From IRL to URL: Alumni engagement in a virtual world

By the end of March, the COVID-19 pandemic had seized the United States and the rest of the world, rendering the rhythms of daily life both strange and unsteady. Going to work — for those who still had jobs — now involved shuffling from the bedroom to any quiet space with enough light and surface area for a makeshift office. And for many, taking the kids to school consisted of logging on to virtual classrooms from tablets or computers.

After Washington University announced the cancellation of all in-person events, it was important to the Alumni Association that any new virtual programming meaningfully address the needs of WashU alumni, rather than add to the already growing digital noise. So the team reached out to alumni across the globe, individually and by email survey, to better understand what kinds of content would be most interesting and useful to them. The feedback spawned a range of events, including Happiness 101: Simple Secrets to Smart Living and Well-Being, a timely webinar led by Tim Bono, AB ’05, MA ’08, PhD ’11, an assistant dean and lecturer in Arts & Sciences. It also sparked more programming focused on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, like Transformative Justice: Opportunities for Advancing Racial Equity, a transdisciplinary virtual discussion co-sponsored by the WashU Engage Chicago Network and the Black Alumni Council.

Since then, the Alumni Association has evolved further as both a content producer and a vital aggregator of university-wide programming with its Virtual Connections webpage and companion e-newsletter. “We want to be an essential hub of engagement for alumni, a one-stop resource where they can find all the available avenues to stay connected with WashU,” says Susan Cohen, assistant vice chancellor of Alumni Relations.

While no one knows when normal operations will resume, Cohen and her colleagues regard the current digital pivot as a more permanent turn. With virtual events enabling alumni to interact with the university wherever and whenever is most convenient, the digital divide has become an essential bridge.

Here are just a few highlights of virtual events the university organized in spring and summer 2020:

Industry leaders share stories and experience.

Every day, WashU alumni and parents around the world innovate and inspire in fields such as business, health care, entertainment, hospitality and law. Launched by the Alumni Association in June, Wednesdays with WashU brings these prominent change-makers into dialogue with university leaders and faculty. The webinar series kicked off with a conversation between Chancellor Andrew D. Martin and entrepreneur, author and university trustee Jim McKelvey Jr., AB ’87, BSCS ’87, who discussed his most recent book, The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, and answered questions from the audience. Subsequent participants included prolific restaurateur and current WashU parent Danny Meyer and Arnold Donald, BS ’77, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation & plc.

WashULaw and the School of Medicine hold virtual 2020 Reunions.

The verdict is in, and WashULaw’s virtual 2020 Reunion celebrations were a success! This past spring, graduates from the Classes of 1970, 1975, 1980, 1995 and 2005 hopped online for individual class happy hours. During the video calls, alumni shared life updates and waxed nostalgic about their law school days. Alumni commemorating their 50th Reunion received a special surprise visit from David Becker, the Joseph H. Zumbalen Professor of the Law of Property Emeritus, who was in the early stages of his teaching career when the Class of 1970 arrived on campus. Because the parties were held virtually, alumni from as far as London and Prague were able to join in the fun and memories.

A Reunion year is always momentous, but reaching this milestone during a global pandemic — and as a trained medical professional — is perhaps even more resonant. Although prohibited from in-person festivities, School of Medicine alumni reminisced as they watched special class videos filled with photos from their student years and Reunions past. Several classes reunited for virtual class parties, and each class also had its own webpage where alumni could give classmates a “check-up” on their lives post-graduation.

Welcome to the family, Class of 2024!

Becoming a Bear is a family affair at WashU, which is why the Alumni and Parents Admission Program and the Parent and Family Engagement department jointly hosted a series of virtual gatherings throughout late summer and early fall for parents and families of the Class of 2024. Equal parts celebration and information, the geographically focused Parent and Family Socials gave attendees a chance to get to know other members of the WashU community living in their area. Although the first-year experience looks different this year, incoming families were able share in the excitement of this new chapter while gaining wisdom and tips from current parents, alumni and staff.

WashU’s littlest bears make merry music.

With the coronavirus halting camps and other recreational fun for kids during summer 2020, many parents and guardians searched for new ways to keep spirits high and boredom at bay. The Alumni Association enlisted Alumni Board of Governors member Marissa Hockfield, AB ’01, a children’s dance and theater instructor with a background in elementary education, to lead virtual classes for WashU little ones ages 3 to 7. With stuffed animals in tow, kids and their families joined Hockfield in May for Me and My Teddy Bear, an afternoon of singing, dancing and acting. In July, Hockfield led another virtual adventure — an imaginary jungle safari with music from the animated classic The Jungle Book.

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