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Introducing Citizen Alum: Doers, Not (Just) Donors

Citizen Alum counters the image of alumni as primarily “donors” with a vision of them as also “doers.” Alums are allies in education–crucial partners in building multigenerational communities of active citizenship and active learning.

Citizen Alum, based at the University of Michigan, started six months ago as an affiliated program of the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) — of which ADP is a member — took shape during the planning phase of the January 10, 2012 White House meeting, “For Democracy’s Future.”


You can learn more about Citizen Alum at #ADP12 next week in San Antonio, during the following sessions:

Thursday, June 7 | 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. | Conference Room 7
Pre-Conference Workshop: American Commonwealth Partnership Open Forum (open to all)
ADP and TDC are two key partners in the new American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP). ACP is an alliance of colleges and universities, higher education groups, P-12 schools and others dedicated to the democracy college ideal for all higher education. Launched at the White House on January 10, ACP grows out of ADP’s Civic Agency Initiative and its ‘We the People’ conference in Washington, D.C. The November 2010 conference laid the initial plans for a movement in higher education to, in partnership with policy makers, deepen the civic identities of colleges and universities and spread empowering pedagogies and community-connecting practices. At this preconference forum, participants have a chance to hear about several key ACP initiatives, including: the deliberative dialogues on higher education’s role in America’s future; “Citizen Alum,” strategies for broadening the role of alumni from “donors” to “doers;” and Empowering Pedagogies, approaches which bring civic agency into curricular and co-curricular innovation. ADP’s new Campus Civic
Health Initiative, which focuses on ways to measure and improve civic health, is also discussed.
Facilitator: Harry Boyte, Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College (Minn.) and National Coordinator, American Commonwealth Partnership
Citizen Alum: Strategies for Campus Teams
Presenters: Julie Ellison, Professor of American Culture and English and Lead Organizer of Citizen Alum, University of Michigan; Thomas Morgan, Executive Director, Center for Faith and Learning, Augsburg College (Minn.); and Kara Lindaman, Associate Professor and ADP Campus Director, Winona State University (Minn.)
Deliberative Dialogues on Shaping Our Future
Presenters: Kara Lindaman, Associate Professor and Campus ADP Campus Director and Laura Lake, Student, Winona State University (Minn.)
Empowering Pedagogies
Presenters: Blase Scarnati, Director, First Year Seminar Program and Global Learning, Northern Arizona University and Kaylesh Ramu, Student Government Association President, University of Maryland Baltimore County

Saturday, June 9 | 10 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. | Conference Room 7
Introducing Citizen Alum—Alumni as Doers, Not (Just) Donors
This session is an introduction to Citizen Alum as a strategy for institutional culture change. The particular focus of this panel is integrating alumni relations into campus-wide public/community engagement.
Presenters: Julie Ellison, Professor of American Culture and English and Lead
Organizer of Citizen Alum, University of Michigan;
Jodi Bantley, Coordinator, Community Service-Learning, Center for Community-Based Learning, Metropolitan State University (Minn.); LeeAnn Lands, Associate Professor of History and American Studies and Lisa Duke, Director, Office of Alumni Affairs, Kennesaw State University (Ga.)


Citizen Alum seeks 25 colleges and universities representing all sectors of American higher education. Working with this network, we plan develop ways to exchange good models as well as to foster bold aspirations. We want to support campus Citizen Alum teams that extend the university’s public mission to more offices and departments. Finally, we hope to become a community that views alumni, along with other constituencies, as “agents and architects of democracy,” to use the language of the Wingspread Declaration.

Charter Members Include:

  • Augsburg College
  • De Anza College
  • Kennesaw State University
  • Metropolitan State University
  • Syracuse University
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Michigan-Dearborn
  • University of Minnesota
  • Winona State University

At each site, we look for a team that is willing to work with the national network for three years. The team should include representatives of community engagement centers, academic programs, alumni associations, development, and, of course, citizen alums themselves. There is no fee for joining.

We conceive of Citizen Alum as a national listening project; a capacity-building project to make public the civic passions of alums, current students, faculty, and staff; and a participatory research project.

Along with Alex Olson, a doctoral student in American Culture at the University of Michigan who is a collaborator on the project, I have been having a series of inspiring phone calls and meetings with people from interested campuses. These encounters have confirmed our belief that colleges and universities are trying many different creative strategies as they reframe their approaches to public engagement in ways that support richer cross-generational connections.

Please contact me if you would like to join the Citizen Alum network of campuses, centers, and consortia.

Julie Ellison, Professor of American Culture and English, University of Michigan

Different Ways to Do It Right: Alumni Listening Projects

“Start listening projects to gather and learn from the reflections of engaged alumni” is right at the top of Citizen Alum’s list of goals. Alumni are central to Citizen Alum. Each participating campus or center is assembling a Citizen Alum team. (See “Who’s On Your CA Team?”) Each team will include alumni members. Citizen Alum is committed to involving alums in multiple ways-through participation in academic activities (like capstone courses), working on specific issues with campus-community projects in the region–or serving on the Citizen Alum campus team.

One of the reasons we started Citizen Alum is because we are convinced that creative new strategies in alumni relations are taking shape on college and university campuses all over the country. Over the last six months, as Citizen Alum has gone from a lunchtime brainstorm at the American Democracy Project conference to a viable national undertaking, we have learned of existing or new alumni listening projects at several member campuses. The diversity of these programs shows that there are, indeed, many different ways to do it right.

For examples, see “Listening Projects,” below.

What Questions Are They Asking?

Metropolitan U Students To Interview Alums

1.How you are involved in your community or in efforts to solve public problems?

2.How do you address community issues through your work? What are the primary social issues related to your field?

3.What motivated you to become involved in community and public problem-solving? How did your path to civic engagement start?

4.Were there any particular classes, instructors or organizations that particularly shaped your ideas or your approach to community work? How?

5.How has your life changed because of your community involvement? What have you gained from being a civic actor?

From “Citizen Alum Interview Questions” developed for writing and media and communications courses

Listening Example #1:

Metropolitan State: Integrating Interviews Into Academics

Jodi Bantley, Coordinator of Community Service Learning at the Center for Community-Based Learning (soon to become the The Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship) writes that Metropolitan State’s approach to Citizen Alum focuses on “academic integration and student learning.”

The institutional relationship-building between alumni relations and other units that is needed to achieve such integration is an important fringe benefit. The Department of Communication, Writing, and the Arts explored CA as an “engaged department” project. There is considerable faculty interest in crafting CA components for courses that range from a basic Information Studies class to the capstone course.

To date, the most concrete academic outcome of CA is a plan to integrate “citizen alum stories” into coursework. Two sections of a Basic Writing course will be dedicated to the theme of civic engagement in Fall 2012, involving 44 students per semester in gathering alumni stories. The Human Subjects Review Board has approved a guiding set of interview questions (see “What Questions Are They Asking?”) and a step-by-step guide for students. Two Spring 2012 semester pilots will give the interview assignment a test run. It will be integrated into an upper division Media Studies course, ‘Communicating with New Media,” and a Social Science department internship, sponsored by the Center for Community-Based Learning.

Listening Example #2:

Winona State: An Innovative Web Platform

Dr. Kara Lindaman of Winona State’s Citizen Alum team (and point person for the American Democracy Project at Winona State) sends word of the group’s decision to produce “gap” and “situated” alumni narratives in video and written form. Through undergraduate research and other forms of intentional engagement, students will begin to collect and disseminate this critical work this spring. These narratives will be featured on the Winona 360 site—a wonderful place that is something like an online student-produced community media center for the region.

Through surveys and interviews, a rich database of alumni engaged in public work will lead to a better understanding of the civic learning and civic health of WSU students, before and after they graduate. These efforts involve collaborations with academic units and with the WSU Alumni Office and Foundation. They also contribute to the Rural Outcomes Initiative of Minnesota Campus Compact by documenting the economic development and workplace contributions of alums in Southeastern Minnesota.

Why Listen?

Listen to be surprised. Engaged alums take their civic vocation seriously. They come bearing gifts–the gifts of experience, ideas, skills, and strategies. As ACP National Coordinator Harry Boyte says, citizen alums “are hidden treasures.”

Listen to connect. Asking the right questions about what alums are doing is the first step in learning about their civic creativity. (See “What Questions Are They Asking?”) At Metropolitan State, the Citizen Alum team sees this as relationship-building, “laying the groundwork to connect directly to alums as public problem-solvers.”

Listen to stimulate research. Alumni are potential research partners–co-investigators on inquiries that benefit both the college and alumni themselves. For example, a joint research project might look at the aspirations and choices of publicly active students during the transition from college to career.

Listen to change the culture on campus.

Listening projects connect academic and administrative offices to the university’s public mission in new, more collaborative ways.

Joining CA: Kennesaw

At Kennesaw University in Georgia, planning for systemic public engagement is underway. Citizen Alum adds a valued dimension. Public engagement is central to broad new initiatives. At Kennesaw, people in varied roles and different units all have civic learning and civic professionalism on their minds.

Kennesaw State has launched “Engage KSU,” anticipating the opportunity in 2015 to apply for the Carnegie Foundation’s Elective Community Engagement Classification. Having made the decision to incorporate public engagement into its mission as it approaches its 50th anniversary, KSU is in the midst of a year-long community engagement project. Five teams are charged with planning in the areas of teaching, scholarship, service, infrastructure, and partnerships. Citizen Alum is consistent with the Engage KSU initiative already underway and offers a way to connect with the university’s many young alumni.

On the Horizon

The CA website is under construction. We should be online in May

Conferences and Meetings in 2012

Look for two Citizen Alum sessions at the American Democracy Project Conference June 7-9 San Antonio.

Join us at the Citizen Alum session at the Imagining America conference October 5-7 NYC

Looking Ahead to 2013

Discussion are underway about a Citizen Alum summer institute hosted by the Jandris Center for Innovation in Higher Education at the University of Minnesota. Stay tuned.

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