Student employees make calls from the newly re-branded University of St. Thomas Engagement Center in the Murray-Herrick Campus Center in St. Paul on April 28, 2021.

Phone a Friend: Students Engaging Alumni Find Connection

Senior Alyssa Akenson started working at the Engagement Center her first year at St. Thomas. As someone who is outgoing and enjoys talking with people, she felt it would be a good fit for her personality. And she was right. Not only did she create strong bonds with fellow student workers, she discovered a career opportunity after talking to a Tommie alumnus on the phone.

At the time, Akenson was thinking of going to law school after graduation. While her plans have since changed, she’ll never forget that call.

“We were talking about my interests, and he told me he worked at a law firm,” she said. “He gave me his contact information, and I actually got an internship out of that connection after my first year.”

The Engagement Center, formerly known as the Phone Center, is made up of 40 student engagement ambassadors who are responsible for reaching out to alumni, parents and others affiliated with the university. The students engage with them in a myriad of ways, including phone calls, tailored emails, direct mail and other avenues. The goal is for students to make personal connections with alumni and other St. Thomas community members, keep them engaged through campus updates and involvement opportunities, and to collect donations.

Akenson said folks at the Engagement Center are a tightknit group.

“We try to keep a strong community bond between all the callers and managers,” she said. “It’s something that has been built and maintained through the years.”

Acquiring skills

When senior Ethan Brua took a job at the Engagement Center in his first year on campus, he assumed it would be a short-term commitment. He ended up working there throughout his time at St. Thomas. As an engagement ambassador, he's acquired new skills that will stay with him for the rest of his life, he said, including leadership abilities he developed after being moved into a supervisor role.

“It’s definitely a come for the job, but stay for the people type of place,” Brua, who is a marketing and economics major, said.

Junior Margaret Newcomb, a finance major, agreed with Brua about gaining skills, as they have also helped her as she interviews for jobs.

“Most interviews start with just a simple phone call, so being able to speak on the phone and not be nervous about doing that is one of the biggest things I’ve gained,” she said. “Having the confidence within myself to be able to speak with people who are older than me, and maybe people who have jobs that I might want to have in the future. Being able to connect with them on some sort of level is one of the biggest takeaways from this job.”

Student manager Margaret Newcomb, left, gives feedback to student employees as they make calls from the Engagement Center.

While there are many positives on the job, there are also some challenges students must navigate.

“Higher [education] fundraising also means dealing with rejection,” Brua said. “Obviously, there are going to be some alumni who don't want to talk to you, especially for some of the reasons that we're calling.”

Newcomb added: “The most challenging thing is just simple rejection, especially if you haven't dealt with a lot of that in your past. The first couple of weeks can be tough because you do get people who say, ‘not today’ or ‘maybe another time.’ But you learn how to take that and use it to improve on each phone call.”

However, a majority of the calls they make are answered. Even during the pandemic thousands of alumni picked up the phone and donated. And thanks to efforts by the ambassadors, there are nearly 1,300 alumni making monthly donations as part of the sustainer program.

Making connections

The Engagement Center also helps develop students’ resumes and strengthen their career networks. After engagement ambassadors end their time in the role, the amount of money each individual student raised for the university is tallied up, and they’re allowed to include the total on their resumes as potential talking points in future job interviews. The center also works with students to connect engagement ambassadors with alumni and other university affiliates in their field of interest.

“We try to put our callers on calls that might align with their current major,” Lindsey Donovan, the annual giving program manager with the Engagement Center, explained. “If you're a business major, I'm happy to have you call business alumni; or if you’re a social work major, I will have you call social work alumni; if you're interested in going to law school you can call alumni in the field of law.”

Engagement ambassador Maddie Kurtovich, a sophomore double majoring in criminal justice and Spanish, said having the opportunity to connect with alumni in the career field she’s pursing has been valuable.

“I've had meaningful conversations with folks who attended the law school, and that is one of my personal goals, to get to law school,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to walk through the law school process with them. The Tommie network is awesome, and this has been a really cool way to connect with them that has been beneficial and rewarding.”

Brua also noted the connections he’s made on the job.

“Last year there were two different people on two different calls who asked me about my major,” he said. “They told me that I sounded like I could really benefit from a mentor, and I'm still in contact with one of them today. He's been a mentor to me now within the finance industry. More than anything, having a continual relationship with someone that started with a phone call has been the most meaningful thing.”

Building a community

Student ambassadors said what surprised them most about working at the center is the strong community formed by student workers.

Akenson described the environment at the Engagement Center saying, “There are friendships that I've made that I probably would have never made had I not worked there, and that really kind of shocked me because I don't know if I expected that out of this job.”

Kurtovich echoed Akenson’s sentiments.

“Last year was my first year at St. Thomas and had I not started working at the Engagement Center when I did, I wouldn't have made all these great friends, especially now with COVID-19, when it's a lot harder to get out and meet new people with classes online. And I found my next roommates through the Engagement Center, so that was cool,” she said. “I'm living with one of the other engagement ambassadors here. It has really surprised me just how much all of these people mean to me.”