July 5, 2012 by Drew Stelljes
Guest blogger: Sagra Alvarado
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of alumni is simple as it states, “a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university.” With this definition, there is no difficult notion or complex thought behind it, but, precisely because of its simplicity, is what makes the definition of alumni left with something to be desired. Fortunately, Class President of 75’, Van Black, has one solution to ignite the alumni community at the College of William and Mary. As the driving force behind the remarkable initiative, Staying Connected, Van Black, classmates, and friends are expanding the definition of what it means to be an alumnus and giving back to the beloved Alma Mater.
Staying Connected is the brainchild of the Class of 75,’ and energetically led by Van Black. His bond to William and Mary goes beyond the handing of a diploma on graduation day, no, this class president bears a tie to his Alma Mater for life, and because of this sincere love, he is the ideal leader for this initiative. Staying Connected has been a brewing project since October 2010 at the 35th Reunion. During this reunion there was a shared desire by the alumni to give back to their communities and Alma Mater. Throughout the receptions, Van Black said that the classmates expressed a need to serve now that their own children had graduated and writing checks for tuition bills were part of a past (or soon to be). This restless atmosphere began to reach Van Black’s mind and the idea started to grow.
As Van and classmates saw it, William and Mary has a great Alumni Association with chapters throughout the East Coast and beyond. To supplement the many activities the Association and Chapters already do the thought surfaced “how can we have a “niche” that not only connects our classmates and alumni with each other, but allows them to connect with current students in a spirit of service, giving back and paying forward.” Plus, to these Class of ‘75’ers “giving can be time, talent or treasure.” As Van jokes, “I have more time and talent than I do treasure so I’m focusing on what I have to give.”
Van also felt that the Class of ’75 had a wonderful base of classmates who have consistently demonstrated commitment to the College over the years – to mention just a few of dozens of classmates – people like Lynn Dillon, Marilyn Ward Midyette and John Gerdleman who have held important roles in various capacities for the Alumni Association, Fund for the College and the Board of Visitors.
Due to such strong support from classmates, he decided that he did not want to wait five years to hold a reunion with fellow alumni, but instead to hold a gathering every year. A major component to this idea is that of service, “Whatever needs the college and the students have are opportunities for alumni to engage with each other, with students and the College.” However, in order to achieve this goal, sacrifices had to be made, but Van Black proudly shared, “I had faith in myself and my classmates – and it seems like the right time in life.” With this positive outlook at the road ahead, Van Black and his fellow alumni began to mold this bold initiative.
The beginning process involved shaping and wielding Staying Connected into its identity. He explained, “Between October and January 2011, I went to Northern Virginia-Winchester” where classmates Karen and Gene Schultz hosted Van and classmate Mike Madden and Randy Mayes to explore the concept. The “working title” for the initiative was “40 for the 40th.” The idea behind this title was that forty initiatives, big or small, would be completed by the 40th anniversary of the Class of 75’ graduation in October, 2015. These forty initiatives could vary from taking a mentoring relationship with a student or holding mock interviews to partnering with student service organizations to meet community needs. However, the feedback for the “40 for the 40th” title was challenged from fellow alumni. As true members of the Tribe, the alumni responded, “We are William and Mary graduates, we can do a lot more than forty.”
On February 5th, 2011, Staying Connected was officially launched. At classmate Barb Ramsey’s Staying Connected’s forty-seven people were gathered, “30 were alums and 17 were students.” Three rounds of four small groups were organized to hold mixers in order to become acquainted with one another. The alumni and students engaged in conversation with each other and discussed the needs of the college and their own personal ambitions, involvement, and passions. The alumni discovered that the main need of students is more partnerships with alumni and mentorship on career development. The students also shared that they wanted to learn how to access alumni. The social gathering was a success for Staying Connected and marked the beginning of their relationship with the current students at William and Mary.
The Fall ’11 and Spring Semester 2012 were busy times for Staying Connected as they began to network and develop their social ties with the student organizations on campus. A major achievement for Staying Connected is partnered with the Cohen Career Center. Behind Major and Career Explorations (MACE), a career program for freshmen and sophomores, Williamsburg area alums (thanks to the Williamsburg Alumni Chapter) and Staying Connected alumni offer their experience and service as mentors to young undergraduates. The alumni held fifty mock interviews with students and they also judged a competition for the Management and Public Skills Service class, where student-led teams created their own projects. The first and second prizewinners were funded six hundred dollars and four hundred dollars respectively and one hundred dollars were given to the remaining teams. Along with individual coaching for students, Van Black organized an event for Resident Assistants, (RAs) as he was also an RA during his time at William and Mary. During this event, slideshows of Residential Life in mid-70’s were presented. There was also a raffle for organizations to receive funding from Staying Connected where Dance Marathon won.
The single biggest and ongoing Staying Connected initiative has been the Swem Archiving project conceived and run by classmate Ann Speilman Woolley and her husband Mark (W&M ’77). Through a wonderful partnership with Amy Schindler at Swem, Ann and Mark have held multiple events on campus to digitize, upload and tag old photos and documents from the days of “Pappy Fehr,” iconic Choir Director who retired from W&M during the Class of ’75 era. Former choir members from the 70’s, current students and Williamsburg Community members have worked side by side restoring documents and singing along the way!
Staying Connected has worked both with the Center for Student Diversity and the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship (OCES). After a winning a contest entailing a five hundred-word essay and video, Campus Kitchens was awarded a fifteen hundred-dollar prize. Alongside students, alumni helped them with cooking and delivery shifts. The “One Tribe. One Family.” wristbands and Tribe t-shirts incoming freshmen students are given during Freshman Orientation are provided courtesy of Staying Connected as well, with special thanks given to Barb Ramsey for her generous support. Be it through Greek Life, Student Diversity, Sports, Careers, or Community Engagement, Staying Connected is branching out to all different parts of the campus in order to reach as many students as possible.
One note of interest – Van Black, and Ann and Mark Woolley all live in Texas! You can be a part of Staying Connected from anywhere, not just Virginia!
Staying Connected alumni who have had the opportunity to connect with current students consistently rave about the students, their service causes and how good it feels to reconnect with the College. Ask Heldur Liivak ’75 and Beth Dipace Liivak ’76 about Campus Kitchens and the William and Mary Dance Marathon or Corey Trench ’76 about the career coaching he has done. You’ll get smiles!
Staying Connected’s initiative will end in 2015, the marking of their 40th anniversary. By then, Van Black explains that he hopes that Staying Connected will, “change behavior to the point where students will naturally think of alumni as a natural resource.” Indeed, Staying Connected, will bond students with alumni to create relationships built on service, guidance, and most importantly love for William and Mary. This is only the beginning of what Staying Connected has to offer. Follow Van Black and the rest of the alumni in Staying Connected these upcoming three years leading to 2015 in celebration of their 40th anniversary.