Building a Meaningful Alumni-Student Mentoring Program in 2021 and Beyond: Interview with Emily Williams at Bentley University

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I recently had the opportunity to chat with Emily Williams, Director of Alumni & Family Engagement at Bentley University, about Bentley’s Alumni-in-Residence program. 

Emily joined Bentley University in 2018. In her current role, she oversees the strategy, execution and evaluation of engagement programs, events and volunteer opportunities for the University’s more than 65,000 alumni, family and friend community. Prior to joining Bentley, Emily worked in student to alumni engagement at MIT’s Sloan School of Management following a career in international travel. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Anthropology and French Language and Literature from Union College (NY) and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Relations from Lesley University.

Emily Williams, Director of Alumni & Family Engagement at Bentley University

As many alumni relations and donor engagement practitioners know, building a sustainable and scalable mentoring program that is meaningful for both students and alumni can be challenging, especially for small teams. Bentley’s Alumni-in-Residence program is an excellent model of how institutions can achieve what Emily refers to as “flash mentoring.” 

Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Caitlin Scarano: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your professional journey?

Emily Williams: I have been at Bentley since August 2018. Prior to my career path in alumni engagement, I worked in the travel industry. I was an account manager for an international tour operator that offered tours for alumni travel programs. I had the opportunity to travel to India, China, and Peru. My clients were individuals who worked all over the United States in alumni engagement, and I thought alumni engagement seemed like a really cool career. Alumni travel and alumni engagement are very similar in that they’re both centered on relationship-building. I wanted to try something new so I accepted a position at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Alumni Engagement. I’ve enjoyed working in alumni engagement at two business schools here in the Boston area. I’m from Maryland originally, and have been living in the Boston area for the past 15 years.

CS: Please tell me about the Bentley Alumni-in-Residence program. How did it start? What were the goals? How was it run? 

EW: When I came to Bentley in 2018, we had a contract with a mentoring platform, and I had managed a mentoring program on a different mentoring platform when I worked at MIT. These platforms have issues that can make them challenging for small staffs to operate; sometimes it feels like you need a full time staff member to keep them up and running. Hundreds of alumni would sign up indicating they wanted to be a mentor, but then the platform relied on both the alumni and the student being very responsive with each other. 

At Bentley, we’ve found that the definition of mentoring has changed—it used to be a continuous relationship, but now students seek advice and career exploration through what I consider flash mentoring.

In 2019, we ended up not renewing our contract with the formal mentoring platform that we had at the time, but we still had alumni who wanted to give back and engage with students. We tried to figure out—what did the alumni really want out of this engagement opportunity? 

We found that they really just want to provide their advice and help students. I remembered a colleague of mine, the Director of Alumni Engagement at the Ross School of Business, had done a presentation on their program at Ross called Alumni-in-Residence, where they would have alumni come to campus and meet with students in a conference room to give mentoring or career advice. We decided to recreate this idea at Bentley; we did this twice in person before the pandemic.

CS: How do you identify alumni for this opportunity?

EW: Once an alumni fills out a volunteer interest form, we have a conversation with them to ask, “What’s going to be the best path for your volunteer engagement? What’s going to be the best role for you based on your time that you have to give and your career experience?” We try to figure out what’s best for that alumni; Alumni-in-Residence is one option.

As for the nuts and bolts of the program, we advertised this opportunity to the student body and we booked the alumni to come to campus for a two-hour time period. The two-hour time period was split up in six 20-minute meetings. We asked each student to provide us with a copy of their resume, and to tell us a couple of topics that they wanted to talk about with the alum. We had provided the alumni with an agenda and a portfolio of the students’ bios, headshots, and these topics or questions. We facilitated the waiting room and timekeeping.

Then, 2020 hit and we were left without many of our traditional in-person volunteer opportunities, but the Alumni-in-Residence program was one that we knew we could translate to a virtual setting. We advertised it exactly the same way as we had done before, but the actual meetings take place on Zoom in a breakout room. A member of my staff is there to welcome the alumni and the students, get them situated, and send them between the waiting room and the breakout rooms. 

We’ve had 27 alumni and 200 students participate; it’s been a great program for us.

CS: You have a really scalable model for this program. 

EW: Yes, I think so. There is some time commitment for us. I come from a customer service background—we like that customer service aspect of hand holding the alum and the student. For example, if a student doesn’t arrive, sometimes we’ll have a wait list of other students we can reach out to. We aim for that extra level of service, so both the alumni and our students feel like this is a special experience.

CS: How have students responded to this program?

EW: It’s been very popular with our graduate students, because they often already have some professional experience and know the power of networking. With our undergraduate population, we design targeted communications to fill the slots. For example, recently we started looking at sports-specific mentoring. A former football player offered to fill an Alumni-in-Residence session, so we solely marketed this opportunity to current football players. We also had buy-in from the coaches who explained to the athletes that this alumni could relate to their specific experience at Bentley and demonstrate how successful our alumni can be. 

Our partnerships have also been important – for example, we partner with the Pulsifer Career Development Center to help market different Alumni-in-Residence opportunities to students in specific majors. 

CS: How do you find or select the alumni for the program?

EW: There are a couple of ways that our Alumni-in-Residence participants have come to us or been identified: 

  1. First, we work closely with our major gifts team and our development officers to solicit them for suggestions, and they’ve provided us with recommendations of high-profile alumni who wish to participate and connect with current students. 
  2. We also work with our career development partners to ask, “What are the industries that we haven’t covered? Or, what are the industries or roles that most interest current students?” And then we try to find alumni from those industries or in those roles, sometimes using our LinkedIn data, to be part of the program. We like to go with alumni who’ve had at least three years experience in their industry.
  3. In addition, anyone who visits our volunteer webpage and indicates that they’re interested in being a career connector, is also considered for the Alumni in Residence.

CS: How has the program been received?

EW: We survey the students shortly after the experience, using the Net Promoter Score. For the 200 students who’ve participated roughly 115 have responded to the survey, and the combined NPS for the whole program is 91! The students have loved it. The alumni have also been very receptive. We have alumni participants asking, “When can I do this again?”

CS: Can you think of a specific story, interaction, outcome from the program that most stands out to you?

EW: We have one alumnus who spoke with quite a few international graduate students. Each student indicated to him in some way how difficult it was for them to find employers after graduation who would sponsor them to stay in the United States. This alum works for a large corporation; he reached out to the individual at his company who manages international visa sponsorship and connected that person with these students as a resource to provide them with more information as they search for employment. 

CS: What are you looking forward to with this program? 

EW: This summer, we’re launching a survey to assess outcomes. I want to know if there’s been an impact for students beyond that initial good feeling coming out of the mentoring session.  We want to know things like, “Did you stay in touch with the alum? Did they help you get a job?” Many of the students who participate, at least from the undergraduate level, are sophomores and juniors, so they haven’t yet graduated. So we want to assess the broader impact of the program, for example 6-12 months after meeting with the alumni. 

We have such successful and accomplished students and we’d love to be able to see that part of their success is from having participated in this program as we try to further measure the impact.

CS: If another school wanted to start their own Alumni-in-Residence program from scratch, what advice would you give them?

EW: For us, the most complicated piece of the puzzle was setting up a template for student registration. We use our event registration program. My advice is to get templates in place so that you can launch the program and replicate it easily. And think through aspects like: if students can only choose the one time slot or more, what happens if the spots are filled, will you have a waitlist and how will it work, what will you do if the sessions aren’t filled, etc. Set expectations with your alumni ahead of time. Then you just have to figure out your cadence. For example, if you see that the sessions aren’t filling at a certain time of year, how can you find the cause and troubleshoot the issue? I’d also highly recommend working with your career development team if possible, because that partnership has been invaluable for us.

This program has been really helpful, especially when alumni and students are asking for mentoring, because it’s allowed us not to have to pay a hefty price tag for a mentoring platform and it’s also been fairly easy to accomplish with a really small team. If you don’t have a whole lot of resources, this is a great way to engage alumni who want to give back to current students.

Are you and your team doing exciting work in advancement? We’d love to feature that work on our blog! Contact Caitlin to learn more.

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