Alumni groups provide mentoring opportunities, connecting points for students, graduates

Samford alum Eric Skipwith (left) visits with Samford coach Tommy Rohling before a 2019 football game.
Photo courtesy of Samford University

Alumni groups provide mentoring opportunities, connecting points for students, graduates

Iona Fontaine’s connections to her alma mater have been really, really long lasting. She’s kept strong ties to Judson College ever since she graduated in 1935, and as she’s ticked off birthdays past the century mark, her fellow alumnae have been right there celebrating with her.

This past January, she turned 107, and Beth Poole, Judson’s alumnae director, along with Judson President Mark Tew, first lady Ann Tew and members of Fontaine’s alumnae association chapter gathered around her to present her a special gift.

Beforehand, current Judson students had gathered on campus to record two timely songs for her — “Happy Birthday” and “There Will Always Be a Judson.”

Poole said the second song especially meant a lot to Fontaine.

‘Strong bond’

“At 107, she still remembers the words to that song,” Poole said. “It’s just that strong bond of the memories and all that Judson has meant to our alumnae.”

It’s a bond that continues. Poole said some Judson alumnae classes still get together every year for vacation or reunite on J-Day, Judson’s homecoming.

“It’s a friendship that lasts a lifetime,” she said.

Not only that — J-Day and other regular get-togethers present an opportunity for Judson alumnae to network, an important component of the lifelong Judson experience, Poole said.

“We have a lot of alumnae who are involved with the college and want to know about our students to reach out to them and mentor them,” she said. “We have had alumnae weekends where we invite our students to come have lunch with our alumnae and (seat) them based on their major and the alumna’s profession.”

Students also regularly shadow alumnae and have opportunities to make connections in their field, something Poole said is “so important.”

Casey Ramey, director of alumni programs at Samford University, agrees.

“The mission of the alumni association is to create a lifelong and worldwide community of alumni,” she said. “Networking is very important as we build that community and look to foster the growth of the individual.”

Having a friend

Ramey noted that one great thing about being a part of an alumni association is no matter where you go, no matter where you move, you’ll be able to connect with someone in that city who is also a Samford alum.

“You’ll already have a friend,” she said. “A lot of times we’ll have alumni who reach out to our office and say ‘I am moving to a new city’ or that they are beginning their professional career and embarking on that new chapter in their lives. Through alumni connections, they can begin to build their network whether it’s for professional development or just that they need to find a church and a dry cleaner and get to know their new city better.”

One way Samford has grown these connections is through regional chapters, which provide instant connections as well as a way for alumni to share job opportunities with each other.

“It’s a way to encourage and support one another,” Ramey said. “It goes much further than just your time as a student; this is the next chapter, and it’s a great way to continue your Samford story.”

Allie Ratcliff, director of alumni relations for University of Mobile, said the transition to the next chapter of involvement comes easily for UM graduates.

“We’re already such a tightknit community as students at UM that the transition to alumni just kind of comes naturally,” she said. “It really is a family.”

And as a “family,” they use a platform called Handshake that’s similar to LinkedIn and helps alumni connect with others in their field and find job openings. They also have a career services center that works hard to generate ways for alumni in the workforce to get on campus and interact with students, Ratcliff said.

Connecting dots

“Being able to connect the dots whenever we can is really something special,” she said.

Todd Greer, UM’s vice president for academic affairs, has also worked hard to implement these kinds of opportunities. In his previous role as dean of the school of business, he started an advisory group of alumni and community leaders to help students connect their education to the “real world.”

“They come in as mentors and advocates for our students,” Greer said. “They’re sounding boards for our students to be able to say, ‘Oh, you’re thinking about going into this? Let me talk to you about what that looks like.’”

It’s created expansion of their network in new and great ways, something that’s possible because their alumni “want to be involved and pour back in,” Greer said.

“It means so much more when students hear [insights about their career path] from people who are leading organizations and on the front line,” he said.

It’s a relationship that starts on campus and just keeps going throughout life because everyone involved “recognizes that it’s bigger than just them,” Greer said. “We hope we can cultivate this more and more.”