Alumni reunion

Brainy Swiss Alumni

Text by Melanie Picard

Higher education institutions have to cope with a continuous challenge: How to continue their engagement with past, current, and future students. Maintaining a relationship with students after they have completed their studies and moved on can be tricky, especially when these alumni have relocated (temporarily or permanently) to places as far from Switzerland as California. This is where swissnex San Francisco can help.

The Swiss community in the Bay Area is rather small, making it difficult for the local alumni chapters of Swiss universities and other schools to extend their scope. They organize wonderful activities, but rather intimate ones. However, when it comes to networking, the more the merrier.

“swissnex acts as a catalyst and facilitator,” says Vanessa Drigo, swissnex’s Head of University Affairs. On June 1st, Drigo and Aurélie Coulon, swissnex’s Head of Life Sciences, organized an event for all local alumni of Swiss institutions of higher education. No matter whether they graduated in 1950 or 2012.

Why is alumni engagement so important? At its best, it is a win-win situation that’s beneficial for both the academic institutions and their alumni. For the schools, alumni are worthy ambassadors who can help spread positive impressions about their experience and improve reputation. These happy ambassadors are valuable assets in an education environment that is increasingly global, especially when they live abroad and contribute to the institution’s international position.

But benefits also exist for alumni. Engaging with their alma mater means tapping into a valuable network of people with a shared experience, which can be instrumental in making professional connections as well as personal ones. For alumni living abroad, this is even more important.

“It is about sticking to the Swiss identity far from home, sharing common culture, and finding support,” says Livie Kundert, San Francisco alumni chapter leader for the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and a junior project manager at swissnex San Francisco. Kundert says UNIL treasures their former students even when they are on the other side of the world. At the swissnex San Francisco-hosted event in June, she had special goodies (screen cleaners and USB sticks) to give away to the UNIL alumni and reminded these former students about the university’s dedicated alumni website designed for their benefit.

Ties are never easy to maintain. That’s why Drigo and Coulon tapped into the collective brainpower in the room during the alumni networking evening to ensure a follow-up event. Brains were also the topic of focus for the night’s key presenter, neuroscientist Bradley Voytek, of the University of California, San Francisco. After discussing his research on human cognition, they asked the approximately 80 participants gathered from all generations (one family traveled all the way from Los Angeles just for the event) to use their own thinking caps and come up with ideas for future alumni meet-ups.

They divided the crowd into small groups and gave each a white board, pens, and a half-hour to brainstorm and mingle. The outcome? Lots of smiles, lively conversation, and plenty of good ideas from house-sharing to professional mentoring to “jass” (a popular Swiss card game) classes for American friends.

Swiss people have a strong voting tradition. By popular vote, the majority chose a cheese party for the Swiss National Day celebration on August 1st as the next gathering theme. Where they will find the right cheese remains a mystery.

For swissnex San Francisco, Drigo, Coulon and the rest of the team are happy to have set the wheels in motion but recognize that the challenge for the future will be to keep this energy flowing within the Bay Area network of Swiss alumni. swissnex created a new LinkedIn group called Swiss Alumni to help members connect. And another large-scale event bringing the group together is already in the works for November, 2012.

Now that’s thinking.