We’ve generated a lot of ideas and discussion about how to engage alumni through story lately, including our first digital Idea Lab session, but what about engaging alumni through history?
One of the most effective ways to forge (or reforge!) the connection between alumni and their alma mater is through nostalgia—by reminding them of how their experiences at the institution helped shape them into who they are today.
As Linda Cook, Kansas State Alumni Association Assistant Vice President of Communications, pointed out, “We want students to have great experiences during their college years, because alumni donors are really going to be needed, especially considering the current climate of state funding for higher education.”
Recently, I met with Linda Cook at the Kansas State Alumni Center to discuss how the rededication of the K-State Memorial Stadium helped her department and K-State alumni young and old remember the importance of history and connection. Check out our compelling discussion followed by key takeaways.
Caitlin Scarano: First, tell me a bit about your story—how did you end up in this position? What work do you do with alumni?
Linda Cook: I graduated from K-State with a degree in journalism and mass communications. I worked in public relations for General Motors for 25 years. I decided to make a career change and earned a master’s in business administration from MIT.
This sort of transition used to be atypical, but now people see the value in moving between industries and bringing new insights to those industries. I ended up serving on the Board of Directors for K-State. When my current position opened up, I applied. I’ve been the Assistant Vice President of Communications for five years.
Our department stays busy. We handle communications for all Alumni Association events. We’re responsible for the website; K-Stater, a quarterly magazine that goes to members; an e-newsletter (which is sent to 125,000 email addresses each month); all the social media; marketing materials for alumni programming; email promotions; event planning, etc. I am personally responsible for facilitating the Alumni Association’s five-year strategic plan.
CS: What about the story of Memorial Stadium—When was it built? What role has it played on the K-State campus?
LC: Construction on Memorial Stadium began in 1922 to honor the 48 K-Staters who lost their lives in WWI. But, for reasons related to the Depression or start-and-stop construction, back then, the stadium was never officially dedicated. Memorial Stadium has had many purposes over the past decade: along with serving as a space for sports events, the rooms beneath the bleachers were used as campus housing when an influx of students returned to campus after WWII, and classes were once taught there.
In the late 1960s, after the football games moved to the Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium, Memorial Stadium started to lose its identity. At this time, it was not a popular place for people to go—it was in a state of disrepair and lacked a clear purpose or function.
CS: How did K-State respond? How did you help the stadium find its identity?
LC: There was a grassy knoll beside the stadium where students used to gather. Then, as the Alumni Association began to grow, they raised enough money to build the Alumni Center we are sitting in now on that grassy spot. The Alumni Center serves as a home for alumni to return to. It started to bring life to this section of the campus again.
Over time, more lights were put up on Memorial Stadium field, the structure was redone, and students started to use it for club sports and band practice. Both sides of Memorial Stadium were renovated; the Purple Mask Theater is on one side and the Welcome Center is on the other. The bleachers were removed and a native garden was planted there. If I walk out of this building late in the evening, there is almost always a bustle of student activity in and around the stadium.
Linda Cook explained another important turning point in the identity of Memorial Stadium—a discovery made by an alumnus! According to an article in the K-Stater*, when Jed Dunham ’96 was visiting campus one day, “he found a plaque at Memorial Stadium honoring the 48 fallen. Intrigued, he snapped a quick photo and decided to research the fallen. Yet, he found the information was not easily available. Dunham then went on a personal quest to uncover their stories. The Alumni Association responded to his request for help and coordinated efforts to identify K-State resources” that supported his research (Pauls 74).
Here are Dunham’s own words** about what came out of that search:
“What surfaced is the never before told story of the American experience in the First World War told through the eyes of those who saw it. It’s a chronological evolution of how the country entered the war and what happened as a result. These men served in all branches, across every front and through every battle. […] And as they died they tell us how the war unfolded.”
Dunham’s investigation and K-State’s involvement led to the official dedication ceremony of the stadium held last April, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I.
CS: Why do you think the history and identity of these buildings and spaces on a campus matter? How does this relate to the work we do with alumni and other supporters?
LC: This isn’t so much about the brick and mortar buildings, but about the people who came before and used those spaces. Memorial Stadium is now a tranquil place where students often come to reflect. The dedication ceremony helped students see these soldiers as 48 actual people. They had majors, attended classes, took part in activities, and made memories here. They were part of the K-State family.
Meaning moves through time, even students today can feel the camaraderie of the 48 soldiers now that they know the story—now that we’ve remembered, shared, and honored that story.
College is a milestone, a turning point in life, when one breaks away and forms an identity away from home and family. This relates to our work because what brings people back to campus, what makes them want to support the institution, is a longing for what they were like when they were here.
What I’ve found is that people really do want to contribute. They want to help the institution have that same formative impact on current students that it had on them.
1) Give them a chance to share: As part of the renovation, the Alumni Association asked alumni to share memories they had Memorial Stadium. They received hundreds of stories spanning nearly a century! As Linda Cook explained, “The fact that so many people want to talk about their memories shows just how much that nostalgia piece interests alumni. You can really get them engaged by giving them a chance to reflect back on their time.”
2) Strategic wording: Kansas State has worked to help students and alumni view themselves as part of the K-State Family. This deliberate phrasing helps promote lifelong connectivity to the institution.
3) Look for opportunities to collaborate with alumni and other departments: When Jed Dunham came to the Alumni Association with his discovery, they saw the importance of the project. In addition, they worked with a class in the landscape architecture and regional & community planning department at K-State to help preserve the history of the stadium.
4) Remember, even though stories can be lost, they can most certainly be found.
Is your institution doing everything it can to engage alumni through nostalgia and history? Contact us today to see how the ALUMinate Advantage can help your department maximize your reach.
Special thank you to Linda Cook for taking the time to speak with me.