Jul 28, 2017
Capture the Moment
Dr. Thomas Kaminski

For athletic training students, one door closes on graduation day. Yet, many new doors open. One of those doors should lead them to becoming engaged alumni with their alma mater.

Cultivating an active athletic training alumni base is not a passive process. On the contrary, maintaining a bond between a university and its alumni requires work and commitment from both parties.

At the University of Delaware, we’ve tried to actively involve our more than 600 Athletic Training Education Program (ATEP) alumni. We greatly value their contributions, and we show our esteem by building lifelong relationships with them. On top of that foundation, we’ve invested in newsletters, awards programs, and an annual party.

In return, alumni have become equal partners in our endeavors. They have enthusiastically embraced our efforts and increased their annual giving. When done the right way, investing in your program’s alumni is mutually rewarding.

INITIAL OUTREACH

A big part of engaging alumni is making the first contact. My efforts to build relationships with UD alumni started shortly after I became ATEP Director in 2003. Founded in 1973, UD has one of the longest-running ATEPs in the country, so there was an expansive alumni base that I had to try to connect with.

For others looking to take a similar step, my advice is to be patient with the process. There are often many errors in an existing directory, so it may take multiple attempts to get everything correct. Enlist the help of students or staff, and you’ll be surprised how well the database comes together.

My first act was sending a letter to all of our alumni letting them know who I was and presenting my vision for the future. I felt that a “hard copy” letter was the best form of initial communication, as it added a dimension of formality lacking in an e-mail.

The feedback from this mailing was very favorable. Our alumni appreciated the reach out, as it reconnected them to UD’s ATEP. I also believe it broke down any barriers that might have prevented them from contacting me in the future.

In order to send the letters, we relied on addresses provided by UD’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Reaching out to this department allowed me to establish a good working relationship with them. It’s important to touch base with your campus’ alumni staff when starting this type of campaign to make sure you don’t step on each other’s toes.

In addition, acquiring the addresses from UD’s alumni office enabled me to begin building a database exclusively for UD’s ATEP, which was something I felt strongly about. Taking ownership of the database and not having to rely on the alumni office afforded me greater flexibility and access to our alumni network, as well as the freedom to update the information at any time.

I compiled our ATEP database using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and the initial data received from UD’s alumni office. For others looking to take a similar step, my advice is to be patient with the process. There are often many errors in an existing directory, so it may take multiple attempts to get everything correct. Enlist the help of students or staff, and you’ll be surprised how well the database comes together.

Following my initial letter, we shifted our primary mode of alumni communication to e-mail. We usually send out seven to 10 e-mail blasts each year, which typically include reminders about our alumni party, news stories involving the program, and an occasional job posting. Over the years, I’ve learned not to overdo the e-mail blasts, otherwise the recipients will block the messages.

Besides engaging alumni, the e-mail campaigns serve the dual purpose of keeping our revamped database up to date. The e-mails encourage alumni to provide updates in their professional and personal lives via a link on the UD ATEP alumni page. We’ve developed a Qualtrics-based questionnaire that allows them to send in information on job shifts, home address changes, e-mail address changes, marital status, and any other news they wish to share.

I know other ATEPs rely solely on Facebook for alumni communication, but I’ve found that e-mail works best for us. Although we do have an alumni Facebook page and Twitter account, they are handled outside of our university environment. I know the individuals who direct these accounts and work with them on an as-needed basis to get the word out about any program happenings.

SPREADING THE NEWS

Although we’ve gotten great responses from our e-mail campaigns, there is still something to be said about a good, old-fashioned newsletter. I developed an annual alumni newsletter in my previous position as ATEP Director at the University of Florida, and it’s a tradition I’ve continued at UD.

The current version of our newsletter is a PDF that we post to the UD ATEP alumni page every summer, and we send out an e-mail when it’s available. It usually includes stories about current UD undergraduate or graduate students, faculty accolades, research endeavors, and other updates. Most years, it’s more than 30 pages long!

Because of its length, getting the newsletter together requires a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy. To generate ideas for articles, I compile stories, news clippings, alumni e-mail correspondences, and other interesting tidbits throughout the year.

By early May, I usually have a good deal gathered, so I begin the newsletter-building process in earnest. Some of our more creative ATEP undergraduate students and I write most of the articles. But each newsletter also features an “Alumni Spotlight” section that is written by the person we choose to highlight, as well as a column authored by Head Athletic Trainer Dan Watson, MEd, ATC. I serve as the final editor for all content.

When all the articles are ready, we put the newsletter together using Microsoft Publisher. We’ve created a template for the layout and make changes to it every few years to prevent it from getting stale.

Despite all the work, the newsletter’s dividends are always rewarding. Our alumni report that getting their copy each summer is one correspondence they look forward to the most.

AWARD WINNERS

We like to cultivate relationships with alumni further by highlighting their achievements through various awards. Honoring alumni in this way creates an even stronger bond between them, UD, and our ATEP. We typically offer up nominations for several awards on an annual basis.

For starters, the “Alumni Spotlight” section in our newsletter recognizes a noteworthy athletic training alum. To choose this person, we ask our faculty for suggestions. I then vet the nominations and make a decision, trying to maintain a balance between male and female winners and spreading them evenly through the decades. Those chosen for the Alumni Spotlight are always honored and humbled.

Another award that we’ve used to recognize an excellent ATEP alum is the Outstanding Alumni Award. This is given by UD’s Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology in the College of Health Sciences, which the ATEP is part of. During my tenure, two of our alumni have been recognized for this honor.

Even more prestigious is UD’s Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement Award. This is presented to an exceptional alum who embodies the UD ideals of excellence, talent, discipline, passion, and vision. Someone from the ATEP has won this prize three times since I’ve been program director.

PARTY TIME

Perhaps our biggest venture to engage UD ATEP alumni is through our annual alumni party. It’s held in conjunction with the NATA’s Annual Meeting and Clinical Symposia each June.

The party is usually held at a bar or restaurant, and UD alumni are encouraged to mingle with one another and catch up over food and drinks. The structure of the event is informal and casual, allowing plenty of time for conversation and networking.

There is one minor element of business at the party, though. Our accrediting agency likes us to get feedback from our alumni on their UD ATEP experience and how it has impacted their careers. For this reason, we bring laptops to the party that are open to our online alumni survey. We ask all attendees to take five minutes and fill it out.

Toward the end of the party, we raffle off UD apparel items donated from the Blue Hens Athletic Equipment staff. This activity is always a huge hit, and seeing alumni go home wearing a UD T-shirt or jersey with smiles on their faces is very pleasing. Proceeds from the raffle go to support the Joan Coach Athletic Training Scholarship Award.

My graduate students and I begin planning the next year’s alumni party almost immediately following the conclusion of the current year’s event. I’ve learned through past experience that informing alumni well in advance of the party’s date helps attendance, as it affords ample time for planning and travel arrangements. So we usually send out a “save-the-date” e-mail in the fall before each gathering.

When picking a venue, we’ve found that consulting with alumni or colleagues who live in the city where the convention is being held can be helpful. After we get their input, we then reach out to secure a location early.

As worthwhile as the alumni party is, it’s not cheap. To keep costs associated with room rental fees down, we’ve split our venue with colleagues from the University of Kentucky for the past three years. Carl Mattacola, PhD, ATC, FNATA, Professor and Associate Dean of Academic and Faculty Affairs at Kentucky, is a close friend of mine and graciously shares the space.

We’ve gotten creative to find additional ways to fund our alumni party. For instance, we’ve relied heavily on donations from vendors, suppliers, and local physician groups that are supported by UD athlete referrals. Their contributions generally allow us to raise up to $1,500 each year to support the party’s costs. In return, our sponsors are awarded with a full-page ad in our newsletter. The Delaware Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Athletic Training Student Association here at UD have also supported the alumni party, and attendees are charged a nominal fee upon arrival.

THE PAYOFF

Taking into consideration all that we do to engage UD athletic training alumni, you might be asking yourself: What’s in it for the ATEP? One of the primary benefits goes back to the development and maintenance of relationships. It is amazing how many new bonds I’ve forged with alumni just through the initiatives we offer.

A lot of times, these strong alumni connections provide a pipeline for future athletic training students attending UD. As our alumni network continues to grow, word spreads quickly about the quality of our program and the type of student it graduates. I can’t say enough about how important our alumni relationships have been in helping UD’s ATEP maintain its excellence over the years.

In addition, enhanced engagement has also resulted in increased alumni giving. During my time at UD, alumni contributions to the ATEP gift account have quadrupled. One of the reasons for this is that we establish a level of comfort with our alumni before going for the “ask.” It also helps that we’ve made giving easier than ever. Our annual newsletter reminds alumni that they can target gifts to the UD ATEP, and we provide the specific account number for doing so.

The donations acquired from these efforts have been used to support a variety of educational and professional development activities for our students, faculty, and staff that would have gone unfunded due to declining institutional support. Once during my tenure, we even sent out a targeted mailing to raise more than $50,000 to endow the Keith Handling Scholarship Award. In the future, I anticipate doing another campaign with our alumni for facility development or other big dollar initiatives.

The last — and arguably, most important — benefit of alumni engagement is the connections it opens up for past and present students regarding employment and/or graduate school opportunities. Our faculty and staff are constantly reminding our students to reach out and network with alumni, and our students have benefited greatly from these encounters.

In all, I probably spend too much time managing our alumni, but I consider it one of my most important duties as UD ATEP Director. You don’t need to be in charge of an ATEP to dive into the alumni engagement world, though. I encourage any interested athletic trainer to jumpstart an alumni initiative — after all, we all have alma maters. Alumni provide the bridge to the past, present, and future. It’s important to keep them connected.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.


Thomas Kaminski, PhD, ATC, FACSM, is Professor and Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at the University of Delaware. He is a co-founder of the International Ankle Consortium and a member of the NATA's Professional Development Committee. In 2016, he was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Athletic Training Research, the highest honor bestowed by the NATA Research and Education Foundation. Dr. Kaminski can be reached at: [email protected]


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