We Are All in this Together: RALC Transforms into a New GSAA

We Are All in this Together: RALC Transforms into a New GSAA

By Nancy J. Brandwein

At June’s Alumni Reunion, School of General Studies Dean Peter J. Awn announced a development that has been a long time in the planning stages and that will benefit current and future students enormously. The Recent Alumni Leadership Committee (RALC), the highly active group that has mentored hundreds of current students and spearheaded so many GS alumni programs and events, has been renamed the General Studies Alumni Association (GSAA). Not only is there a new name, but there is also a more formal structure and a succession plan to draw more alumni into its ranks.

Like a vibrant plant pushing against the confines of its pot, RALC had outgrown both its name and its informal structure. Those most active in RALC, including its co-chairs Chris Riano ’07 and Alex Vial ’09 and alumni Mason Beard ’04, Richie Space ’05, and Justin White ’05 all graduated nine to ten years ago—hardly the most “recent” alumni. As a result, School of General Studies leadership together with active alumni and administrative officers of the Columbia Alumni Association Office of Alumni Relations recognized it was time for an upgrade. Columbia University Senior Director of Alumni Relations Jill Marie Galas Hickey said of RALC, “There wasn’t a deep bench of potential leaders. We had roughly twenty volunteers—one to three committee heads, and we needed to create a sustainable succession plan. Now we have one, and now we have the ability to grow the people we have and to think about the people we don’t have, and get them involved.”

“A project I thought was going to take two to three years took a matter of months.”

 - Janet Griffin, Associate Director of Alumni Relations

Transforming incoming students into active alumni will be a much easier task for the GSAA than it was for the fledgling RALC. “The history of GS is not one of Studies Dean Peter Awn while citing the nature of the nontraditional students’ alumni-path. For many GS students—from veterans to ballerinas and business owners to homemakers—it can take 8 to 12 years to graduate. “Because you can attend part time or full time, you may begin with a particular cohort, but there’s no guarantee you’ll graduate with the same group of people,” Awn explained, emphasizing that unlike traditional colleges, GS alumni historically did not associate with a classyear contingent.

However, he has noticed an evolution in class identity, particularly over the last 12 years, most likely attributed to the fact that upwards of 65% of GS students now attend full time, which has built a sense of class cohesion. “All of the sudden, the student council began to appoint class presidents and give them serious money to run events.”

The desire to be integrated into undergraduate student life is what fueled RALC’s formation in the mid 2000s. As GS students, many RALC members fought to pay the same student activity fees as other CU students for the right to participate in campus life as equals (A triumph detailed in a 2005 Owl story, “Student Life Evolves.”). RALC grew organically, as alumni from those heady times continued the strong bonds they had forged during their GS years and began to give back to the school after graduation. Beard ’04, a former ballerina with the Pennsylvania Ballet who is now major gifts officer for the nonprofit Summer Search, remembers, “The General Studies Student Council (GSSC) invited alumni back as panelists for networking nights, résumé review sessions, and mock interview events. Once we graduated, we wanted to be the ones offering those kinds of sessions.” Beard also said that a significant part of RALC’s early mission was “wanting our alumni-veteran population and our current students attending on the GI bill to interact, therefore helping the vets adjust to student life and, later, transition to the workplace.”

Military veterans Richie Space ’05 and Justin White ’05 became RALC’s first co-chairs in 2007, roles they held for six years. Space concurred with Beard on the importance of those GS alumni-student interactions, “Part of the impetus for building the alumni group is the idea of mentoring. As a veteran coming out of the United States Marines and four years of college, I went through my own bumps and hurdles, and any time I see students struggling, I try to pair them up with alumni.”

By 2011, RALC’s continued engagement with current students through mentoring at New Student Orientation and networking events during the school year caught the attention of Peter Awn and Office of Alumni Relations administrators; they knew they had a vital resource in the cadre of RALC members. Janet Griffin, Associate Director of Alumni Relations, was charged with cultivating this group and was bowled over by the members’ energy and sense of purpose. “A project I thought was going to take two to three years took a matter of months.”

After her initial meeting with RALC and its then-current co-chairs Chris Riano and Alex Vial, she said the group immediately got to work. For example, they re-branded the annual Recent Alumni Reception renaming it the Mid-Winter Mixer, enhanced the event’s publicity with a more attractive email invitation, and conducted personal outreach to draw people’s interest. “Attendance went up 30% that year,” said Griffin.

“It was just really exciting to watch it all come together. At the next meeting, everyone was excited to start new projects and continue the momentum that had begun at the Mixer. We redesigned the monthly newsletter, revamped our orientation panels, and had RALC recruit people to run panels on careers, job hunting, and other professional concerns.

“They owned these projects,” said Griffin. For current GS students, RALC’s efforts to engage them have been a real boon. In fact, students enrolled today, said Griffin, “are shocked” to learn that when these alumni were students, they did not have all the resources that students have now. Alumni who graduated five to ten years ago, Griffin explained, recall how, as students, they created post-graduation planning programs at a grassroots level with few resources. That may have been the case during their time as students; however, it is important to note that before RALC was established, there existed a core group of active GS alumni who operated the first GS alumni association that had been established sixty years ago, aptly named General Studies Alumni Association (see “Back Then Too, Owls Gave a Hoot,” page 13).

“Everyone talked about this deep connection with GS, identifying it as a journey that not everyone embarks on at the same time. Some people say it starts the moment you get accepted. Others say there is a distinct, very personal moment you fall in love with GS.”

- Jill Marie Galas Hickey, Senior Director of Alumni Relations

Today’s students likely take for granted all the panels, mixers, and funds that RALC produces to foster student and alumnicentric events. It seemed only natural, then, that in 2012, Alumni Relations administrators and Dean Awn decided to expand RALC’s mission to serve the extended GS alumni community.

Office of Alumni Relations administrators and RALC members alike consider Dean Awn’s passionate involvement as key to RALC’s smooth transition to the new GSAA. Mason Beard, who this year replaces Alex Vial as the GSAA co-chair to serve alongside Chris Riano, said, “It’s amazing how much time Dean Awn has devoted to the conversations.” For his part, Awn points to larger forces at play on campus that make it an opportune time for GSAA’s formation.

“There’s a sense of celebration of both the community and the university and the diversity within the university. The leadership of the university has really embraced what GS represents,” Awn reflected. “So much so that Dean of Columbia College James Valentini is championing GS, saying, ‘What makes the Columbia classroom unique is the level of diversity to which we are committed. It’s different than any other Ivy.’” Awn noted that Dean Valentini’s son, a former marine, has been enrolled at GS since fall 2013, so he is personally invested in the school’s success and contribution to the greater university community.

Within GS, Awn points to the ever higher caliber of admitted students, “We’re attracting an incredible group of people who can handle full-time loads and handle them incredibly well.” While the uptick in full-time GS students makes them a more cohesive group, it also presents challenges. Awn admitted, “A really interesting quirk of GS is the students enroll with 40 to 50 credits. They often graduate in two years, taking full summer terms, too, so they don’t have time to think, ‘What am I going to do for a living?’ As a result, there’s a real urgency in trying to get incoming students not only to engage one another in a meaningful way, but also to almost immediately engage them with alumni.” The next challenge is to capture the attention of Postbac Premed Program students and alumni. As Awn pointed out, once they start on their path as medical students and then doctors, they have very little time to devote to engagement. Yet, as with the undergraduate population, Postbac Premed alumni involvement with current students is highly beneficial and rewarding for both parties.

Adopting a concept pioneered and executed extremely well by Princeton University, according to Awn, GSAA’s goal is for GS students to consider themselves alumni as soon as they matriculate. This approach, coupled with putting the existing experience and energy of RALC to work within the new GSAA framework, will help GS’s nontraditional student and alumni populations realize success.

The GSAA will consist of a leadership board made up of co-chairs and committee chairs who have clearly defined roles enabling the association to be more efficient and focused (see sidebar). A two-year term for co-chairs and a succession plan will enable smooth leadership transitions. Hickey pointed to a print-out of a presentation she had prepared for one of the GSAA planning meetings that outlined the new organization’s vision. It stated,

The alumni board passionately leads and dedicates ambassadors to enhance the GS experience for alumni from the beginning of their Columbia journey through their lives as members of the worldwide Columbia community.

The idea of a “Columbia journey” is a powerful one for GS alumni. At the planning meeting, said Hickey, “Everyone talked about this deep connection with GS, identifying it as a journey that not everyone embarks on at the same time. Some people say it starts the moment you get accepted. Others say there’s a distinct, very personal moment you fall in love with GS.”

Whenever their journey begins, all GS alumni and students now have the support and resources of the General Studies Alumni Association, a organization that possesses the structure and strength required to foster life-long relationships with alumni from both past years and recent years so they, in turn, will be inspired to keep giving back through mentoring, networking panels, and professional programs.

Mason Beard ’04, Christopher Riano ’07, Liz Hollister ’07, Elaine Bernstein '72
Dean Awn’s enthusiasm for engaging alumni is apparent.
Justin Nathaniel Carter ’14, Mason Beard ’04, Janet Griffin