student-and-alumni-engagement

Oberlin Case Study

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Oberlin

Supporting Career Preparation and Engaging Alumni at Oberlin College & Conservatory

Oberlin’s Challenge

Career Services

Oberlin College & Conservatory is renowned for outstanding liberal arts programs that support students’ diverse interests. Academically, Oberlin rejects the one-size-fits-all approach and offers remarkably customizable curriculum. This respect for individuality presented Career Services with a challenge. Students with unique academic backgrounds rarely follow well-established career paths. Career Services excels while advising students in popular majors like economics or biology, but guiding a student concentrating in music and American studies requires industry knowledge that few administrators have.

Lori Young, Oberlin’s Director of Career Services, found that connecting such students with alumni who followed comparable paths was the best solution. Facilitating personalized matches by hand was prohibitively labor intensive, and the outdated alumni directory was equally ineffective. Profiles didn’t include any career information, the system wasn’t built to work on smartphones, and students hesitated to reach out without guidance. According to Lori,

“Some students took steps to find alumni but gotten hung up on what to ask and how to reach out.”

The same issue of matching at scale applied to several other programs on campus, most notably first-year peer mentor matching.

Alumni Relations

These challenges in Career Services manifested in frustrated alumni. Graduates were dissatisfied with the support they received during their transitions to the workforce. Danielle Young,  Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations and Annual Giving , explained,

“We got a lot of feedback from alumni that they didn’t feel supported as they built careers. There wasn’t a strong alumni professional network that’s easy to tap into.”

The Alumni Relations team struggled to maintain current information in Raiser’s Edge and—without basic data points like current job, preferred email address, and city of residence—faced major fundraising and engagement roadblocks.

Thanks to small class sizes, it’s common for Oberlin students to build strong relationships with faculty that carry on long past graduation. However, without a central platform for communicating, it was difficult to keep in touch long-term.  Such connections often dried up when an alumnus’s or professor’s contact information changed. Meanwhile, graduates with faculty ties—some of Oberlin’s warmest, most engaged alumni—never made their way into Raiser’s Edge.

How Wisr Helped

Career Services and Alumni Relations formed a joint partnership with Wisr in early 2017 and launched the network three months later. To create a profile, invitees:

  1. Added information to patch incomplete records and
  2. Filled out customized questionnaires about their current career goals and ways in which they were willing to help other network members.

Members could then browse advisors using features like search filters and AI-driven recommendations. After finding an interesting profile, members connected using discussion forums, event calendars, easy-to-schedule calls, one-on-one chats, and configurable introductory message templates.

Results

Immediately, large-scale matching became a nonissue across departments. First-years, for example, were automatically paired with third- or fourth-year peer mentors based on Oberlin’s preferred criteria. There’s no doubt that the network has scaled up Oberlin’s career advising and alumni engagement initiatives, but the connections haven’t been superficial. On average, advisory calls on Wisr last for over 30 minutes. Lori noted that seeing such an diverse group of alumni was inspiring in itself, saying,

“Students look at this massive list of alumni and think, ‘Oh, my gosh. Other Obie’s are doing this. They’re doing that.’ And then from there, they may discover things they didn’t even know they could pursue.”

To a large extent, Lori attributed the platform’s popularity among students to features designed to make reaching out easier. She explained,

“Once students decide to reach out to alumni, Wisr pre-populates messages that can be used as-is or customized, making the initial contact much smoother.”

Now facilitating connections among 4,000 members, the network has been a raging success. To date, 10% of living alumni—many of whom hadn’t interacted with Oberlin since graduation—have joined as volunteer advisors. Of these, 25% signed up using email addresses that weren’t previously on file. Communications between alumni and faculty were given an organized home, and administrators were able to  understand more clearly which alumni were actually engaging. As signups rolled in, Wisr’s data integration with Raiser’s Edge automatically updated alumni records. Within just 18 months, Wisr had facilitated over 1,000 meaningful connections between students and alumni, all for less than the cost of an intern.

Oberlin administrators continue to work with the Wisr team to find ways to support students and alumni. In late 2019, for example, Oberlin will be replacing its alumni directory with Wisr’s directory module to provide more information about constituents and centralize all communications in one home. Marissa Evans, Associate Director of Development and Alumni Relations Communications, summed up the ongoing collaboration:

“Working with Wisr has been incredible. It has always been a partnership since day one and they truly listen to our needs. It’s rare to work with an online company that cares about the work you do and provides solutions to the issues you present. The Wisr team is creative, insightful, and a joy to work with.”

 

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