This article is written by guest author Kevin Wesley, executive director of alumni relations at the University of Rochester (New York State, USA).
Like so many on that day 10 years ago, I wanted to do something. The day unfolded for many alumni offices the same way it did for me at Bowdoin College: our research office circulated reports of alumni and parents working at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. We attended a campus meeting where our president tried to calm and reassure.
And then the calls and emails began – from alumni, faculty, and staff.
“Have you heard from him?”
“She works in the South Tower.”
“I just heard some sad news.”
We were inundated with requests for information. Alumni needed us to do something. Checking in with each other and with their college was vitally important, a touchstone that comforted and connected. In those pre-Facebook days when status updates and tweets weren’t options, when phone lines and web sites were jammed, there were fewer outlets for sharing information.
News of the first alumnus lost came, and we grappled with how to announce then-unconfirmed deaths. Like others, we created a page where alumni in Boston, New York, and Washington could check in and report their safety. We announced somber news of deceased alumni. Hundreds sent us emails saying they were OK and scrolled through the list of “safe” names. In the days to come, I helped arrange a funeral for an alumnus killed in the attacks who had deep family roots at the college.
[Alumni needed us to do something.]
September 11 changed the way colleges and universities, and alumni relations specifically, respond to tragedies. Today, whether those incidents happen on campus or affect large numbers of alumni elsewhere, staff must be ready to respond proactively. Sadly, the past decade has required nimble and thoughtful response to a number of tragedies, including the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Virginia Tech massacre (2007) and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami earlier this year.
Charlotte Travieso, executive director of the Tulane Alumni Association, knows first-hand the profound impact of tragedy on a community, a campus, and her alumni. Following Hurricane Katrina, she learned how powerful those alumni connections can be. After Katrina’s waters subsided, a Tulane Phi Beta Kappa key, engraved with initials, was found in a driveway. Travieso was able to return the keepsake to the alumna. “It meant everything to her,” Travieso said. Tulane has an excellent website dedicated to reflections of that time and how it has shaped the institution.
After subsequent tragedies, Travieso would email alumni in affected areas, offering to help. Following Hurricane Ike, she found herself posting spreadsheets listing sites of nearby still-open convenience stores. After the March 2011 Japanese quake, she reunited roommates living in Tokyo and New Orleans who had lost touch with each other.
"We’ve really become a center of information. And I don’t think we ever felt that way before,” Travieso said of her staff. “I think we’ve personalized these disasters in a way to help people.”
[We’ve really become a center of information.
And I don’t think we ever felt that way before.]
Institutions took a variety of approaches to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. Many offered comforting words of support and news on institutional impact. Salem State University reported they had heard from all alumni living in the country while Alfred University asked alumni to email the office to check in. MIT’s great site Slice of MIT featured ways to help, and an invitation to a community forum on nuclear energy issues. These responses swiftly conveyed information and available resources.
Harvard’s response is particularly notable. Both the Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Business School created sites allowing alumni to receive news and to comment. The responses, mostly from alumni living in Japan, are touching and profound, reflections on the catastrophe, gratitude for the outpouring of support, and calls to action.
In the future, when these incidents occur, we need to ask the following questions:
What institutional messages must we convey?
What is our role in providing support, programming, and outreach?
How do we remain genuine in our message?
This week, many are reflecting on the events of a decade ago. In the tragedies that will inevitably follow in the future, alumni relations professionals can play an invaluable role in providing outreach and comfort in trying times. We can, truly, do something.
photo credit: 9/11 Tribute from the Heights by George Estreich via Creative Commons.