The importance of engaging alumni overseas
European business schools and universities need to invest time and resources in developing their international alumni relations. Regardless of whether the institution is located in Manchester, Munich or Milan, it must have an international engagement strategy that reflects the needs and reality of its alumni overseas. Failure to develop such a strategy will result in the loss of numerous opportunities that most institutions cannot afford to pass.
I am beginning my 10th year as an American expat living in Europe, the first six years were spent in Germany and since 2010 I have been living with my family in Barcelona, Spain. My wife is Italian, my son was born in Germany and my daughter in Spain. We are multilingual, have a collective diversity of international experiences and a global perspective, much like most of the alumni and students I work with. During this time I have come to discover and appreciate from my own expat experience and my career in higher education that both alumni abroad and international students have different experiences and realities than their native counterparts. Moreover, alumni abroad want to remain connected and are willing to give back.
I have experienced at first hand how alumni overseas can help to build and shape a school’s global brand. Whether it is contributing to international admissions and recruiting efforts, developing corporate partnerships, competing in the rankings or entering new markets – alumni who are based overseas will be one of a school’s best resources.
Such alumni expand and increase the value of the existing alumni network. Building an international community of mutual interests and mutual support is good for the institution and business. A global network provides current students with mentors to help them learn about international career opportunities. Alumni wishing to expand their business internationally, seeking a business partner or even just needing help to settle after relocating abroad, want to rely on a trusted network.
Alumni abroad can contribute to an institution’s fundraising efforts. Inevitable cuts in public spending or a heavy dependency on tuition fees mean that European universities need to take on more responsibility for their long-term financial sustainability.
Alumni who are living overseas are institutional stakeholders and must be engaged partners if any business school or university wants to have a successful international alumni relations programme. However, any engagement strategy that focuses only on alumni abroad will not be very effective if it does not have an international student engagement element on campus – after all, students are alumni in training.
Before establishing any international alumni relations programme, certain common assumptions need to be clarified: a local programme cannot be copied and called “international” merely by adding some alumni chapters in other countries. Alumni abroad and international students are more global than their university. This requires a different mindset and the need to rethink the relationship between the institution and its international community of alumni and students. Finally, the concept of alumni is not globally recognised and understood. Schools need to establish and cultivate a life-long relationship with alumni and students, and stop viewing them as transactional.
If a business school or university wishes to connect with its alumni it has to engage with them actively and genuinely. Anything that the school or institution does must be of relevance to its overseas alumni. Living overseas or completing an academic degree abroad is a transformative experience and gives those who do it a different perspective to those who are born, educated and work locally. It is important to harness the enthusiasm among international students, to help alumni establish a sense of belonging and to nurture a life-long relationship. And, institutions need to be the first ones to set the example.
I recognise that alumni relations is still, in many ways, developing and expanding across Europe. As a first step, it is important to establish a functioning alumni relations office that engages and serves those living within the institution’s borders. However, institutions – particularly business schools – that are entering the international playing field and working to establish or enhance their global presence, must now focus on having an effective student engagement and international alumni relations strategy.
Business schools can no longer afford to take their alumni overseas and international students for granted. It is short-sighted to view them only as numbers that add to the school’s international profile, diversify marketing materials, fill out rankings surveys or as headcount. Today’s international students and alumni abroad want to be engaged, involved, heard and to have a vested interest in the wellbeing of their institution. Business schools should be happy about this. Those that are unable or unwilling to recognise it will eventually see international students and alumni divorce themselves from their institution. Just as multinational companies need to listen and adapt quickly to their customers to remain globally relevant and competitive, business schools must expend significant effort at all levels to engage their international audiences.
Recently, a friend and chief operating officer of a large foundation mentioned that one of the challenges today is finding and nurturing common interests as fertile grounds for partnering, learning and advancing. International alumni relations is no longer about why or if, but when and how. The sooner European business schools and universities start understanding this and begin to act, the sooner they will see a return on investment that benefits the entire institution.
The author is director of international alumni affairs, Esade.