Chicago Faith-Based Leadership Summit Recap

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Chicago Faith-Based Leadership Summit Recap

On Feb 26th and 27th, we assembled over 40 leaders from 25 liberal arts and faith-based institutions to share strategies for growing alumni engagement, bettering student outcomes, and learning from peers. The event was a two-day series, with the second focused specifically on challenges and opportunities at faith-based institutions.

Click here for a recap of day one, focused on liberal arts institutions.

Student Access, Success, and Diversity at Illinois Institute of Technology

Jerry Doyle, Vice Provost for Student Access
Illinois Institute of Technology

A little known fact is that IIT was actually founded by Pastor Frank Gunsaulus of Chicago, through his famous “million dollar sermon”, leading to a major donation in 1890 to start the school. In the spirit of collaboration, we invited Jerry Doyle, Vice Provost for Student Access at IIT, to share his journey with our faith-based institutional leaders.

One of the first things we learned about Jerry is that he gave up his physical office to work among the students and faculty. That’s not something you see every day from a vice provost. He shared what his morning office looks like:

Jerry has developed a set of tenets by which their team operates. The list includes:

  • Always organize with at least 1, preferably 2 partners.
  • Work in context with students; be where they are.
  • Be generative and additive – and evocative (not everything needs to be deconstructed or disrupted).
  • Listen to and talk to those not at the table or welcomed to the conversation.
  • Purpose matters.

Jerry-DoyleUnder this unique culture, their team has developed an impressive portfolio of content and programming. More importantly, IIT has open-sourced much of this content for iterative feedback, to continue driving value for their ecosystem.

You can find his list of 50 micro-ideas towards designing your life and career, specially compiled for the summit, here.

These are elegant and highly digestible suggestions that flow through academics, personal development, social development, self-care, and professional development.


Laurel Kaiser, Director of the FirstGen Center
Notre Dame College

Notre Dame College – Supporting FirstGen College Students

Over a third of the student body at Notre Dame College is first-gen. Many of these students were unaware of available resource and felt embarrassed by the prospect of asking for help. Resultantly, retention rates for first-gen students between freshmen and sophomore year were alarmingly low: just 57% in 2013. With a majority of students participating in varsity sports, a common narrative became:

  1. a student unnecessarily failing a class by missing out on tutoring opportunities
  2. becoming ineligible to participate in a sport, and
  3. losing a sense of community and dropping out.

Enter the FirstGen Center, a five-employee organization that builds the first-gen community and connects students with tailored resources. The center offers a writing lab, resiliency coaching, and networking lunches where students can connect with employers. That said, students find that the peer-to-peer relationships formed at the center are the most impactful takeaway. Early on, Laurel noticed that students relate most easily to people their own age, so – rather than asking alumni or local professionals to deliver the keynote speeches at networking lunches – she gave the opportunity to current students. She also emphasized the importance of fostering an informal, familial environment at the center:

“We didn’t call it networking – we called it lunch.”

Each week the students answer four questions designed to help them reflect. When asked, “What has been your biggest challenge this week?”, students overwhelmingly answer “time management” or a similar variation. The popularity of this answer highlights some of the additional time demands many first-gen students must fulfill: commutes, part/full-time jobs, and families, to name a few.

“It’s early, we are only three years in, but we have seen our retention of this cohort grow by 15%.”

One of the most powerful tactics that Laurel has implemented is building a positive association with being first-gen. She quoted participating students who referenced the unique difficulties they face being first-gen, but they universally articulated a strong sense of pride with being trailblazers in their families, role models for their siblings, and mentors for other NDC students. Having a founding CEO who was herself a first-generation college student, the Wisr team is proud to be helping NDC power this incredible program.


Stephanie Carroll, Director of Alumni Relations
Cedarville University

Cedarville University – Leveraging Wisr Beyond Mentorship

Stephanie spoke to the enormous difficulty of keeping alumni engaged when 1) few regularly return to campus and 2) the Alumni Relations department is under-resourced. Smaller schools often operate with tiny alumni relations teams (sometimes only one person), difficulty communicating among departments, and remarkably low budgets. In many cases, admin schedules are so clogged with day-to-day logistics it becomes difficult to consider big-picture issues.

“Given the resources we have, we need a mentorship program that doesn’t require a lot of staff time.”

As the Director of Alumni Relations, Stephanie noticed four key opportunities to bridge alumni relations and career services, without increasing the need to increase staff resources.

  • Common thought from alumni: I want to help the students
  • Need for a mentorship program that wouldn’t require a lot of staff time
  • Desire to increase alumni affinity and engagement
  • Alumni preference for keeping interaction to a single, simple platform

These relationships have successfully bolstered alumni engagement and appear to correlate with more frequent giving. Even as the appearance of campus changes and familiar professors cycle out, the day-to-day life of students remains relatively stable, and schools can take advantage of this to curb feelings of alienness when alumni reconnect with their alma mater.

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Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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