Creative virtual events engage alumni

Stephanie Koons
November 17, 2020

The Alumni Relations Office in the College of Education has adopted a flexible approach to its programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. in March 2020, Penn State, along with many other universities, has shifted a large portion of its operations to a remote format. In the College of Education, the Alumni Relations Office faced a conundrum: how to continue to engage alumni in the altered landscape when previously, all events had been held in a physical space.

“We had to look at everything we were doing in-person and (ask) how can we provide valuable, exceptional programming and do it virtually?” said Stefanie Tomlinson, assistant director of alumni relations in the College of Education. “But it also gave us an opportunity to think about what we haven’t been doing up until now that might be interesting and fun to do online.”

Prior to last spring, most alumni events had been held in-person on the University Park campus and in the State College community. When the pandemic forced Penn State to shut down most of its in-person operations, the Alumni Relations Office already had planned several events for summer 2020, including the GOLD Women’s Leadership Conference at Toftrees Golf Resort in State College and the New Teacher Retreat in Chambers Building.

However, Tomlinson and colleagues successfully converted those events into webinars, and also started two new webinar series — Lunch and Learn, and Coffee and Conversation.

Additionally, shortly after the shutdown in the spring, Dean Kimberly A. Lawless hosted a virtual ice cream social for alumni called “What’s the Scoop?”

The social, which gave alumni the opportunity to win Berkey Creamery ice cream, was a hit and will be a regular event every spring and fall semester.

One of the main advantages of virtual events, Tomlinson said, is being able to engage those alumni who may not have the time or resources to travel to University Park for an in-person gathering. Since all of the webinars are recorded, she added, alumni who can’t attend in real time can watch at their leisure.

“We miss having events on the University Park campus because alumni love to return to their alma mater,” she said. “But you’re also limiting who can attend. By doing things online, what we’ve found is that alumni from all over the country, and even some from other countries, are showing up for our programs.”

One of those alumni is Carolyn Tague, who received a bachelor’s degree in special education from Penn State in 1985 and was the featured speaker during a Coffee and Conversation webinar in May. Tague is the founder of The Lemong’o Project, a charitable nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering the Maasai people of Lemong’o in rural Kenya through improvement of nutrition, access to education, health support and employment opportunities.

Tomlinson said one of the most memorable events in recent months was a virtual variety show in July. Everyone in the College of Education community was invited to display their talents in the variety show, which doubled as a fundraiser for the College of Education Undergraduate Student Council.

Tomlinson said with all the benefits a virtual format offers, the Alumni Relations Office most likely will retain a strong online component in its programming for the foreseeable future.

“Even when we’re back on campus, I fully anticipate that we’re not going to stop doing online events,” she said. “This is going to be an extra suite of engagement.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 17, 2020