It was some time ago now that we started to try and map the journey of students beyond our school. If we could map it, we thought, we could design for them better and more meaningful experiences.
Based on a mix of informal conversations and what our experience had taught us over the years, we came up with the idea that there were 8 Elements that made up an alumni life.
Underpinning this idea was the conviction that, if you divide up the lifespan of a former student into various stages, you can begin to identify some of the story Elements (feelings, convictions, desired actions, etc) that are more or less at play at any one time. In other words, across the course of a life, there are some times when our graduates feel more connected, nostalgic or positively oriented towards the school and other times when school is something of a distant, perhaps even irrelevant, memory.
A few weeks ago, we set out to test and gain further insights into these ideas via a simple survey of hundreds of members of our alumni community between the ages of 20 and 80 years old. We wanted to measure the relative importance of each story Element - Belonging, Celebration, Guidance, Nostalgia, Generosity, Gratitude and Legacy - at each stage and look for patterns across hundreds of data points.
As the results started to come in, patterns did start to emerge.
To illustrate the point, let’s take three examples.
The Element Nostalgia, represented by the notion of looking back on the old days with a smile. What our data appears to suggest (see Figure 1 below) is that this is something that grows over time, reaching a peak somewhere between the age of 50 and 60 years old, after which it begins to fade away.
The Element Connection on the other hand has a different trajectory (see Figure 2 below). If our data is correct, then it would appear that the sense of connection to the school grows in the first 10 years after graduation, decreases until retirement, and then plateaus.
Finally, if we look at the Element Generosity, which suggests the importance of giving back to your alma mater, there can be little doubt that a different wave pattern begins to emerge (see Figure 3 below). In fact, whilst it might be said that a graduate of the school leaves with a strong sense of wanting to give back, this quickly decreases during her 30s and 40s (where presumably there are other demands on time and finances), only to pick up again in later years.
So what does this all mean for the ways in which we manage alumni engagement in our schools? In many ways, we are ourselves only just beginning to understand the meaning of the data and there is a lot more detailed analysis ahead of us. What we do know, however, is that unless we continue to unpack the implications, we will never truly be on the same wavelength as any of the students leaving our school.