Interview with Ellen Sullivan, Director of International Advancement at Boston College

What are some strategies other schools can use to engage alumni - even on the other side of the world?

I think there are lots of creative ways that we can be more helpful in bringing our alumni closer to the institution by connecting them with students. One way to do that is by introducing the students studying abroad with our international alumni in key cities around the world. Right now, about 50% of BC undergraduates study abroad at some point during their four years. Many of them go to London, Paris and Madrid, but some of them are in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Ho Chi Minh City. As I plan alumni events in places where we have a critical mass of study abroad students, I always reach out through the Office of International Programs to invite the students to participate, as it’s a wonderful way to inspire the very kind of mentoring relationships from alumni that can make a critical difference in the quality of the study abroad experience.

One of the things that I would like to achieve more systematically when we have more human infrastructure dedicated to this effort is to make sure the alumni in the local community know who the students are, and help to foster an environment in which there is a Boston College community developing between the alumni and the students in a particular city. I want them to know which students are in the neighborhood, which ones would love to be invited to a dinner, or volunteer for a local community project.
Another strategy is to identify faculty members who travel to certain parts of the world, and invite them to be part of conversations with alumni. I start by doing an environmental scan on my own campus to determine who are the ten most likely suspects: who runs an international program, like Asian Studies or Islamic Studies; who has research collaborations with colleagues abroad; who teaches summer courses abroad? In my experience, once I identify these folks, they are happy to be asked to give a talk to an alumni group abroad, and the alumni are thrilled to have a faculty member “sent to them” by a helpful advancement officer.
I’ve also partnered for the last three years with our MBA program on the International Management Experience program. Most MBA programs in the US have at least a course that invites students to travel internationally to examine the business culture of a region. At BC we have class groups going Asia for two weeks in the spring to visit with CEO’s or CFO’s at major factories and businesses. I’ve been collaborating with faculty members to introduce new companies that are run by alumni or parents, or ones in which alumni or parents hold senior leadership roles. It’s a great benefit pedagogically for the students to gain access to these companies, and it helps to bring the alumni and parents closer to the institution. At BC, our MBA students travel to Asia, Europe, and Latin America, and I’ve found these connections to be an easy win, in the sense that it enriches everyone’s experience and also helps me figure out who future advancement leaders might be in different parts of the world. We’ve been hosted in very generous ways all around the world, and the members of our BC community are proud to be asked The International Management Experience program is something that’s happening already; I’m simply using it as a lever to create opportunities to bring more parents and alumni into the mix.

How has the increasing number of international applicants affected Boston College?

My international fundraising work started at Harvard in 1998. At that time, Harvard had been receiving Chinese students in considerable numbers for about ten years, much longer than many US institutions. At Boston College, we’ve only seen Chinese students at the undergraduate level in critical numbers for a short time. Those numbers have risen from fifty or sixty students five years ago to 280 Chinese undergraduates today. I think it’s been a wonderful thing for the university. This is an institution that has a 152 year history, established by the Jesuit order of priests, who were the first pioneers of international education. For the first 125 years or so, Boston College was very much a regional institution, with the vast majority of students coming from Boston and the Northeast. When I was a student at BC in the 1980s, the University began outreach efforts in California, and over time, BC has become recognized nationally.
Today, then, is the era of the internationalization of Boston College. Right now 8% of our undergraduate students come from outside the US, and another 400 are American citizens who grew up and attended school oversees. Thus, you could say that closer to 12% of the student body brings a critical international experience to the classrooms, informing conversations in the dining halls, and enriching the spirit of this dynamic academic community.

What started your interest in advancement?

At Harvard there was a well-trod path from admissions to advancement, and I was lucky enough to follow it. In both roles, you must be able to speak on behalf of the institution. In one context it’s encouraging students and parents to have the confidence to consider applying to the institution, and in another it’s encouraging alumni and parents to have the confidence to invest in the institution. In admissions I was working with volunteers in communities to interview students and host events. In doing so, I developed skills managing volunteers and cultivating relationships that I could translate to my fundraising work.
I think we would do well in our field of advancement if we recognized the critical opportunities that we have to create advancement officers out of admissions officers and others who are on the front lines of representing the institution. We’re missing an opportunity to diversify the field and learn from the perspectives and communications skills of the next generation, if we’re not looking to admissions offices to recruit new advancement colleagues.

How has Boston College evolved into an internationally facing institution?

I think it’s a process for any school to become an internationally facing institution. Boston College is currently incorporating these new international dimensions and aspirations into its strategic plan for the next ten to twenty years. In terms of international advancement, it’s an ideal time for us to focus on engaging alumni, reconnecting them to the university in ways that are both meaningful and rewarding for them, and aligned with the educational mission of Boston College.
To me, an internationally facing institution fosters a mindset and consciousness that permeates every part of the university. Distinct schools within the institution should be asking themselves many questions at this point in their development, related to the student profile, course offerings, extracurricular opportunities. Is the advising department as conscious of the needs and concerns of international students as it needs to be? There’s an international student orientation, but are there more things that we can do as a university to support the growing international population? We have a much admired model for our parent orientation, but is there something we could add to it to make international parents feel more welcome and further invited to participate with the university? There are many places across the university where this international dimension needs to be coordinated. I think this work must be entirely intentional and purposeful, from a posture of inviting all to participate.

Ellen Sullivan

Before joining Boston College four years ago to develop a program in international advancement, Ellen served on the professional staff at Harvard University for 21 years, helping to shape the university’s international fundraising strategy, including the engagement of individual donors, private foundations, corporations and foreign governments. She also worked as a staff member for the Harvard College Fund and was associate director of the university’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. At the conference, she led a session on Advancement in Latin America.