New in 2011: Profiles
Alumni communities serve critical roles in many kinds of organizations – not only in schools, colleges or universities. This year I'll post short interviews with professionals from some non-traditional alumni programs.
Profile: Dean Dwigans
Director of Alumni Relations, and
Chief of Graduate & Stakeholder Support,
George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
Last year, while teaching a workshop for the European Association for International Education in Paris, I met Capt. Dean Dwigans, U.S. Navy. In addition to his career as a military Judge Advocate, Dean (now retired from the Navy after a 25 year career) took on the role of alumni executive at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
I interviewed Dean to learn more about how his work at the Marshall Center compares with traditional alumni programs.
Alumni Futures: Dean, you spent your career in the U.S. Navy, focused on legal practice and more recently, teaching international law. How have you managed the transition to alumni relations work?
Dean Dwigans: I really enjoy the alumni business, especially in the international environment. I get to apply creativity and energy to developing meaningful and lasting relationships with, and among our 8,000 graduates from more than 100 nations. I'm in the government end of it, but I hope to stay engaged in general alumni relations discussions and training, which I find very useful. I brought back many ideas from the EAIE workshop in Paris, for example.
AF: You and I exchanged some thoughts about the "magic formula" for successful alumni work. I said, "Relevance + Access = Engagement." Do you think that's true in your organization?
DD: As long as the definition of "relevance" includes being meaningful and responsive to alumni needs, I think it's a valid short-hand for success.
The Marshall Center has unique focus: building a network of security professionals to create a more stable security environment. We advance democratic institutions, promote active and peaceful security cooperation, and enhance partnerships among nations in North America, Europe, and Eurasia. This is instead of, say, fundraising, marketing our programs, or other more traditional alumni association roles.
But I also see how we're similar to traditional programs. When I look at communications from some civilian alma maters, I'm sometimes put off by the emphasis on fundraising in almost every contact. At the Marshall Center, we have to offer our graduates something useful that applies directly to them or they'll tune us out, and I think civilian institutions should do the same. We promise our graduates that we'll stay in contact, continue to help them grow professionally, and provide a forum for their ideas.
AF: What kinds of activities and programs do you have in place?
DD: We get to know each student while they're in residence. We then work hard to stay in contact from the moment they leave, offer programs "in country" at least once a year, and invite some alumni back each year for professional training, and for contact with other alumni and with faculty. We have a new, improved web presence coming online this year to make collaboration and distance education easier – helping us stay in contact with alumni worldwide.
Our magazine, per Concordiam, is devoted to alumni research and writing. Our "communities of interest" track the subject matter of our resident programs, and we have conferences several times a year for small groups of distinguished alumni. They serve in important, visible roles – ambassadors, defense ministers, and parliamentarians. Our goal is to have contact with each of our 8,000 alumni twice a year, even if it's just to update their contact information.
I'm now trying to put this all into a strategic plan, to focus and coordinate our efforts, and help me explain our program to senior leadership.
AF: What resources do you have to deliver on these goals?
DD: I have a staff of eight, with five devoted to specific regions where they're responsible for maintaining the relationship and knowing the graduates' needs. Three staff members are devoted to alumni events. The Marshall Center is a U.S.–German partnership, and we teach in three languages – English, Russian and German. So our regional representatives speak multiple languages to communicate with alumni. We also benefit from very supportive and involved leadership, which is vital to any alumni program.
AF: What are your biggest challenges, and where do you see the greatest opportunity?
DD: We have a relatively narrow educational mission, compared with a liberal arts college for example. But the challenges that governments face now are so varied and complex that we have to expand our educational efforts. Cybersecurity, crime and corruption, immigration, disaster relief, negotiation and mediation, border security, the environment, religion, trade issues, international law – the list is endless. We keep alumni up to date with lectures, resident courses, and conferences on these topics. The quarterly alumni magazine focuses 80% of its content on one of these topics, and a mix of the other topics for the remaining 20%. We also try to maximize the use of technology and virtual interaction.
We get our students involved very early. I'm one of the first people they hear from. I welcome them before they arrive, and ask them to join the Alumni Knowledge Portal. On the Portal we provide travel information, area info, class schedules and other information they need for settling in. We meet with them when they arrive, introduce them more thoroughly to the Portal, invite them for private or country meetings, host field trips, and talk to them all again before they depart. We see many of them every day while they're here, and they become not only alumni, but our good friends as well. But I learn more from them than they do from me, especially when I visit them after they've returned home. They've opened my mind to new perspectives, and they reinforce how we're all committed to the same goal – a peaceful, productive existence for our families and nations.
After all this interaction, they know who we are, and we in turn have a very good idea of their needs. That's one of the keys to our ultimate success.
Photos by Karlheinz Wedhorn. Top: Woerner Hall at the Marshall European Center. Below: Interior of the large plenary at the Marshall Center.