President Brodhead: Why Alumni Matter

December 8, 2014

Some alumni stay connected to Duke from the moment they graduate. But others find a way to reconnect later in their lives. What happens when Duke moves back into your life and you become actively engaged? And how does Duke benefit?

Certainly, one form this re-engagement takes is financial. Support from alumni provides the means by which we sustain an ever-expanding, ever-enriching experience for our students. Duke is a growing, deepening place, with many opportunities available today that weren’t here fifteen years ago. Generous alumni are the creators of this enrichment, and we are grateful.

But financial support isn’t the only way alumni give back. To my mind, the most valuable thing graduates can give when they reconnect to the university is the gift of experience.

This takes hundreds of forms. Duke has developed a way of extending classroom education out into real-world settings— so that students learn not only how to solve problem sets as homework but also how to help solve problems in the world. In DukeEngage in Seattle, for instance, local alumni serve as hosts and mentors for undergraduates over the summer, helping our students learn about hunger, homelessness, or the challenges of remedial education by giving their time and experience as involved citizens.

Universities are based on the principle of inter-generational generosity. The sharing of our Seattle alumni is a perfect example of this generosity.

And we get such help in many places and ways. Alumni who work in the world of finance are willing to open up their unanswered analytical questions as case studies for students in the Duke Financial Economics Center. When Duke announced the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program four years ago, we immediately heard from entrepreneurs among our alumni who were eager to be involved. Melissa Bernstein ’87, cofounder of the Melissa and Doug toy company, established a program whereby she takes twelve Duke students under her wing for mentoring and leadership development.

Still another way alumni give back is by sharing their stories of how their lives came together. Each year I address our graduates at the Baccalaureate service in Duke Chapel. The seniors are full of excitement, apprehension, uncertainty— and, these days, massive pressure to know what it is they want to do. To give them courage, I tell them about Duke alumni who are now leading lives in a thousand interesting forms who had no idea of the goal they’d reach when they were starting out. All these alumni could do is make a start, learn from it, then jump when new opportunities came in sight.

This year, I spoke about Beth Stevens ’81, who came back to Duke for the Women’s Weekend last winter. Beth majored in zoology at Duke and then got a Ph.D. in biology from UNC. After that, she might have become an academic or worked in a pharmaceutical company. Instead, Beth went to work in a zoo— which led to her being sought out by Disney to help develop its new park, Animal Kingdom. From there she rose to her current post as Disney’s senior vice president for environmental affairs—a job she couldn’t have envisioned when she was starting out.

In olden times, alumni relations were largely an exercise in nostalgia. Thanks to new tools of connectivity, Duke and its graduates can have an ongoing, ever-deepening relation, with education continuing to flow out, and wisdom and help flowing back to current students that their predecessors have learned in their post-Duke lives.

We’re still tapping the full potential of this cross-generational exchange, but already it has given us an inspiring new vision. It reveals a prospect of lifelong, reciprocal exchange, in which every alumnus could become a potential resource for any current student, repaid by sharing the self-discovery taking place among students today. A university is an extended family, and the Duke family is drawing steadily closer—with benefits for every part.