Cleveland Faith-Based Institution Leadership Summit

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Faith-Based Institution Leadership Summit

Cleveland Faith-Based Institution Leadership Summit

We gathered administrators from 12 leading faith-based institutions for a fascinating discussion on the challenges facing their alumni relations and career services departments. Throughout the conversation, it was clear that many of the attending schools were facing similar problems: limited resources, compartmentalized departments, and a lack of communication between administrators and students. By exchanging notes and crowdsourcing solutions, attendees walked away with powerful new ideas to address these issues.

Mentoring vs. Networking vs. Connecting

Trente Arens, Director of Alumni Relations
Benedictine University


Three years ago, Trente was charged with creating ‘B.U.M.P’, the Benedictine University Mentorship Program. Immediately, the one on one, a year-long program presented challenges scaling beyond a few dozen students. The experience lead her team to ask, what really is mentoring? They created more concrete definitions around the goals of mentoring, networking, and connecting, aiming to identify the role of each in helping students. On top of explaining the terms’ distinctions, she emphasized impact of the different connotations they carry for students.


noun: someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person

verb: to teach or give advice or guidance to

Of the three, mentoring implies the most personal and long-term relationship. Mentoring is incredibly valuable but has two key drawbacks:

  1. the term intimidates students, because it suggests such a serious commitment, and
  2. mentoring relationships are so complex that building them inorganically is almost impossible.

Here, the most important role of career services and alumni relations is to place students in settings where they’ll be exposed to many potential mentors – not to directly facilitate the relationship.


noun: the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions

specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business

Networking, on the other hand, is more transactional and usually occurs between people at more similar stages of their careers. Rather than building on shared interests, networking builds on the potential for mutual gain. Networking is undeniably a useful skill, but – based on low attendance at so-called “networking events” – the term itself deters students, likely because it lacks a feeling of warmth and is sometimes associated with insincerity.


verb: to become joined; to have or establish a rapport​

They found that Connecting was the least intimidating to the students, and most open term. Wisr’s team shared data from student surveys to correlate where these different forms of support can have the greatest impact. For example, asking a student if they would like a mentor is a very different value proposition than asking if they can be provided a connection for an internship.

Leveraging Wisr Beyond Mentorship


Stephanie Carroll, Director of Alumni Relations
Cedarville University

Stephanie spoke to the enormous difficulty of keeping alumni engaged when few regularly return to campus and the Alumni Relations department is under-resourced. Smaller schools often have 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.

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.

Helping First-Gen Students Succeed

Vince Palombo, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs
Notre Dame College

Laurel Kaiser, Director of the FirstGen Center
Notre Dame College


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, but 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 extra 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%.

Laurel wrapped up her section of the talk by introducing three students who are regulars at the FirstGen Center and giving them a chance to talk first-hand about their experiences. One of the most powerful tactics that Laurel and Vince have implemented a positive association with being first-gen. The students spoke to the unique difficulties they face being first-gen, but all articulated a strong sense of pride with being trailblazers in their families, role models for their siblings, and eager to pay it forward as peer mentors in the program. Having a founding CEO who was herself a first-generation college student, the Wisr team is also proud to be helping NDC power this incredible program.

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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