for universities to remain relevant in the lives and hearts of alumni abroad. I’ve written before about the linkage between international student satisfaction and international alumni engagement. UCLA’s story here is a case in point. So, relevance should begin as early as possible with students. Alumni can help create a better student experience and, in turn, feel more involved than ever in the life of their alma mater.
It could be a win-win.

Assessing Readiness: the International Travel Barometer

My new book, the International Travel Handbook: Engaging Constituents Abroad (Academic Impressions, 2014) does not assume that all readers and their institutions are poised to jet off tomorrow to advance their agendas. Indeed, that is one of the goals of the Handbook but a more important outcome for readers is to acknowledge their overall readiness to embark on more global initiatives and travel.

There are more resources and relationships to leverage than a budget and a locale when working abroad. International academic, admissions and advancement officers must look beyond their own functional domain and think about the overall international story and how that is projected today with key stakeholders.

A key tool in the book is the International Travel Barometer. The Barometer assesses readers’ preparedness by scoring responses to a set of 10 questions that reflect on the international sources of information and resources. The cumulative score is discussed using a sliding scale developed to highlight areas for further development and discussion. Here are some of the questions:

Can you describe roughly the international demographics that define your student and alumni body?

Are you aware of what other offices are doing in terms of international engagement?

Do you know which staff members are working abroad, what resources they have and the nature of their relationships?

My hope is that the Barometer is shared across staffs and planning committees. I believe it will elicit some new conversations across departments and academic divisions. International travel and the importance of advance and thorough planning cannot be underestimated!

Alumni as Brand Ambassadors

This October I will return to Beijing to attend the China Annual Conference for International Education – or CACIE ( I am returning to speak at CACIE’s Forum on International Student Mobility (ISM). The Forum theme is “International student mobility and study-in-China — a global perspective”. More than 400 professionals from international offices and faculties will attend the forum.

The International Education Exchange Journal is published by the China Education Association for International Exchange.   ( with a readership of 2000 people across China. CEAIE has invited CACIE speakers to submit comments in advance.

I am excited to partner with Mr. Wang Yong, Deputy Director of International Office from Peking University another representative from UIBE (University of International Business and Economics, China).

For the Journal, I have submitted the following session description and am asking participants to think with me about some important considerations:

  “Alumni as Brand Ambassadors: the Advantages of an Exuberant and Connected Network”

International outreach can be much more successful when institutions involve their most genuine brand ambassadors – alumni. Their personal history with the academic institution is of incredible value to prospective students and families. The session will help institutions develop a strategic process to leverage international alumni abroad for student recruitment. These steps include developing relationships with not just alumni but regional alumni organizations, institutional student recruiters, community organizations, and more. Learn about best practices abroad and assess your institution’s next steps.

In advance of this session I am asking participants to step back and consider some key considerations that impact an institution’ ability to develop alumni-student networks:

1) Demographics

What do your demographics show? Where are your target markets for international student recruitment? Is there a correlation (or a growing correlation) between an increase in prospective students and engaged alumni poised to help? Why does this matter?

2) Current levels of Satisfaction among Alumni and International Students

A recent article captured the key findings of a new survey completed by 60,000 international students representing 48 institutions in the US, UK and Australia:

“…While students were by and large satisfied, the data show variations by country of origin. Students from Europe report higher rates of satisfaction and willingness to recommend the institution as compared to their peers from Asia: ‘It is notable that China ranks #1 in terms of number of international students, but #26 among the thirty largest nationalities on overall satisfaction, and #21 on recommendation’ (that is, willingness to recommend the institution).”

The report suggests possible causes for these variations: “for example, greater familiarity with English may help explain higher satisfaction rates for students from India compared to students from East Asia, and particular cultural traits such as comparatively open-minded or critical outlooks could also affect student ratings.”

Other key findings reported and important to consider:

“Beyond country of origin, the analysis also found variations in satisfaction level according to level of parental education: the higher the ratio of first-generation college students within the international student population, the lower the overall satisfaction rate. The report states that first-generation international students — who at some institutions in the sample make up nearly 50 percent of the international student body – are more likely to be culturally, academically and financially disadvantaged, which may lead to a less rounded and more problem-beset experience, and lower satisfaction.” These students and families may not have access to sound information or be “more susceptible to suspect recruitment practices.”

The report states that students are generally very satisfied with the academic experience and quality of teaching. But outside the classroom, satisfaction levels are a bit lower: “making good contacts as far as career prospects are concerned, friendship with domestic students, organized social activities, and visa or immigration-related advice.”

As I read the above findings I believe institutions have an opportunity (and a responsibility) for developing structured programs that will foster relationships between international alumni and current international students.

But, first, how satisfied do the international alumni feel about their own experience? How do they view the brand of their alma mater and the value of their degree?

Therein lies an equation: satisfied international students = greater likelihood for satisfied alumni. Alumni must be engaged today. Identify who they are, where they reside and work, and invite them to participate in creating more satisfying experiences for their younger counterparts who are university students today and those who desire the same opportunity to study abroad.


Fielding Foreign Donations

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked me to comment on the controversial aspect of foreign gifts. The motives of benefactors may be questioned when large governmental gifts to universities coincide with or follow major foreign policy conflicts in their region. Likewise, gifts from one individual or a family may be questioned when there are several perceptions about the original motives of their donation(s).
Universities strive to be transparent, ethical and mission-driven in their academic and advancement practices. Advancement officers and leadership should accept gifts only when they meet a campus priority and not just because there is money on the table. Donors may have their own ideas about what “win-win” means when discussing a potential gift. Advancement officers can minimize controversy by doing the following: 1) research the region and know the political climate; 2) conduct due diligence on prospective donors or foreign entities such as corporations and foundations; 3) determine if there are any political dimensions surrounding the gift; and, 4) always rely on reasoned decision-making based on sound motives of both the donor and the institution.


COACHING: One step to move from readiness to action

Coaching GraphicYour institution or organization has committed the necessary leadership, staffing and budgetary support to begin to engage international alumni and, potentially, families. What’s next? Building a corps of alumni volunteers – the loyal and supportive brand ambassadors – should be one of the next goals. I recently guided Franklin College of Switzerland as their new alumni and parent ambassador admissions program moved from conception to reality. We did this in three one-hour sessions.

What if you find yourself having to prepare for your first international trip where you will be staffing the Vice Chancellor or President along with your supervisor or other deans and faculty? My recent work with UC Berkeley’s Law School included some travel management tools; my new client, SOAS (University of London), wants to focus on preparing for trips to Dubai, Doha, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. I’m glad to spend part of each of the next five sessions discussing contact and special event reports, ways to maximize time with volunteers (planning meetings, training, cultivation visits), and how to best decipher all the notes taken from the field and make meaning for you, the alumni, and, just as important, your supervisor and the institutional leadership.

Whether the challenges are being new to your role, short staffed, or not knowing how to prioritize next steps once given the “green light” to engage international alumni, I feel there is tremendous value in working one-on-one. My coaching is customized, personal and, ultimately, I want one thing: I want clients to succeed in meeting their objectives while also showing others the value of their work measured in many ways.

International Alumni: Time to invest?

Spring is upon us and you may be engaged in final budgeting activities for both this year and next. You’re considering your available resources and how they may be spent; you’re considering how to best carry out next year’s plans. Efficiency is a watchword, but so is engagement. Engaging international alumni remains a top-level goal and one specific tool is central to the process: the budget.

Here are seven considerations when establishing an international alumni relations budget:

  1. Budgets define priorities – Some would say it’s “the power of the purse,” and others would say it is just power. Budgets create clear opportunities to develop, build, sustain, expand and grow programs over time. Strategic priorities may shift with changes in leadership. That’s ok. The goal is to know exactly what the institution has budgeted for international alumni programs. Some feel this can be difficult when institutions have devolved budgets.  An overall budget for alumni may be scattered across a number of departments.
  2. International alumni relations programs benefit constituents-at-large (alumni, families, prospective students, current students studying abroad, future employers, recruiters, and corporate partners). This second point builds from the first. Perhaps this budget is called “the institutional international alumni budget.”  Moreover, alumni relations’ budgets must be spread over several priorities and these offices should not shoulder the international bills themselves. As the campus works towards greater integration between offices that work abroad and build relationships abroad, each should consider contributing to the overall outreach account that will service and support institutional efforts.
  3. Budgets should be developed with maximum utility and maximum impact and directly linked to institutional strategy. What happens abroad and who benefits? Think about the international travel budget for just the fall term. What are the goals for the trip and how will your measure success? This is a key issue.  As one international programs director recently stated, “To get budgets approved we need to demonstrate measurable outcomes, alignment to strategy and return on investment.  Not always easy! “
  4. Clarify priorities and plan accordingly before the next fiscal year. Are you doing this today? Are you waiting on some leaders to confirm their interest in traveling to meet alumni and prospective donors? Have you been in touch with faculty that may be excellent ambassadors to advance international relationships with former students, corporate partners, and their fellow colleagues at universities abroad?
  5. Plan for a rainy day: anticipate changes in travel costs, cancellations and acts of nature or world events that are out of one’s control. Purchase travel insurance. Book economy travel but don’t risk safety. Stay in good hotels and ask local alumni for reputable car services if local transportation is not advised.
  6. Aim to have complimentary international events. Budget for this. Become comfortable and supportive of the idea of investing in your alumni up front. Be comfortable with the idea that budgets will be spent in the spirit of not expecting a sudden return on the investment but, at the same time, try to be clearly focused on the anticipated outcomes of each event and activity. Over time, community will be built and that’s a priceless resource.
  7. Seek in-kind support from regional hosts/contacts. This is one of my favorite budgetary tools. I have spread my programming budget over the last decade to cover twice as many events when families and alumni offer to host the local expenses of lodging, group meals, special events, and the costs involved with including students studying abroad in that region. Alumni and families are honored to host. Involve them in the planning discussions and reciprocate their generosity with gifts and post-trip recognition and or event publicity.

Money talks and international alumni will respect well-planned efforts that are sustainable from year-to-year.  The key is to involve alumni early and to include their voices in proposing a vision and plan for the coming year.

Coming next:
How is international alumni engagement fundamentally different than domestic engagement? 

About “Layover”

We’ve all had them. These unforeseen inherited gaps of time between flights or destinations. I’ve tried to make good use of these hours over the last several years. A four hour layover may afford an opportunity to see a city center. On a 12 hour layover in Zurich I jumped a train to Lucerne and enjoyed a mid-day shopping, sightseeing and a great lunch on the lake while the Lucerne marathon swept by.

In my guest blog, Layover, I invite guest essays from our readers to share their layover stories. What did you do, where did you go, what did you learn, and would you do it again? Share 300-500 words about your adventures. Layover: Tales from Travelers with Time on their Hands, will be archived and be a resource to you, your colleagues or families.