Diversity and Democracy

New Legacies for Alumnihood

Alumnihood has been construed as a personal bond, a professional boon, an intellectual credential, an economic marker, a social affirmation. But it is also—in ways that both align with and disrupt these other meanings—a public good.

This issue of Diversity & Democracy examines a growing counterculture of civic alumnihood animated by recent graduates, like the ones whose reflections and personal narratives appear in its pages. Citizen Alum launched in 2012, under the auspices of the American Commonwealth Project, as a national network of campus teams and initiatives to “counter the image of alumni as primarily ‘donors’ with a vision of them as also ‘doers’” (http://www.citizenalum.org). It was followed in 2013 by the Kettering Foundation’s two-year Learning Exchange on Civically Engaged Alumni. These developments made possible the first explicit framing of publicly engaged alumnihood as an organized endeavor within the civic learning and democratic renewal movement in US higher education. Ours was a community-wide effort, nurtured by supportive colleagues in the offices of the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, Imagining America, the Bonner Leadership Program, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and these organizations’ member campuses.

These organizations were together at the 2012 White House meeting “For Democracy’s Future,” where A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, commissioned by the Obama Administration, was released and the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act was noted. That event generated a flurry of civic activity, including Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want? (the National Issues Forum deliberation guide) and start-ups like Citizen Alum and the Civic Science Initiative. (See https://democracyu.wordpress.com/about.)

The simple act of announcing civically engaged alumnihood as a new meme made a palpable difference. For example, Rutgers University–Newark introduced Citizen Alum Newark in the spring 2017 update to its strategic plan as an initiative grounded in “a theory of change where alumni are included in the transitions and transformations taking place in higher education” (57). This document speaks to alumni as collaborators in “bringing to life the spirit of citizenship felt among people in this city and this academic institution” (57). Rutgers University–Newark, like other campuses that are exploring cooperative models of alumnihood, seeks to recover a legacy of place-based engagement. As Quintus R. Jett explains in this issue, Citizen Alum Newark began its work by reclaiming the history and mission of the University of Newark (1936–46), its precursor institution. Efforts to include alumni and acknowledge them as coauthors of history mark a real change—and variations on that change form the main storyline of this issue.

Full-Participation Alumnihood

These developments did not come out of nowhere. Civically engaged alumnihood as a purpose, practice, and subject of inquiry was already with us. First, it was manifest in “learning legacies” jointly built by colleges and localities over time and now freshly asserted and valued (Robbins 2017). For example, we can trace the connection at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) between civic engagement now and in the past thanks to Marybeth Gasman, Dorsey Spencer, and Cecilia Orphan. They challenge how historically white institutions have constructed origin stories for higher education’s public mission that erase the robust programmatic ties between HBCUs and neighboring communities. In fact, the documents they examine place HBCUs “at the forefront of the civic engagement movement” and position their alumni as agents of that legacy (Gasman, Spencer, and Orphan 2015, 356).

Second, campuses with a strong public mission have effectively imagined a legacy embodied in the “civic-minded graduate” (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis) and “the active citizen” (Tufts University). Assessment efforts looking at alumni characteristics have been one measure of educational opportunity, real-world learning, and the cocreation of public goods. At the same time, civic-minded former students have pushed back vigorously against inequities. Peter Erkkila’s piece here, based on an interview with Mica Grimm, is a case study on how activist alumni—particularly alumni of color—balance a desire for progress on the one hand and resistance to legacies of marginalization and trauma on the other.

Finally, the challenge to the norms of alumnihood is being driven by “marginalized majority” alumni (Scobey 2016). Several articles here foreground first-generation, underrepresented, and working adult alumni and their advocates and teachers. As a useful accountability rubric, “full participation” is “a democratic process” that looks at “who joins institutions,” “whether they feel respected and valued,” and “what kinds of activities count as important work” (Sturm et al. 2011, 3). Applying this to alumni, we can ask: Have these graduates been respected and valued? Do their post-college lives “count” (and do they “have capital”) in the college’s story (Yosso 2005)?

Given these past and present developments, how do we discover how civic learning and democratic engagement matter to alumni, and how alumni matter to civic learning and democratic engagement? We listen to what alumni have to say about their experiences in college, the terms on which they engage with public life, and the kinds of connections they want with their alma maters.

Looping Back While Learning Forward

President Richard Guarasci of Wagner College has asked, “What structures are in place to support young people as they transition from life as students to professionals and leaders in their communities?” (2015).

An emerging best practice in postbaccalaureate support takes the form of what I call “looping back while learning forward.” This starts with student aspiration, learning forward toward anticipated transitions from one educational and life phase into another, while drawing on experiences of previous changes. It continues after students graduate, when they trace feedback loops to cohorts of students in their former programs. As the articles in this issue by George J. Sanchez and Danielle Hinrichs show, direct contact with fi­­rst-generation alumni can help students imagine not just a generic future but a specific professional location.

Many college programs are constructing feedback loops that link academic generations through learning partnerships that center on alumni stories, told through video, performance, community journalism, and course papers. Several Citizen Alum campus teams—like Hinrichs and her colleagues at Metropolitan State University—focus on new pedagogies. Metropolitan State’s course module rests on a set of questions that students ask as they interview civically engaged alumni, including “How do you address community issues through your work?” and “What have you gained from being a civic actor?” As they report in this issue, LeeAnn Lands and her colleagues at Kennesaw State University “sought to learn about how arts and humanities graduates have realized their role as civic agents.” The generative public work framework has emphasized public goods cocreated by students and civically engaged alumni in settings outside the classroom, as John J. Theis, Mark Wilson, and Nan Fairley describe in their articles.

But alumni experiences and insights are not easy to pin down. In this issue, Jill J. McMillan and her collaborators look at how students skilled in community deliberation become alumni who look back on college and see “the bubble” that separates students from the world beyond campus. Richard M. Battistoni and Tania D. Mitchell parse research findings on highly engaged civic learning graduates who grapple with two themes: the desire for a vital connection to place and the desire for work that pays and matters. Graduates are sorting out mixed feelings about what active citizenship looks like.

The New Alumni Relations

Civically engaged alumnihood is opening a new zone of demonetized, ad hoc alumni relations, often allied with equity and inclusion efforts and intergenerational learning programs. What are the implications for alumni relations professionals?

People who work in alumni relations and advancement offices were not in the room when the idea of civically engaged alumnihood emerged. They were early adopters as members of college teams, however, and in several cases are leading campus efforts. This is not easy. Many Americans question the meaning-making and money-making encounters that typically connect colleges to alumni. Educator Harold O. Levy urges graduates of elite colleges to “please stop giving to your alma mater,” challenging a system of self-reinforcing privilege that is “bad for our country” (Levy and Tyre 2018). Former students may reject the alumni identities on offer—donor, sports fan, networker—along with the visions of success conveyed by alumni magazines. Understandably, alumni often direct their exasperation at alumni relations and advancement offices.

But here we arrive at a fundamental proposition of work on civic alumnihood: alumni relations and advancement staff have seats at this table as democratic professionals (Dzur 2010). Nini Poore, creator of the College Connections program in my own college at the University of Michigan, represents those professionals in this issue. She explores the obstacles to profession-wide change in alumni relations and demonstrates that a focus on how colleges can learn, rather than earn, from their recent graduates can have significant impact. At Rutgers University–Newark, Citizen Alum reports to Vice Chancellor for Development Irene O’Brien. Poore, O’Brien, and other advancement and alumni relations staff—including at Metropolitan State, Kennesaw State, and Wagner College—have been collaborators and sharers of knowledge in Citizen Alum efforts. Divorcing civically engaged alumnihood from all other forms of alumnihood is a no-win proposition.

Reimagining with Alumni

Recent Auburn University graduate Marian Royston suggested in a Kettering Learning Exchange that “the definition of success will have to be altered” for alumni like her. Listening to the stories of civic-minded graduates, she proposed, “might attract [alumni] to the university who aren’t currently seeing themselves there,” which precisely captures the process of looping back while learning forward.

Linda S. Good tells a story in this issue about success that was a long time coming. She weaves together a narrative of self-authorship and a career that powerfully unfolded its civic dimensions. There will be more stories like hers as more colleges ask, “In what ways do alumni enact and voice our public mission?”

Going forward, reimagining alumnihood with alumni themselves should be a learning goal of democracy education. New majority, first-generation, and “traditional” alumni are looking for work that pays and matters in the places where they live or to which they will move. They are figuring out how the models of civic engagement they learned in college apply to their lives after graduation, what other forms of public engagement are available, and whether they have partners in this transition.

Since 2008, I have taught an American Studies capstone course, What College Means in America. After seven years of work on civically engaged alumnihood, I now specify only two learning goals:

  1. Become a scholar and author of your own education, able to locate, absorb, and use diverse sources of knowledge to illuminate past, present, and future experiences.
  2. Develop the skills to become a lifelong civic actor and ally in education, bringing a grasp of the relationship among the “three C’s” (college, career, citizenship) to the communities in which you live and work (Boyte 2013).

The relationship among work, purpose, and place points us toward the next phase of this work: equitable public work partnerships locally and regionally that invite into their process working adult students and recent graduates of any college—bringing them to the public table, not one by one, but continuously, as civic actors and allies in education.  

With this article, the author wishes to honor the life of Marc Cooper, an early proponent of Citizen Alum, a participant in the Kettering Learning Exchange on Civically Engaged Alumni, and a close colleague in Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. He believed that recent graduates “can give my students a model of how they can both be in the world of work and create a more democratic, transparent, diverse society.” Cooper was emeritus professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Missouri State University at the time of his tragic death in 2016.


Boyte, Harry. 2013. “For Democracy’s Future–College for a Citizen Career.” Huffington Post (blog), updated January 9. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/harry-boyte/for-democracys-future_b_2088408.html.

Dzur, Albert W. 2010. Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gasman, Marybeth, Dorsey Spencer, and Cecilia Orphan. 2015. “‘Building Bridges, Not Fences’: A History of Civic Engagement at Private Black Colleges and Universities, 1944–1965.” History of Education Quarterly 55 (3): 346–79.

Guarasci, Richard. 2015. “A President’s Perspective: From Engaged Students to Citizen Alums.” In What Alumni Are Saying About Civic Engagement in and after College, edited by Julie Ellison (unpublished Kettering Foundation report).

Levy, Harold O., and Peg Tyre. 2018. “How to Level the College Playing Field.” New York Times, April 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/opinion/sunday/harold-levy-college.html.

Robbins, Sarah Ruffing. 2017. Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rutgers University–Newark. 2017. “Deep Dive: Alumni Engagement—Citizen Alum.” In Rutgers University–Newark: Where Opportunity Meets Excellence, Spring 2017 Update, 57. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University–Newark. https://www.newark.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/ru-n_strategic_plan_update_spring_2017_w-appendices.pdf.

Scobey, David. 2016. “Marginalized Majority: Nontraditional Students and the Equity Imperative.” Diversity & Democracy 19 (1): 15–17, 30. https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2016/winter/scobey.

Sturm, Susan, John Saltmarsh, Tim Eatman, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education (white paper). New York: Columbia University Law School Center for Institutional and Social Change. http://imaginingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/fullparticipation.pdf.

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race, Ethnicity, and Education 8 (1): 69–91.

Julie Ellison is Professor of American Culture and English at the University of Michigan and Lead Organizer of Citizen Alum.

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