Interview with Stefanie Niles, Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing, and Communications at Dickinson College

What inspired you to present about Dickinson's Alumni Volunteer Program?

I presented alongside Ashley Browning, of Hollins University, and Hillary Teague, formerly of Kalamazoo College, now at Case Western Reserve University. We each talked about the similarities and differences between our alumni volunteer programs. All of us feel that the goal of an alumni volunteer program is to engage alumni and connect them in meaningful ways to our institutions. At Dickinson, we have alumni representing us at over 300 college fairs across the country. At Hollins, for example, they get several hundred alumni referrals per year. We truly couldn’t reach as many prospective students as we do without the contributions of alumni.

What are some challenges you've faced in running these programs?

Even though our Dickinson Alumni Volunteer Program is about 14 years old, it is not without room for improvement 

In some ways, our list of alumni volunteers is quite large at about 2000, though not all are active at all times. One of our challenges is figuring out how to target the active volunteers with programs they will want to engage in. We don’t want to spam our volunteers with emails about opportunities that are not a good fit for them. Yet in other ways, our list is not expansive enough. There are always students in remote areas who don’t have alumni as resources. Because of that, we are always challenged to extend the Dickinson network further.

Training our alumni volunteers is another big challenge. With so many individuals doing so much for us, it’s very difficult to provide consistent training that makes all alums feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the Dickinson of today so that they can accurately represent the college, interview new candidates for admission, or host events. We’ve used electronic resources, and any in-person opportunities we can to offer training for alumni. Last year we did a series of online trainings and live webinars. We know, however, that our training videos are too long. We’re trying to cut down that hour of content into 5-8 minutes videos.

To effectively run these programs, we partner with the alumni relations office. Part of our challenge is making sure that we’re collaborating with that office so that our efforts are maximized and so that we’re not duplicating what they are doing in engagement.  

What sticks in your mind about your fellow presenters' approaches?

Kalamazoo College has had a lot of success using alumni for a week of calling admitted students, and Hollins has replicated this program. Alumni ask incoming students if they have any questions, and share their own experiences. 
Hollins University has also focused their efforts on alumni referrals. I see that as one of the best models to increase yield. Though we haven’t implemented those programs yet at Dickinson, we know that many students are unofficially talking to alumni. We’re looking to formalize a referral program so that we can encourage alumni to share prospective student names with us early in the process to collaborate with them to recruit students they have helped to identify as potentially a good fit for Dickinson.

What's next for these programs?

Establishing the referral program is going to be a major focus for us in the next year.

We also have a lot of experience using alumni and parents for international incoming student interviews. The international  population at Dickinson is expanding year over year and there is a growing need to assess language ability, student interest and fit, etc. School admission officers can only set up so many Skype interviews. It’s important for us to have those volunteers well trained so that they can handle those interactions for us.

While we pride ourselves on hosting receptions with alums and parents, there are always a few locations where we aren’t able to find ahost. It’s important for us to be able to develop new relationships with parents and alumni in these areas. We don’t want to have to keep asking the same parents and alumni to host year after year. We would love to eliminate some of those challenges.