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March 1, 2014
Vol. 56
No. 3

Road Tested / A Different Kind of Alumni Connection

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      During my college career, I found that having opportunities to engage with alumni was a great motivator. My professors did an outstanding job of making alumni available through evening Q&A sessions, and I was moved by their advice on topics such as classroom morale. By drawing on the wisdom of teachers in the field, I gained incredible insight into the profession and graduated better prepared for the challenge of being a first-year teacher.
      Now, as a veteran high school teacher, I provide my students with the same kind of motivator. Last spring, I noticed that the sophomores in my AP European History class were struggling to get through the semester, so I created an informal alumni network to provide them with an extra layer of support. I reached out over e-mail to a large number of my former European History students who had gone on to college; graduate school; and, in some cases, their careers. I understood that they were busy, so I asked for only two things. First, I wanted them to reflect on the grind of the AP review process and offer their advice for getting through it. Second, I asked them to consider the importance of taking a rigorous course load in high school and to share its effect on their later success. Within a week, my inbox was overflowing.
      As we worked through the final two months of the year, I displayed one response per day on our SMART Board. Many of my students were worn down and some doubted their ability to overcome the challenges a difficult class can present; but when they were introduced to this group of alumni, they managed to connect in a very special way.
      To get through the AP exam, alumni urged my students to attend review sessions, develop study schedules, use review books, and form study groups. They also offered encouraging comments: For instance, a sophomore at Northwestern University told my students to "make the most of your opportunities, work hard, and everything will pay off in the end."
      Although the practical advice helped, I was even more pleased with the results and the mileage gained from the second request. The alumni said that by taking challenging courses in high school, they were more prepared and eager for the opportunities of university life. They shared the exciting endeavors they were immersed in, like preparing for the LSAT, getting ready for job interviews, and studying abroad in Europe and Asia. I was no longer the one telling my students that they would eventually benefit from taking tough classes. Now they were seeing those benefits firsthand by connecting with exciting young people who had gone through the same hard experience just a few years before.
      As the school year ended and my students and I reflected on our informal alumni program, I realized how powerful these connections had become. My students hoped to follow in the footsteps of their former classmates and achieve similar levels of success. Many even reached out to various alumni over e-mail and social media to set up college visits for the coming summer and fall.

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