Extending your recruitment effort with international alumni

We’ve written previously about the importance of engaging alumni in international recruitment as well as the process of engaging and enabling brand advocates from among your current students. In today’s post, we revisit the key role – the unique role, even – that alumni can play in international recruitment.

The importance of this topic is underscored by the intensifying competition for qualified, self-funded students in markets around the world.

Alumni have a distinct credibility with prospective students that neither academic nor recruitment staff can match and, needless to say, this can be a profound source of competitive advantage for your recruitment effort.

Alumni can speak firsthand about the benefits of studying at your institution. They share a language and cultural context with prospects from their home country. And they have insights into career prospects in their home country and in yours.

“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,” John Arboleda wrote recently in the Financial Times.

“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… 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.”

How then to harness that natural interest and enthusiasm of alumni? A recent report commissioned by UK-based The Higher Education Academy (HEA) provides some concrete examples of how British universities are leveraging alumni relationships for recruitment.

Case studies

The first HEA case study looks at how the University of York established a team of ambassadors in order to expand both the reach and impact of its international recruiting.

“The university was keen to extend the reach of recruitment activity in established markets that are geographically large. Colleagues make regular recruitment visits to China and North America, visiting major cities where the returns on recruitment activity are most fruitful.

They typically miss out on other markets within a country, such as the Midwestern United States and areas of inland China, because a comprehensive visit is unfeasible.

Research undertaken with the alumni relations team revealed that the university has a considerable number of alumni based in ‘outlying’ recruitment areas. Some of these graduates were well known to the University, and could be depended on to engage prospective applicants in schools and universities, delivering presentations and workshops independently.”

York’s solution was to recruit a cohort of International Ambassadors during their last semester of studies at the university. A pre-graduation orientation programme helped ensure the new Ambassadors were well prepared to represent the university, both in collaboration with the recruitment team and independently, through a series of briefings, rehearsal presentations, and other training on campus. Ambassadors were also provided with access to a password-secured website with additional training and support resources.

“The programme is beginning to add significant reach and impact to international recruitment in key markets,” notes the HEA case study. “It is also helping to address the challenge of engaging international alumni based in cities where mainstream events and activities are not usually focused.”

A second case study for Royal Holloway, University of London describes how the university recruited international alumni to act as “Points of Contact” for prospective students on the Royal Holloway website.

“Engaging alumni in the recruitment process helps…provide an authentic and informed voice about the university. They cannot be ‘primed’ to answer prospective students’ questions, and their views are therefore considered to be more credible than those of someone working directly for the university.

Moreover, alumni are able to converse with prospective students in their native language… As well as general advice about courses, and the institution, alumni also often give detailed and experiential guidance on adapting to the UK culture and education system, and information on obtaining financial support from a particular government.

The most significant advantage of involving alumni in the recruitment process is that prospective students are given greater personal contact time, whereas this might not be possible from within the recruitment team. ‘Points of Contact’ typically demonstrate great commitment to the responsibility, investing significant amounts of time with each prospective student.”

Points of Contact are nominated by university staff or may volunteer for the programme. They sign a contract that sets out their role and responsibilities, and their communications with prospective students are monitored by the Royal Holloway alumni relations team.

Lessons learned

The HEA report makes the interesting point that, while international alumni are increasingly involved in recruitment, this engagement is not often the product of systematic planning. The examples of Royal Holloway and York are particularly noteworthy in this respect, in that they represent thoughtful, carefully coordinated initiatives in alumni engagement.

Some of the common threads that emerge from the two HEA case studies include:

  • The importance of effective selection and support mechanisms for alumni representatives.
  • The need to balance autonomous alumni activity with mechanisms for monitoring and quality control.
  • The value of coordinating international alumni efforts between alumni relations and international recruitment staff. At York, for example, “There is a collaborative approach…with initiatives driven by the alumni relations team, but often emerging from the international recruitment team, academic departments, and the international relations office. This includes joint planning of international visits, shared budgets, and collaboratively preparing briefings and promotional materials. The teams have become effective at identifying opportunities to host alumni engagement events overseas, when colleagues might be travelling for other purposes, in order to increase capacity and visibility in priority areas.”

You’ve got to give to get

A recent item by Washington and Lee University’s Ryan Catherwood on Higher Ed Live addresses another key consideration in alumni engagement: the motivation of the alumnus.

“So much of what we sculpt as our alumni engagement initiatives requires operating under the paradigm that your alumni owe the institution something. They do not… You must continue to earn their [engagement] by giving something.”

Catherwood sets out a some key paradigms for alumni engagement, including that continued involvement by your alumni must be earned by the institution and that the most effective alumni strategy is one built around the needs and interests of the alumni.

“Our young alums particularly want us to help them provide networking opportunities to facilitate personal and professional successes,” he adds.

“Our approach to alumni engagement is to promote a sense of continuing education by facilitating conversations about the work world, graduate school, and work/life balance… We work hard to provide advice-based, alumni-supplied content, as well as share the personal and professional success stories we can find resulting from active engagement in the alumni network.”

A great deal of this communication naturally happens in online channels these days. In particular, much has been made of the importance of social media in alumni relations. When applying Catherwood’s alumni-centred, value-added perspective, however, the impact and application of social media channels in supporting alumni engagement begins to feel more profound and relevant.

The Canadian journal University Affairs recently reported on an interesting example from McGill University.

“This past October, when Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier in a free-fall jump from the stratosphere, the alumni relations department at McGill University realized that the person who designed the outfit used for the jump was a McGill graduate. Within hours, the department had posted an article about the designer on three separate Facebook pages: that of the alumni department, the faculty he’d graduated from, and a volunteer-run branch of alumni.

“The opportunity to piggyback on news to deepen connections with alumni is one of the many ways social media can benefit university alumni and development offices across Canada. ‘We need to be where our alumni are,’ says Derek Cassoff, director of communications for McGill’s office of development and alumni relations. ‘We need to be in their newsfeeds.’”

The McGill example points to a virtuous circle that underpins many successful alumni programmes: by encouraging the active engagement of alumni relations and recruitment staff with students and alumni, the institution is better able to identity its most promising ambassadors. It is also better able to understand the interests and perspectives of its alumni, and more likely to be alert to their notable achievements.

Those success stories can then be shared across the network to help deepen alumni engagement with the institution.

As much as anything else, the examples featured in this post demonstrate that alumni engagement is a process – one that begins with an appropriate perspective on alumni motivation as well as a commitment to address the goals and interests of the alumni themselves.

These examples speak also to the benefits of effective coordination between alumni relations and recruitment staff, and of an approach that opens up the recruitment process to allow qualified graduates to act independently within appropriate oversight and quality controls.

The benefits – particularly in terms of greater reach and impact in recruiting – for those institutions that adopt a more systematic approach to alumni engagement seem clear.

At the same time, the competitive advantage that arises from such a strategy derives in part from the reality that most institutions won’t pursue this opportunity in a systematic or effective way. Will yours?



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