Whitman Online Makes Networking With Alumni Easier for Students

Andy Monserud

The search for life after Whitman just got a bit easier for current students.  The Student Engagement Center, in collaboration with the Alumni and Development Offices and Advancement Services, kicked off the semester with an update to Whitman Online, Whitman’s alumni directory.  In response to popular demand, the network is now available to students who undergo a half-hour training session.

“Students are always asking about how to connect with alumni,” said Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt.  “It’s just a constant request that comes in, and it has been that way for a while.”

Until recently, students had to ask the SEC staff to search the database for alumni.  The directory overhaul has reduced that mediation to a mandatory training session designed to teach students how to use the system and how to interact with alumni professionally. Technology & Marketing Fellow for the SEC Kyle Scott runs the training sessions.

“We want to make sure that we’re very clear that students need to maintain a professional presence when they’re using this,” he said.

The database itself has also changed, and alumni in it no longer have to volunteer to be contacted.  Instead, alumni who do not wish to be contacted in connection with student networking must opt out. Only a small number of alumni opted to be included in the previous system for alumni contact, the Career Counseling Network, despite overwhelming interest in involvement.

“You have all these very friendly, enthusiastic, supportive Whitman alumni, but only a small slice of them were actually available through the existing CCN model,” Leavitt said.

Because the new system asks uninterested alumni to opt out rather than requiring interested alumni to opt in, the pool of available alumni on Whitman Online expanded dramatically as a result of the switch.

Students who have already taken the training responded positively to the changes.

“I hope more people go to the training sessions and know that it’s there,” senior Andy Martin said. “It’s such an invaluable resource, because everyone talks to you about networking all the time, and it’s kind of this amorphous, terrifying concept … it’s just something no one wants to do, and [the alumni network] makes it so easy.”

Sophomore Marla Harvey also has high hopes for using the network.

“It’s a wonderful resource that you can actually talk to people in your field and see what they’re doing,” she said.

Scott estimates that more than 70 students have already signed up for the training sessions, and he has already had to adjust the training schedule to accommodate the high demand.

“I guess word has gotten out,” Scott said.  “Originally I had planned for three [sessions], but … I’m just going to keep adding sessions until people stop coming.”

Once demand tapers off, the SEC will train students on a by-request basis.

The new network represents a major overhaul of alumni-student relations, and the departments involved know that work on it is not yet over. Student suggestions for the program range widely.

According to senior Daniel Khamanga, the network should give students a better idea of which alumni are more likely to respond to them.

“I think it would be helpful if you had a sort of a section for … most active users,” Khamanga said.

Harvey, who also agreed that a couple of changes to the system could make it better, thought that the network would benefit from more complete alumni profiles and a few interface changes.

“It would be really cool if some more of the information was to be updated,” she said. “There’s a couple ways of making bookmarking easier that could be looked into.”

The departments involved plan to continue improving the network.

“The group who implemented this project will continue to meet and evaluate tools for enhancing student and alumni connections,” said Vice President for Development & College Relations John Bogley in an e-mail.  “It is definitely a priority for all of the offices involved.”

Leavitt also looks forward to improving the system, but he’s proud of the work already done.  

“I don’t think we want to wrap it up for the year and say ‘we’ve done our job,’ but this is a pretty significant accomplishment for the college.”