A Community Makes All the Difference
Ján Michalko PhD is a Senior Project Lead at inHive - a specialist team of network builders, working with local partners across the world to strengthen young people’s access to strong networks and relatable role models.
It was late 2016 and the calls for university fees ‘to fall’ in South Africa were entering their new peek. University students were once again organising marches and class disruptions. They were building on the discussions and changes they instigated with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign the previous year.
Their goal was to shine light on the challenges that many young South Africans, especially those racialized as Black/ African, faced in their quest to getting quality education, especially tertiary. One of them was financial exclusion, which persisted despite the provision of national financial assistance and various bursary and scholarship schemes.
In the midst of these – still ongoing – efforts to deeply transform the education systems in South Africa, the UK, and other countries, I found myself in the corridors of the University of Johannesburg.
I was there facilitating group discussions and holding interviews with students to learn more about the alleged impact of role models on young women. I wanted to learn if and how elite women in politics can serve as an empowerment resource for young women in higher education.
And the finding? Role models really do matter, but especially if young people can relate to them, understand them and learn about their journeys. Alumni networks can give young people access and exposure people who have experienced similar challenges. Alumni can offer symbolic inspiration as well as practical suggestions on how to navigate through life.
Because of this impact on young people’s opportunities and outcomes, we at inHive advise and support organisations to set up and strengthen their alumni networks, be it around vocational training institutions, university scholarship programmes, or other youth-centred initiatives. These networks offer an impactful, low-cost and self-sustaining approach to tackling social injustices that are interwoven into the fabric of our education systems.
What Alumni Networks Can Offer
Creating alumni networks, as we strive to do in collaboration with our partners, is a process of putting in place the infrastructure that enables former students to come back to their primary and secondary schools, or former beneficiaries of a scholarship programme, to support their programmes and the next generation of students.
What Fees Must Fall activism, and its complementary calls for decolonisation, showed us, is the need for those working in the education space to mobilize various resources to alleviate the and challenges of young women and men on the continent. Setting up alumni networks is one of them.
Consider women like Selina. She received support from CAMFED in Ghana and successfully finished her secondary studies, despite the fact that she grew up in a household where she had to sell charcoal and could eat only one meal a day. She is now part of the CAMA alumnae network and mentors other girls and supports them against challenges that are similar to her own.
While the stories of women like Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama can encourage a young girl in Tamale or Kumasi to finish their studies, Selina’s story from a comparable context speaks directly to the life that these girls know.
Having an alumni community to access role models, career advisors, mentors and friends, contacts into the labour market for internship opportunities, or entry level jobs can make a huge difference in young people’s lives and support their future success.
Research with marginalized and disenfranchised young people around the world, including amongst racial minorities in the USA, has shown that role models can help students at various levels of schooling to overcome a sense of exclusion and foster their resilience.
This is crucial because the hardships experienced by students, including a sense of exclusion, cause high drop-out rates. This also impacts their transition into employment with decent wages and prospects of uplifting their current and future families.
How to Foster Alumni Networks
We know that people have a desire to give back, but this latent willingness remains untapped if the conditions aren’t in place to do so easily.
Organisations can take various steps to enable their alumni to give back and to be involved. It does take resources. People’s time and organisational funding are key to setting up and strengthening alumni networks, but the initial investment decreases overtime as alumni are encouraged and supported to take ownership and leadership of the network.
From our experience and research, here are 3 tips to consider when thinking about your alumni networks:
Alumni should be together for a reason.
When thinking about alumni networks, most young people would think of money – the annual drives asking you to support your alma mater – high school or university – with a financial contribution. But alumni networks, especially those whose members are diverse and attended various education institutions, need to have a clear purpose that transcends a particular school or university.
These alumni cannot be brought together purely through a shared experience or place, and therefore, need a vision articulated through inclusive and collaborative process.
Alumni can then rally around such a vision that aligns with the organisational values, for example to transform their communities, countries and the African continent. This is the case for alumni of various Mastercard Foundation funded scholarships, entrepreneurship incubators and other empowerment initiatives. Their joint purpose sets an identity for the network and is enhanced by the brand affiliation with the scholarship provider.
Giving back is good. But getting something in return is also important.
Members of alumni networks engage as volunteers. This may cause some people to think they should only be ‘giving back’ to the next generations as a way to pay it forward or to demonstrate their gratitude for support they themselves benefitted from.
However, for the network members to be engaged over time and not only on a 5-year anniversary, they also need to see some benefits. These are not necessarily financial, but could be personal and professional.
For example, the former recipients of the Canon Collins Trust scholarship, who are leaders in research, business and civil society, are offered opportunities to network with one another across various countries, as well as to access funding and opportunities to feature their research.
Without a learning mindset, alumni engagement is a guessing game.
Email addresses and WhatsApp numbers are gold for many alumni engagement officers. While this data is crucial to enable engagement, without learning more about your alumni, you won’t be able to offer your diverse network members appropriate ways to engage that are suitable for their needs. This is affected by their employment status or career stage and indirectly tied to their age.
Learning, evaluating and iterating is therefore not an add-on to alumni network building. It is a crucial part of enabling an engaged community to thrive. Without the right data, segregated by gender, ability or location, you’re running the danger that a big segment of your alumni will be left out of the activities you’re putting on.
While staying mindful of survey fatigue amongst youth on the continent and other ‘developing’ contexts, taking the time to design a long-term learning strategy will help you to know your alumni without overburdening them with extractive information gathering.