This is a story about family.
Not the family one is born to. Not the kind one marries into. Not the sort one raises, either.
No, this is a story about the family one joins when first attending and then graduating from a university. And this particular story is all about the SVSU family.
It is one that includes change, a subject real to every family; a subject often difficult at first to embrace, but that soon becomes a source of invigoration, new life and opportunity to build new traditions. This family story is about moving into a new chapter that parallels the transformation of the university, the strengthening of a region and the return of alumni long absent from a place they once considered home.
Since arriving as a student at SVSU in the early 1970s, Detroit native Jim Dwyer, 1976, B.A.; 1985, M.A.T., never left this particular “home.” He was hired at the still-fledgling institution shortly after graduating and through the years has held a variety of roles. Most recently, President Don Bachand appointed Dwyer executive director of alumni relations.
The new position meant more than a job change for Dwyer. It represented a shift in the way SVSU engages its former students and helps shape a new vision rethinking how alumni can positively impact the university community.
Dwyer and a growing coalition of supporters are sold on that vision. “We want to let our alumni know that they are a very important part of the university’s strategic past, present and future,” Dwyer said. “We want them to know, ‘You’re still family.’ We want them to know, ‘We need you.’”
With new resources, staff and tactics, Alumni Relations last winter began rolling out a strategically placed welcome mat meant to invite alumni back (see sidebar on page 20 for more details on these strategies).
Whereas the department’s goals previously were tied closely to the SVSU Foundation’s initiatives — the two offices even shared a suite until recently — Bachand’s new vision tasks Alumni Relations with inspiring former students to engage with the university in ways extending beyond fund development.
Those ways include attending more campus events, serving as mentors to students, hiring them as interns, recruiting future Cardinals, and sharing stories about the SVSU experience with others.
“As we seek to advance SVSU’s reputation and draw upon those relationships that can help us recruit bright students, our alumni must be engaged with the university, serving as our ambassadors to a much greater extent and in innovative ways,” Bachand said upon announcing Alumni Relations’ new direction earlier this year.
The hope is that new direction will lead to strengthened support from the community. As noted by Bachand and echoed by Dwyer, this is of particular importance in the area of recruitment, where SVSU is navigating the challenges of a declining number of Michigan high school graduates, uncertain state appropriation levels and competition from other higher education institutions.
Alumni are prime candidates to strengthen that community support. Not just because of their contacts in the community, but also because they are the community. Of the university’s 42,000 living graduates, 15,000 reside within the nine counties closest to campus, and 85 percent live in Michigan.
Dwyer and his staff aim to build support among alumni exponentially, with every alumnus recruited for the cause becoming recruiters themselves. In other words, Alumni Relations wants to send a proverbial snowball down the hill and watch it build into an avalanche of momentum that talks, walks, shares and supports SVSU’s story. Dwyer believes the benefits alumni experience when reconnecting with SVSU grows that momentum.
David Kowalski understands those perks well. The SVSU alumnus — now president and owner of Euclid Automotive in Bay City — has been a beneficiary for years.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Thirty-six years ago, Julia Kowalski gifted her grandson a congratulatory card and a single stick of gum.
Many may have seen this as a modest offering, but David Kowalski knew his grandmother. From her, this was a tribute fit for kings. She had watched him honored earlier during SVSU’s commencement ceremony, and the occasion left her beaming with pride.
“Of all her children, of all her grandchildren, I was the very first she saw graduate,” the younger Kowalski says now of earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration in May 1979. “That was pretty special for her, and that made it special for me.”
Julia Kowalski died two months later.
“Looking back, that was one of my most memorable moments,” David Kowalski said, “that my grandmother was able to see me graduate.”
And as happens with families and work commitments, other priorities commanded his time and attention. Aside from attending some home football games, Kowalski’s interaction with his SVSU family for years was limited to passing glances out car door windows while driving along Bay Road.
“I had no idea what was happening at SVSU,” Kowalski said. He was brought up to speed on the university’s development about a decade ago when his son enrolled there. “When I saw how far [SVSU] had come since I had been here … wow!,” Kowalski said.
It’s that same sense of awe he expects other graduates will experience once they re-engage with SVSU. After all, Kowalski’s renewed interest in his old school proved a fruitful, fulfilling experience. Whereas once his love of the institution was frozen in time — those recollections of a proud grandmother among many lasting reminders of a remarkable undergraduate experience there — his reunion strengthened his kinship with the school.
“There’s this real sense of belonging since I became involved again,” he said. “I belong with this university now.”
As part of his reunion with SVSU, he joined the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors in 2010. He served in that capacity until earlier this year when he was appointed inaugural chairman of the Alumni Ambassadors Council, where former Board of Directors members serve as SVSU ambassadors once their terms on the association expire. They also mentor new board recruits.
Although, not every recruited alumnus has to serve on a board in order to experience that renewed kinship with SVSU. Engagement of all degrees can benefit both the former student and their alma mater.
“This is going to be great for the university,” Kowalski said. “By saying, ‘We want you to be part of something,’ I think SVSU’s relations with alumni will blossom.”
Since Alumni Relations underwent its makeover earlier this year, a number of initiatives have been enacted. Two of the initial changes were substantial and strategic.
Alumni Relations for years operated out of one office within a third floor suite in Wickes Hall. Now the department has an entire suite on the first floor, where windows give visitors a view of Alumni Relations before they even enter the building.
“We’ve gone from being invisible to being the front door,” Dwyer said. “That demonstrates how our alumni are a priority in this new plan.”
Another significant change involves staff size.
One of those first floor windows is in the new office of Kevin Schultz, associate director of alumni relations. Since his hiring in 2008, he had been the only full-time staff member working for Alumni Relations. Now there are four employees: Dwyer; Schultz; Pamela Wegener, associate director; and Linda Schmidt, administrative secretary.
Schultz says his department’s evolution was inevitable. That progression largely falls in line with the school’s development.
“In the big scheme of things, SVSU and Alumni Relations have been going through this growth, and now we’re really gaining traction,” he said. “We’re starting a whole new era with a new commitment to alumni.”
Wegener says the changes have created a comfortable atmosphere in the office and among the alumni who interact with the staff. “It’s been really remarkable,” she said. “It truly feels like home.”
Dwyer has been encouraged by early feedback from alumni. “I’ve been incredibly pleased by the reaction of alumni so far,” he said. “Their willingness to get engaged in a variety of ways — whatever their talents are — shows that people still realize this place is special.”
That feeling of being part of something special at SVSU is contagious, Dwyer said. “As we create this bonding, there’s this sense — and our students and those who are pondering enrolling here can see — that when you come to SVSU, you’re a member of the Cardinal family, and we help each other.
“In the end, it’s all about family.”